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The Story of Telfar: Agony, Ecstasy and Covid-19

After more than a decade of toil, American designer Telfar Clemens was finally poised for mainstream success, with a hit bag nicknamed the ‘Bushwick Birkin’ and a cultural message ripe for the times. Then came coronavirus.
Designer Telfar Clemens at his label's office in a shipping container in Bushwick, Brooklyn | Photo: Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. for BoF
By
  • Chantal Fernandez,
  • Robert Cordero

NEW YORK, United States — "We don't know what's going to happen — if this is the new normal, or if things are ever going back to normal," designer Telfar Clemens told BoF soon after learning that his friend, the popular drag queen and nightlife personality Nashom Wooden, had died due to complications related to Covid-19.

For Clemens, the heaviness of the times also hung over his label, which after 15 years of toil was finally poised for a shot at mainstream success. Then came coronavirus.

The unknowns are piling up for an entire generation of independent American designers, many of whom operate relatively small-scale labels and are suffering tremendously as lockdowns force store closures and consumer demand crashes. But the timing couldn’t have been worse for Telfar.

Before the outbreak, things were looking bright. Telfar's vegan leather, tote-style 'Shopping' bags, embossed with the artsy, genderless label's 'TC' logo and sold for less than $300, had become status symbols for a cadre of cool kids — especially queer, creative people of colour in the hip neighbourhoods of Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan, who identified with the label's inclusive message: "It's not for you, it's for everyone." The product had even earned a catchy nickname: the 'Bushwick Birkin,' a term coined by makeup artist Xya Rachel who, in January, told The Cut the bag had the cache of a Birkin "but for those who don't have Hermès kinda coins."

For Clemens and his business partner Babak Radboy, 15 years of hard work, patience and dedication to their core values were finally starting to pay off. In 2019, the label generated more than $2 million in revenue, up from $102,000 in 2016, mostly due to sales of the bag.

The success of the bags was set to provide the foundation for a year of ambitious growth, including a collaboration with Gap, which would have seen co-branded Telfar x Gap products pop up at stores across America this year. But the retailer postponed the partnership indefinitely two weeks ago.

“There were so many opportunities that were on the brink of happening that there is no reason to follow up on right now,” said Radboy, who has been stuck in Mexico since the spread of the coronavirus escalated in the US. “We have to stick together and figure out what we all want to do as a team, moving forward,” added Clemens. “And if the environment allows us to continue, how does that work?”

We have to stick together and figure out what we all want to do as a team, moving forward.

In some ways, Telfar may be better positioned to survive than other still-fledgeling labels of its generation. The brand is used to running a lean operation. With an office in a set of stacked shipping containers next to an empty warehouse in the Bushwick neighbourhood of Brooklyn and only a handful of people on its payroll, all of whom have side gigs, Telfar has very low overhead costs. The business is also much less reliant on wholesale revenue than many of its peers, selling the majority of its bags directly to consumers via its own website. What’s more, Telfar has a strong community of loyal consumers and collaborators, who are attached to the brand and its message.

“There is so much lip service about ‘community’ but this situation is really different… when you actually need to help each other,” said Radboy. “People are needing so much more meaning from things right now. So many things seem so hollow at this moment…. It's never been superficial for us.”

Telfar’s signature bag, which has cultural caché but starts at only $150, is also just the kind of accessory that could thrive in a recession. Last month, despite the pandemic, the label’s latest bag drop of 1,000 units sold out on its e-commerce site in just 12 hours. “In a time like this, you have to stick to your guns — that is what is going to make you a timeless thing,” said Clemens.

Telfar Clemens | Photo: Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. for BoF

Clemens, who is 35 years old, Liberian American and gay, grew up in LeFrak City, Queens. When he was a teenager, making an early reputation for himself as a DJ and designer, he was often spotted riding his bike across the city, dressed in an all-white uniform of reworked American basics. He founded Telfar in 2005 and built a following among his circle of friends, which included Hood By Air designer Shayne Oliver. Together, they frequented bars like Home Sweet Home and underground parties like GHE20G0TH1K, often performing DJ sets with remixed hip-hop and R&B beats.

"We belonged to a specific crowd of black and brown people who didn't see ourselves yet in fashion," said Carlos Nazario, an influential Puerto Rican-American stylist and i-D magazine's fashion director, who was also raised in Queens and ran in the same circles.

In his work, Clemens gave unisex American classics a subversive twist, playing with colours, graphics and silhouettes. But the New York fashion establishment — which gave birth to designers like Alexander Wang and Proenza Schouler, encouraging a business model rooted in expensive runway shows, glossy magazine coverage and department stores like Barneys — paid little attention. Indeed, it took Telfar nine years to land a show review from Vogue, which finally wrote about its Spring 2015 collection, and seven years to secure an order from Opening Ceremony, its first major stockist.

Operating outside the system, Telfar honed his genderless aesthetic, assembled a core team, and slowly built a community of fans, selling his collections via the label’s own website and smaller outlets like VFiles and the now-defunct Vice store. Novel partnerships with sponsors like White Castle and Budweiser, which included custom clothing designs and parties, kept the business afloat.

(The White Castle partnership began after Clemens and Radboy called the company’s main switchboard on a lark, and a transcript of the call made its way to Vice President Jamie Richardson, who suggested Telfar host a party at White Castle. “The future [of marketing] is about sharing your story in ways that are real: you can’t make it up, it can’t be manufactured,” Richardson said. “We had a feeling that Telfar [was] what’s next. And it turns out he was.”)

So many things seem so hollow at this moment. It's never been superficial for us.

Avena Gallagher, a former assistant stylist to Camilla Nickerson and Radboy's life partner, was crucial in helping to shape Telfar's cool but accessible look. Clemens first met Gallagher at La Caverna, a Lower East Side bar where she was a part-time go-go dancer. And Clemens, Gallagher and Radboy soon formed the close-knit triumvirate at the heart of the label.

“The first memory I have of [Telfar] was laughing in my apartment with a group of friends, or him DJing naked at a club,” said Radboy. “This was 2003, or 2004.”

Since then, Radboy has become a partner in the business and acts as the label’s creative director and business brain. Notably, he has helped strengthen Telfar’s connections to the art world, aligning the brand with prestigious institutions like the Serpentine Gallery in London and art fairs like the Berlin Biennale. The label also forged important collaborations with the likes of musician Dev Hynes, photographer Roe Ethridge and playwright Jeremy O. Harris.

Telfar Clemens | Photo: Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. for BoF

The initial success of Shayne Oliver's Hood by Air, in 2014, helped crack open a door to the mainstream for labels like Telfar. At the same time, America, or at least places in its urban centres, were finally becoming more comfortable with the country's multicultural composition, spurred by generational change and the continued mainstreaming of hip-hop culture.

“All of a sudden there [was] a craving for other points of view because people wanted other stories,” recalled Nazario. “Or, maybe the same stories, but people wanted a different protagonist”

Then came the election of Donald Trump, which further divided the nation into warring camps and turned inclusivity into a mainstream trend, as many pushed back against the president’s nativist rhetoric. Suddenly, there was more hunger for Telfar’s inclusive message than ever before. And while many brands rushed to bake diversity and inclusivity into their marketing campaigns, Telfar was the real thing.

"People are making up these ideas that there is some kind of social use to this brand, that it stands for something, it's all about inclusivity and this and this and this," said Radboy. "We don't have to express the idea of change because we represent the idea of change."

Soon, Telfar was more visible than ever, working with Solange on a performance at the Guggenheim and designing uniforms for White Castle, a frequent late-night stop for Clemens and his friends since their teens, after clubbing at the likes of New York's now-defunct Esquilita.

The designer entered the 2017 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund competition and won, picking up a $400,000 check, press coverage and accounts with influential stockists. But the experience was mixed.

“We learned a lot and we took out of it what we wanted out of it,” said Telfar of the Fashion Fund. “We got to meet the right people and also open the door and kind of just close it. Because a lot of things don’t relate to what you do on your daily basis. It’s like being a debutante or rubbing elbows and going to unnecessary dinners.”

The prize money allowed Clemens and Radboy to offer their small team real salaries and hire a full-time operations manager. But most of all, it gave them the funds they needed to ramp up production of their fast-selling 'Shopping' bag. The label was previously only able to manufacture the bags in batches of 20 units at a time, but Clemens and Radboy decided to put down a significant sum for 500 bags at once, enabling them to both increase sales volume and earn higher profit margins per item.

The gamble paid off. The new bags quickly sold out on their website, making the product a genuine hit, not just on social media, where shoppers were by then tagging it between 50 to 100 times a day, but on Telfar's balance sheet.

In 2018, as the business gathered momentum, the label linked up with Luca Benini's Slam Jam for production and distribution support. "Telfar's cultural background and relevance go far beyond clothing," said Benini on the opportunity that he saw. "There's also the brand's active interaction with the community."

By 2019, revenue was up 25-fold over just three years before.

Telfar's cultural background and relevance go far beyond clothing.

Most of the Telfar's sales came from the label's own e-commerce site, but retailers like Forty Five Ten, Browns and Ssense picked it up too. Soon, its fans were no longer just club kids, but Upper East Side socialites like Sonja Morgan, one of the stars of The Real Housewives of New York, who wore Telfar's tote in an editorial for Paper magazine in March 2019.

“I’m all about tolerance and I like to promote this message of the city: everybody belongs here. I’m a champion of the underdogs,” said Morgan.

“Considering our current circumstances, I think people are being more thoughtful about which brands they want to support and invest in,” explained Brigitte Chartrand, head of womenswear buying at Ssense, describing the Telfar tote as practical and easily recognizable. “There’s a strong community around Telfar who seem to relate to the brand’s progressive values.”

Telfar Clemens | Source: Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.

Participating in the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund also helped Clemens and Radboy think about their brand as a story, one that they were able to start telling more effectively via their runway shows, which would come to include headline-grabbing productions like their show for Autumn/Winter 2019 at New York’s Irving Plaza, where models solemnly staged-dived into a crowd in a sort of fashion baptism full of political symbolism as Jeremy O. Harris performed a monologue.

In 2019 and early 2020, the label began staging increasingly elaborate shows in the fashion capitals of Europe, including a baroque presentation at the Florentine trade show Pitti Uomo built around a table covered in the remnants of a lavish banquet. For some, these events were evidence that Telfar had graduated to the next level.

Some of these shows were more than just opportunities for Telfar to tell its brand story. They were also revenue-driving marketing opportunities for brand partners. “The message of the show was so effective that it started to resemble more a small festival and we were able to build brand partnerships that were totally different from how other people were doing it,” explained Radboy. “We had [returns on investment] of 1500 percent, 600 million [media] impressions on a show.”

“What they are representative of is what popular culture is today, in terms of cultural message, in terms of diversity, in terms of the depth of messaging,” said Massimiliano Battista, founder of M+A Group agency, who has advised Telfar on collaborations and brand partnerships since 2017.

But going into 2020, Clemens and Radboy had planned to dial back brand partnerships and explore potential film and TV opportunities for Telfar with a major Hollywood talent agency, not unlike Rihanna's September mega-show for her Savage x Fenty lingerie line, which aired on Amazon Prime. "Maybe the show is an actual show," said Radboy. "We want to go on a radio tour, we want to go on a college tour, we want to act like this is a book or a movie — because it is."

Now, coronavirus has put so much of the fashion industry on pause, but Clemens and Radboy are optimistic. After all, sales in the first quarter of 2020 were more than ten times greater than the same quarter the year before.

“This is a period of chill,” said Clemens. “Let’s figure out how you sell these ideas you’ve been making for 20 years.”

Editor's Note: This article was revised on April 7, 2020. A previous version of this article misstated the collection that was presented by Telfar at New York's Irving Plaza. It was Autumn/Winter 2019.

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