While most of the fashion industry was in pandemic stasis this summer, New York-based 15-year-old Telfar was thriving. Long before Covid-19 hit, the brand decided not to produce a Spring / Summer 2021 collection in order to roll back and realign it to accidentally avoid the sunk cost of a depressed sales season. Meanwhile, the handbag became a runaway hit that sold out every time a new batch was released.
Telfar was founded in 2005 by the Liberian-American designer Telfar Clemens. Unisex has been favored from day one by a sociopolitically progressive, sexually and racially diverse set ̵
Clemens is inspired by the bonds we form with objects so often that most people hardly notice them. “If something appears to me again and again – as everyone has – it is in my book with things in which I want to put my two cents,” 35-year-old Clemens tells me about a video call from Mexico, where he and Babak Radboy , his creative director and business partner, take a working vacation. Clemens identifies something ubiquitous and then adds his own twists, which, while often simple, can fundamentally change the tone of a garment. For example: a polo shirt that is cut so that it can be worn backwards. Instead, the collar spreads to frame the neck.
Telfar’s handbag grew out of this everyday enlightenment habit. Clemens explains: “When I saw people carrying a shopping bag, especially from Bloomingdale, on vacation, I said, ‘Wow, they look so good. They just went shopping – check out the smiles on their faces. ‘”
Clemens took the shape of the Bloomingdale’s tote bag and applied his own finish, inspired by what he described to me as the “you just bought something” look – the halo of a satisfactory transaction. The bag is made of faux leather embossed with the brand’s logo, a T surrounded by a C, reminiscent of the emblem of a luxury house, or the symbol for a currency that has not yet been minted. It’s surprisingly cheap from a designer brand, ranging from $ 150 for the smallest size to $ 257 for the largest. Clemens has said that prices are instinctive based on his sense of what his client could and want to pay, rather than the maximum amount he could charge. This rejection of the usual luxury logic reflects the brand’s accessibility ethos and has helped defy weaker handbag demand in the US, where handbag sales fell 18 percent between 2016 and 2019, according to the NPD.
Clemens designed the bag for his Fall / Winter 2014 collection, but it wasn’t available until 2018 when the label used the $ 400,000 prize to win the CFDA / Vogue Fashion Fund to boost production. Sales skyrocketed, fueled by a virtuous, viral cycle of fan-submitted pictures and pocket-sized memes, which were then reposted by the brand on their social channels. Up until midsummer, Telfar in the US was hot every week on Twitter, and new shows were sold out “in a day, then a few hours, then minutes, then seconds,” says Radboy.
While many labels are working hard to create an illusion of scarcity, Telfar went the other way and announced a program called Bag Security: a day-long, open pre-order for every color of bag in every size.
In this 24-hour window, the label states that it achieved ten times its sales in the entire year 2019. The company is now well on its way to achieving comfortable eight-digit sales this year, up from $ 102,000 in 2016 and $ 2 million in 2019. Clemens and Radboy are not worried about oversaturation. Telfar’s tagline is “Not For You – Everyone,” and the pre-order was a gesture built on that community spirit – a gesture that also enabled a huge inflow of capital and room for the brand to explore new avenues for growth. This would not have been possible without the brand selling directly to the public.
The 37-year-old cyclist met Clemens in New York in 2004 and has been a key figure in the label’s growth since joining as Creative Director in 2013. Radboy saw a truly unique perspective and approach to Clemens’ work – one that the mainstream industry seemed uncertain of what to do. “The proposal was more of an infection at the heart of hegemony than a counterculture, and I was so excited,” he says. “I thought it was so cool that you just have to communicate it properly. After several years of working together, I began to understand that something was wrong with the environment itself. In this way we thought about how to create your own space for people to come to instead of actively translating into an existing market. “
To create that space, Telfar sought help from unlikely customers like Kmart department store, which sponsored a large-scale acquisition of the New Museum in New York for Telfar’s Spring / Summer 2014 show, and burger chain White Castle, with Telfar working together forged a shockingly fruitful bond that resulted in Clemens designing genderless uniforms worn by all of White Castle’s 14,000 employees, and a joint charity that included the deposit of minors on bail in Rikers Island, New York’s largest prison , dedicated. These unorthodox relationships not only provided crucial resources – Radboy says they made up nearly half of the label’s sales at one point – but also provided the opportunity for Clemens to apply his perspective directly to the mass products that his own label is often redesigning interpreted. Brand partnerships felt unusually generative, more than the sum of their parts.
Although the industry has finally accepted Telfar and invited the label to open Paris Fashion Week last September and show it as a special guest designer at Pitti Uomo last January, Clemens and Radboy told me that these experiences only strengthened them a little What they had realized around the year They won the Fashion Fund: the fashion house has little to offer them that they couldn’t offer or what they would even want. “In the end, you give the industry your creativity instead of building yourself,” said Clemens. “You get 10 percent of what you’re worth.”
Telfar is still run by big retailers like Browns and Ssense, but Clemens and Radboy plan to expand their direct-to-consumer business further and combine it with what Radboy calls “media cultural entity – whatever that is in 2020 is “designated. It could be a traditional TV show or an app, depending on which format makes the most unfiltered connection between the brand, its employees and its audience.
The label is currently expanding its product range. Last week they launched rags – “the cornerstone of black hair care,” says Clemens. “Add it to a list of things I actually use in my daily life, something I want and need. It’s also heading towards beauty, a place we want to put our finger on. “
“We’re starting to build this alternate reality department store,” adds Radboy. “What are the departments in Telfar? We’re not trying to offer the same things that other people have. “
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