Only one label could combine winning prestigious fashion awards with designing uniforms for a burger chain – TELFAR. Gerlan Marcel meets the duo behind the androgynous, one-look-fits-all brand that’s redefining the way we look at the mass market
Photography by Charlie Engman Styling by Avena Gallagher
This has been a colossal year for Telfar: winning the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund; presenting a Spring/Summer 2018 collection that felt like the best MTV Unplugged that never was; redesigning uniforms for the fast-food chain White Castle, along with a capsule collection where proceeds went to bailing minors out of Rikers Island; partnering with Century 21 for a collaboration to launch its new store, Next Century. Below, founder Telfar Clemens and creative director Babak Radboy discuss the history, process and future of a label they define as a “one-look-fits-all, agnostic brand that is neither conceptual nor accessible, but both in extremis”.
Gerlan: I am really excited to have this conversation with you, Telfar, not just because of the clothes you make, but because of the way you walk this earth. I love your story arc, it is so empowering. You were born in Queens and raised in Liberia. How do you reflect on this journey, and how have these experiences affected your work?
Telfar: My early life experiences really shaped me. I moved to Liberia aged one. I remember when I was going to school there, I had a uniform to wear and I loved it. But after the civil war broke out, when I was five, we moved back to Queens. It happened in one day – we moved, and I never went back. I wore a uniform until second grade, then I went to public school and got to wear whatever I wanted. I remember understanding for the first time the difference between kids that shopped at the mall and kids whose parents made their clothes. I definitely wanted to shop at the mall. For me, being able to wear whatever I wanted was one of the only freedoms I had.
G: Being a DJ is also part of your story arc. What is the relationship between the music you play and the work that you produce? Do you think there is one?
T: We have shown our collections in a lot of different ways, and utilised music for each in a way that is meant to actually benefit the viewer, to make them feel good. Either it’s an emotional or financial thing, and it should be both, know what I mean? Emotion makes people buy things, at the end of the day. That is what makes me buy music.
G: Interesting that you mention emotion. Regarding the idea of luxury, and how you define it, I was thinking of you as fitting into this category of emotional luxury. I think your sincerity makes some people feel uncomfortable in certain ways, because they are not getting enough of that kind of realness. In this climate, there is so much exploitation of authenticity. I think that is something that a lot of labels want to target, but you have really mastered.
T: At the end of the day, it’s music and someone singing. I’m not going to sing what everybody is going to sing.
Babak: For me, it’s related to the concept of fast fashion. You can buy a look for $20, of course, but what are you really buying into? There is so much more focus on the meaning of the garment in that context. All of a sudden, so many brands don’t make sense to me any more; the clothes are cool, but I don’t know what they are about any more.
“I want to have a store that you go to or that moves around like an ice-cream truck or something.”
G: I listened to this podcast recently called How I Built This and they featured the brand For Us, By Us (FUBU), discussing how it started out as a one-man show and turned into a mass-market entity making $3.5 million a year selling clothes. Does this idea of mass-market appeal to you, and what does mass-market mean to you?
T: The most appealing thing is the fact that you can dress all different kinds of people all over the world. And also, even in the whole darkness of H&M and Zara who flood the market, I love the fact that 16 people are wearing the same jacket walking down the street. It makes me kind of want the jacket, but also inspires me to do something with that jacket for my own line that changes the whole concept of how you see it.
B: Telfar was to be a mass-market company, that was the creative idea. But actually making clothes on that scale is disastrous for a company of our size.
T: Going into the next 10 years, I would want the customer to be able to experience the Telfar brand in a different kind of way. I want to have a store that you go to or that moves around like an ice-cream truck or something.
G: In a sense you already do have the most stockists of any designer in the world – 444 White Castle stores nationwide are selling the collaboration you did with them, with all proceeds going to bail out minors from Rikers Island. How did your relationship with that company start?
T: I just rang the 1-800 hotline! It began with them sponsoring one of our runway shows and then Jamie Richardson, White Castle’s vice-president, actually suggested that we do our after-party at the restaurant on Times Square. The relationship just grew from there. I hope we can keep working in a charitable way that is actually doing something long term.
G: Well, winning the CFDA has certainly provided a platform for you to do what you want, no?
T: It’s cool that they recognise what we are doing as a brand. We are taking stuff into our own hands. With our clothes, you have to actually try them on to know what it is. The internet actually helps us too, because that is how people experience clothes, through social media. We need to do something in between a web store and a store.
B: It has to do with the idea of fashion trying to become modern, trying to decouple itself from its roots, trying to get away from the idea of traditional forms and value. Telfar is trying to do that.
T: As a company, we are doing things in a way that nobody has before, so we are trying to figure it out still. When we do, that will be validation for me.
Models: Haddy at NY Models, Jah at Kevin Amato. Hair: Tamas Tuzes at L’Atelier NYC using R + Co. Make-up: Ayami Nishimura at The Wall Group using MAC Cosmetics. Casting: Anna Jozwiak. Production: Rhianna Rule. Photography Assistant: Guario Rodriguez. Fashion Assistant: Mitch Maguire