Before unisex clothing was a thing, Telfar Clemens did it. He’s been designing nongendered clothes since 2002. Before see-now-buy-now was a thing, Telfar Clemens did it. In 2011, he held mobile pop-up shows throughout New York Fashion Week and let guests purchase pieces from the spring 2012 collection on the spot. Before normcore was a thing, Telfar Clemens did it. He created Extremely Normal before K-Hole coined normcore. And before casting models of various hues was a thing, Telfar Clemens did it. See any of his early look books.
The fashion industry is notorious for latching onto “a thing” before abandoning it for another of-the-moment concept. But for 32-year-old Clemens, all those notions remain “the thing.”
The Liberian-American designer has spent the past decade showing collections that embody many ideas currently whirling through the zeitgeist: inclusivity, accessibility, equality, diversity and fluidity. He’s creating clothes and a business based on removing walls instead of building them: The tagline for his collection is, “It’s not for you, it’s for everybody.”
There’s been media presence at his shows since 2006, but it wasn’t until about two years ago when mainstream fashion publications found the language needed to write about his line, which some still don’t entirely understand. “I think the core thing about the line is it’s not an identity-based line. Not even just in a racial sense, but even gender and class,” said Babak Radboy, Telfar’s creative director. “The whole point of the line is that it’s universal. And that specifically is what makes it politically charged or challenging. But Telfar is saying, ‘No, this is normal.’”
Last November, the Council of Fashion Designers of America awarded Clemens the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. He was in a group of finalists that CFDA chairman Diane von Furstenberg called the most diverse class in its 14-year history. Four out of the 10 designers were black men, and Clemens, who accepted the award with a beaming smile, became a shiny emblem of the CFDA’s efforts.
“I’m fine with it,” said Clemens when asked if he’s comfortable being the face of inclusivity within fashion. “I mean however someone perceives me is how they perceive me. I can’t be like, ‘Oh, I’m not.’”
Clemens manifested this shift towards a more all-encompassing fashion business seven years ago when he appeared on “Independent Sources,” a weekly news show produced by CUNY TV. Asked if the inclusion of different races in fashion has gotten better, he replied: “I think that it is very diverse. It would be strange to say that there isn’t potential for it to change because I very much hope to work towards that.”
Clemens has spent his career evading formula. Instead of covering his clothes with slogans like The Future is Genderless, he stamps them with his logo, which is made up of his initials but also resembles the symbol his teachers used in an English course meant to temper his Liberian accent. He references mass level brands like Old Navy and reconsiders the foundation of sportswear in an elegant way that makes you begin to reconsider it. Why can’t the collar on a polo shirt be slightly askew and reveal the shoulder? Or why shouldn’t a baseball cap be attached to a gray hoodie?
People usually stratify Telfar as streetwear, but Clemens prefers you just call it clothing as he wants to speak to a broader audience. He’s said on more than one occasion that he wants to be Michael Kors.
“They want to lock me in,” said Clemens of the way in which others describe or categorize his line. “People have said things like, ‘Oh, do you want some kente cloth to go with that?’” He continued: “When I first started my line, people thought I was a Japanese designer. ‘Oh, Telfar. That can’t be an American person.’ And I’m like, this is my government name,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t even want people to meet me when they see the collection because that’s going to be a whole different level of confusion.”
Clemens’ name could have been Steven. Born in LeFrak City, an apartment complex in Queens, he was meant to take his father’s first name until his grandfather called and suggested Telfar, a tribal name from Liberia. As an infant, his parents took him to Liberia where he lived for five years until the first Liberian Civil War started and they made their way back to Queens. He lived in a three-bedroom apartment in LeFrak City with 15 other relatives — he still lives in that apartment — but his family eventually moved to Gaithersburg, Md., a suburb outside of Washington, D.C.
While living in Maryland, Clemens gained an affinity for mall culture — and for mixing clothes that were traditionally made for women into his wardrobe. His mother refused to buy him a crop top, so he began piecing together his own garments at 15. “I wasn’t comfortable enough to say ‘I’m wearing a girls’ shirt.’ So I would just make it myself and say this is intended to be for everyone,” he recalled.
The day after graduating from high school, Clemens raced back to New York and eventually found the kind of friends he was waiting his entire adolescence to meet, including Shayne Oliver of Hood by Air, who was his first boyfriend and now his best friend. He studied business at Pace University and started repurposing Bob Marley T-shirts and selling them in downtown consignment shops while interning at the now defunct men’s wear line Cloak. His first wholesale client was Funky Lala, a now-closed boutique that was located in the East Village. It sold out of his T-shirts and he used the earnings to pay for school and put money back into his line, which is still independently run.
“I went to school at six in the morning and I would work on the line at noon and then I would DJ from midnight to 4 a.m. and do it all over again,” said Clemens.
In 2006, GenArt named Clemens its Fresh Face designer. He met Radboy, who is Iranian but grew up in Seattle, around 2004 through friends, but Radboy didn’t start formally working with Clemens until 2013 when he became frustrated with the lack of attention Clemens was getting.
For Clemens, Radboy represented the perfect intersection between art and commerce. He’s an art director who has worked in advertising and cofounded the Shanzhai Biennial, an artist collective that once used its booth at the Frieze art fair to sell a $150 million estate in London. Clemens is also embedded in the art world. Early on he presented his work in galleries and sold his collection as a single piece. He’s also held a retrospective at the Berlin Biennale in 2016.
Radboy coaxed Clemens out of his shell and encouraged him to play the fashion game. He helped the Telfar brand feel more concrete, digestible and marketable, which was most apparent at a Kmart sponsored New Museum show, which featured a 3-D printed Telfar that greeted guests as they arrived. “I really didn’t want to use my face in that way at all. It’s the opposite of my personality,” said Clemens. “But Babak came up with this idea that the most avant-garde thing we can do is be commercial.”
Clemens has always believed firmly in the fashion show that’s more than a fashion show: He’s put on more than 20 of them and collaborated with artists and corporations to help fund his vision. He is to present his fall 2018 collection at Spring Street studios with a show that will star Dev Hynes, Ian Isiah, Selah Marley, Kelela, Kelsey Lu, Angel, the LeFrak Vocal Choir and surprise guests. Sponsors for this event range from White Castle to Melissa shoes. After the show, Clemens will host an after party at Century 21.
“If you look at the balance sheet, we are a marketing house,” said Radboy. “We make money from our shows and we want to keep that going.”
The White Castle tie-in came as they searched for sponsors for their fall 2015 show. They called up White Castle’s 1-800 customer service number and Jamie Richardson, the eternally optimistic vice president of White Castle, was open to the collaboration. It started with a fashion show after party held at White Castle’s former Times Square location and evolved into a deal to design and produce the employee uniforms — more than 30,000 units — in addition to a capsule collection of cobranded merchandise.
The stars aligned for another corporate partnership last year when Century 21 tapped Clemens to be a part of its Millennial-focused concept shop, Next Century, at its Cortlandt Street flagship.
According to Clemens, Telfar has been carried at shops including Dover Street Market and Opening Ceremony, but buyers haven’t picked up the collection consistently. “The store makes the buy and them blames you when it doesn’t sell,” said Radboy. Clemens added: “I used to let stores buy whatever they wanted. Now I’m telling them what is best for them to buy. It’s just been about understanding merchandising, understanding the store and understanding our customer a little bit more.”
The CFDA recognition has emboldened the duo. Radboy and Clemens said their primary mission is to grow and make money, but on their own terms.
“I think the scariest thing is people thinking that we are now at the top of the top. And it’s like no, this is the beginning,” said Clemens. “I’ve never even had the gas in the car to go. People have to understand that we don’t have money.”
But making money doesn’t mean getting bigger for them, it means getting better. “We actually want to scale down. We want to put out less things,” said Clemens. “We want to really make things that are tighter and experiences that are just better. So, if you liked us before, you will really like us now.”