The Studio Visit... Telfar
Browns heads to New York to meet Telfar Clemens, the designer whose eponymous brand was creating non-gendered clothing ten years before the rest of the fashion industry caught up. Winner of the 2017 CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund, TELFAR has become a brand beloved by fans and critics alike, shaking up the traditionalist narrative of American fashion with its inclusive vision. In terms of their aesthetic, TELFAR’s pieces feel thoroughly new and yet highly wearable, reflecting his expertise in balancing the everyday with the avant garde. As the label’s slogan states: ‘Not for you, for everyone.’
On his vision...
I make the clothes that I couldn’t find when I was younger. Whilst growing up, I wanted something that on the one hand wasn’t cut for men but also wasn’t cut for women either — pieces that could be worn by either sexes without making a point about it. Something that just looked good! We pretty much didn’t get a review for the first 10 years of our brand’s existence. It’s a trend now, but at the time ‘genderless clothing’ just meant you were irrelevant.
I’m glad that we stuck with it and faced that hurdle though. When it comes to the fashion industry moving towards unisex clothing, they’ve been late to that party for decades. Our shows have always been more than a runway too. A couple of seasons ago we collaborated with the playwright Jeremy O Harris and the musicians Butch Dawson, Oyinda, Robert Randolph, Total Freedom, Ho9909 and Na Kel Smith. The show was held at Irving Plaza with a thousand people in the audience and since there wasn’t a runway the models just crowd surfed. It was really beautiful.
On his designs…
The TELFAR motto is ‘not for you, for everyone,’ and refers to the kind of social abstraction that we try to do as a brand. In a sense, what we’re about is refining a garment down to at least one version of ‘pure clothing’, but also about the idea of who those garments are intended for; addressing someone different with what we do so that anyone can step into the pieces and be that someone different. Aesthetically, we twist what’s normal, making everyday clothes for better days. Reframing how the wearer sees a garment is the whole reason why we make clothes.
On his style roots...
My family formed the blueprint of my personal style in that they were the ones who decided what I wore at an early age. As a male child, I wasn't allowed to wear girls’ clothes. At one point, the only thing I wanted was a crop top printed with CK JEANS, BITCH or BRAT or baggy distressed jeans with studs. Most of those things, however, were either in the women's section (so my parents wouldn't buy them for me), or I couldn't afford them on a fifteen-year-old's budget. Instead, I made a lot of the things I wanted to wear out of Hanes T-shirts or deconstructed vintage clothes and old trousers.
“As a male child, I wasn't allowed to wear girls clothes. At one point, the only thing I wanted was a crop top printed with CK JEANS, BITCH or BRAT or a type of baggy distressed jean with studs.”
On his background…
As a child, I lived in Liberia, but moved back to Queens, New York, after the second civil war broke out. Here I saw how American kids dressed and quite how different it was from the style of dressing my parents preferred. Through that, I began to create my own sense of fashion, borrowing from the ideas of those around me but skewing them into something new that only belonged to me... I suppose that was when I realised the purpose of what I wanted to do in the future.
On setting up his label…
TELFAR, the brand, was originally launched after I spent time deconstructing clothes for myself to wear and then, after friends saw them, they started asking me to make them the same thing. It all just built on from that moment! I’ve never really had another job outside of working for myself and never had any formal training in fashion. I started making my clothes at fifteen and fully started building the collection under my first name, TELFAR, when I started business school at Pace University. Since 2005, I've been creating and showing two collections a year. TELFAR then won the CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund in 2017, which felt like progression in who and what American fashion represents. It also meant that we were actually able to begin to work and think like the company that we are now, setting both business and personal goals.
On the origins of the logo…
The brand’s logo was given to me by my first grade teacher in elementary school. I had to take this basic English class on first returning to New York City from Liberia and as part of the labelling/point system, a symbol was used based on your first and last name. Mine’s Telfar Clemens, so it became a letter ‘T’ set within a ‘C’, and ever since that time, I’ve used this as a logo on my sketches and as my signature.
There would be no point in what I did if I didn't express what I was feeling. It’s an important part of the way in which I work. I always begin a collection by looking to myself and previous work. Most of my inspiration comes from looking back to old seasons and pairing those ideas and concepts of construction with new genres of clothing. I think being an individual is the most important thing in our world. Anybody that I have collaborated with in the past has that quality, and there’s a level of respect I feel for people who can bring a unique approach to any situation.
“I think being an individual is the most important thing in our world. Anybody that I have collaborated with in the past has that quality, and there’s a level of respect I feel for people who can bring a unique approach to any situation.”
What’s your cure for procrastination?
Favourite piece of public art?
What’s your ideal vision of the future?
What’s the most exciting thing about the fashion industry today?
That I'm in it (laughs).
Is there a trend that everyone loves that you don’t get?
I don't get most trends... Though I do tend to love everything that’s scary and truly inspiring.
What’re the pros and cons of social media as a designer?
Pro: getting to be a person on social media. Con: being a person on social media.
Your favourite place on Earth?
My bed in New York.
How do you stand out in our world of constant information and imagery?
Using your face and smiling.
What would be your dream studio?
A building that I own.