You know a Telfar bag when you see it! The popular purse conspicuously dons the signature ‘TC’ emblem on its sleek, eye-catching frame. The verdict: it sells out within minutes of release, a testament to the style and business model of its founder. Telfar Clemens is a queer Liberian American fashion designer from New York City who is redefining gender norms in high fashion. While his brand has become synonymous with his highly sought-after vegan leather “Shopping Bags,” affectionately referred to as the “Bushwick Birkin,” his creativity extends into a vast laid-back streetwear collection.
The rise of Clemens has been astounding to watch. He has been intentional in creating designs that represent his values. The free-spirited and charming creative has produced a luxury brand that is inclusive regardless of race, sexual identity or class. The company’s website boldly asserts, “Not For You, For Everyone,” to remind shoppers that indulgence should not be unattainable. His “one-look-fits-all” style led to him becoming the first solo Black male designer to win the Council of Fashion Designers of America /Vogue Fashion Fund in 2017. He later won the Accessory Designer category in 2020. Similarly, he has been recognized by PETA for his conscious use of vegan materials. His distinct personality stood out within the industry, resulting in understated, yet notable, collaborations with UGG and Converse, expanding his reach into the footwear industry.
His products are so in-demand that during the pandemic he created a bag security program, ditching the wholesale approach to ensure that his supporters would secure his statement pieces. Previously, bots were snatching up the majority of his stock, presenting a barrier to his fans and countering his belief of accessibility. With this model, customers pre-ordered bags on the website, which were then made-to-order and shipped directly to them. The outcome: Proud customers generating $20 million in sales during the first rollout in August 2020.
Clemens’ inspiration lies in the belief that high fashion should reflect its consumers. While he has built a brand that represents opulence, style, and quality, his collection is sold at price points that do not limit who can own it. Instead of following the rules of the long-established fashion industry, Clemens has brazenly created his own path. He ignores regular show calendars, and is rumored to have turned down invitations to highly sought-after events including the Met Gala (although he did make an appearance in 2019). His successful strategies may confirm why he does not need to ascribe to previous practices. He has an impressive celebrity following including Oprah, Beyoncé, and Bella Hadid, and is admired by public figures such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who made headlines in 2020 after she was seen leaving the Capitol carrying a medium oxblood Telfar bag. Even though he attracts wealthier patrons, he assures enthusiasts that his line will remain affordable.
Clemens has also garnered a loyal and devoted fanbase who have elevated the status of his name. His renowned apparel eagerly extends beyond the U.S. Recently, he lent his sleek designs to the Liberian summer Olympic team. As a result of this collaboration, a fresh new athleisure line was created and is currently available on his website. At his 2021 New York Fashion Week event, he ditched the tradition of hosting a runway show, and held an old-school press conference to announce the launch of Telfar TV and FTV. In the future, these channels will serve as the platform to purchase his coveted bags as well as serve as the location where Clemens will unveil new collections.
The 2020 GQ Designer of the Year keeps switching it up, just when we think we have him figured out. He continues to put blackness and queerness at the forefront of his work, contributing to the evolution of fashion through his eclectic and unusual approaches. He celebrates his identity in his pieces, and in turn has found admirers that have taken immense pride in him too.