Four months ago, the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalists were announced, kicking off a stretch of studio visits, challenges, collaborations, and fashion shows to determine the designer that would get to take home the grand prize of $400,000. The ten finalists included, Dyne, Victor Glemaud, Jordan Askill, Mateo New York, RTA, Sandy Liang, Vaquera, Chromat, Ahlem, and Telfar. On Monday night, Telfar, the New York-based unisex label founded by Telfar Clemens in 2005, was named the winner.
The 31-year-old Liberian-American designer presented his first collection to the public in 2005 at the age of 20 without any formal schooling in design, tailoring, or pattern making. In Telfar’s universe, clothes are a tool to comment on what he views as today’s conformist, consumerist society.
His unique point of view earned him exhibitions at the New Museum, and the 2016 Biennale, so it's not surprising that his show is always one of the most innovative on the Fashion Week calendar. In the past, he has projected clothes onto models, used video to teach us all the ways we can layer a hoodie, let customers customize his collection through a video game, and even sold his clothing out of bodegas.
On his website, Clemens describes his clothes as “not for you,[...] for everyone,” and proves his point season after season with basic, gender neutral garments. The designer often fronts his own campaigns and counts cool celebrities like SZA and Solange Knowles as fans. In short, he’s been hard at work for a long time now.
“I’m not embarrassed about how long I’ve been around,” the designer tells Refinery29, referring to how quickly some designers seem to catapult to stardom. “I started when I was 15. I was making reworked vintage clothes, selling them on Orchard Street and at Pat Fields. I'm not embarrassed about that. I’ve always worked for myself. I’ve never worked for anyone else. I wake up when I want to wake up, and do what I want to do.” Sometimes that means throwing fashion parties at White Castle, for whom he's also designed uniforms.
He added, “I don’t need to be like, ‘XYZ celebrity is wearing this now.’ I’m from New York, and we already know that’s late. It doesn’t have to be validated by a Us Weekly stamp of cool. I’m not going to say I don’t respect it, but I don't subscribe to it. I respect what goes on that’s real.”
Now that Telfar has the stamp of approval from the the fashion industry, he's only a pit stop away from hitting the big time. Previous winners of the award include Rodarte, Proenza Schouler, Thom Browne, who have clearly gone on to become some of the most influential designers working today. Another previous winner, Joseph Altuzarra was also on this year's selection committee alongside Instagram’s Eva Chen, and Saks Fifth Avenue’s fashion director Roopal Patel. Clemens was joined by two runners-up: Becca McCharen-Tran of Chromat, and Ahlem Manai-Platt of Ahlem, who were each awarded $150,000. At times when so many pessimists in the industry think that American fashion is dying, this group of winners prove the best is yet to come.