"Not For You – For Everyone." As a unisex, boundary-breaking brand, this rallying cry reflects everything that Telfar symbolises. Founded by Liberian-American designer Telfar Clemens in 2005, since its very beginnings the label has championed inclusivity and freedom from the gender binary, and has challenged the very idea of American-ness, identity and luxury fashion as we know it.
Unlike traditional fashion houses which capitalise on the success of one or two cult handbags per year, Telfar’s cult and critical success can be attributed to a single item: the viral, often sold-out Telfar tote. Debuting in 2014, the bag was born after Clemens saw an increasing number of people carrying Bloomingdale's shopping bags and decided to put his own twist on what was both an iconic symbol of New York fashion but also a functional, everyday item. A source of internet frenzy and heated discussion, the embossed vegan leather shopping bag has been dubbed the "It bag for the internet age" and the "Bushwick Birkin", with people across the world vying to purchase it in one of its three sizes and many colours, which range from space-age silver and chic black to bubblegum pink and pillar-box red.
"I’d seen posts all over Twitter and Instagram, with everyone in a panic to get their hands on one," says Imani, 25, a New York-based legal assistant and YouTuber who owns five of Telfar's small shopping bags (in oxblood, orange, bubblegum, dark olive and black). "Besides the affordability, the bags range in colour and have a simplicity to them that I loved, so I was sold immediately." There’s something for everyone and the affordable price point – totes range from £184 to £243 – not only reflects this but defies the status quo of an industry known for its exclusivity. "When I think of luxury, I think of something being expensive and hard to attain," Imani says. "With Telfar it’s the complete opposite." While the rest of the world argues about Birkin bags and whether or not they’ve been devalued by Black women, Telfar is consciously redefining what is known as luxury fashion and, more importantly, who has access to it.
For Dev Doee, the New York-based creative director of We Are Fluide, this flipped script is what makes Telfar so special. "The idea of luxury is often presented through a white gaze, and the culture of exclusivity in fashion is rooted in white supremacy and systemic oppression. I love that Telfar is consciously making an effort to include people in fashion. As someone who identifies as non-binary, fashion is not typically catered towards me, but with Telfar I know people like me are in mind when the products are created. Plus, carrying the bag makes me feel expensive and badass." Imani tells me that as a Black woman, the Telfar bag reminds her that she is part of a diverse community: "It makes me feel good and reassures me that I am deserving of nice things."
Telfar’s commitment to making fashion for everyone transcends borders, as the growing community of fans in the UK, who are just as obsessed with getting their hands on the coveted bag, can attest. Clarissa Henry, 25, a London-based content creator and stylist, says this is because Telfar actively acknowledges Black women, unlike the British fashion community. "I think it’s about owning something from a luxury brand that is marketed to you as a Black woman, and finally being considered as the main target audience," she tells me.
"I’m from London but I identify with Telfar culturally. Telfar understands Black people, especially Black women, and provides something we can be proud of that’s also on par with high end luxury brands that we often feel excluded from," Clarissa explains.
As with the majority of the world, this year's Black Lives Matter movement has been a catalyst for change in the fashion industry, leading to a focus on inclusion and making amends for its past failures. In September, the British Fashion Council announced the formation of a committee dedicated to addressing diversity and later revealed a long-term partnership with @wearetheboldagency to recognise the Black British contribution to fashion. Amid the recent frenzy to be on the right side of history, Black women are still flocking to support Telfar, which has shown from the jump that inclusivity is not a trend.
This principle of inclusivity has worked in Telfar's favour, too: according to shopping platform Lyst, demand for the bag has spiked 270% and searches for the brand have increased by 61% in the last month. Democratic pricing isn’t all that's important to the brand though – accessibility is, too. As the bag’s popularity has increased, so have resellers looking to make a profit. Now a $24 billion industry, reselling has always plagued luxury fashion but this August Telfar resisted, creating a 24-hour security programme to ensure that customers could get their hands on the exact bag that they wanted with the ease of pre-ordering. In a statement introducing the daylong programme, Telfar said: "We are not about hype and scarcity. We didn’t set out to make an impossible to get product," expressing that as a small, self-financed team, it takes time to produce quality products.
Some, however, have been unsympathetic to the reality of running a small-scale business, with one Twitter user deeming Telfar unprofessional for selling out so quickly. Antoine Gregory, the New York-based founder of Black Fashion Fair, an online directory linking shoppers directly to Black designers, believes this has everything to do with Telfar being a Black brand. "People felt so entitled when it came to Telfar, as if they were doing him a favour. That is never the case for any of his white counterparts." The discourse surrounding sold-out stock varies depending on the brand and as a queer, Black man at the head of his own label, Telfar is often held to a different standard than other, more established fashion houses, despite having a very different operational system and less privilege.
Despite this, Antoine adds, many fans of the brand have pledged allegiance and insisted on not buying from resellers – even if doing so would mean finally owning the bag of their dreams – in a bid to stop touts from eclipsing the ethos established by the Telfar team. "What’s interesting is how consumers would not allow for that to happen on a large scale and how for so many people it is very important to support the brand directly."
This support isn’t merely a trade-off for an aesthetically pleasing handbag, of course, but a direct reflection of the brand’s advocacy for political change and support for overlooked communities. Last year, Telfar partnered with the Black Lives Matter Global Network to create a T-shirt to honour America’s Black History Month, and it has previously collaborated with US fast food chain White Castle on a uniform for employees, with proceeds going to support minors serving time at Rikers Island jail. At a time when so many brands are scrabbling to show their 'woke' credentials, Telfar’s mission has always been to give back and create accessibility.
The bag has become more than an accessory, acting as the cornerstone of a fashion community that welcomes everyone, from Oprah – who last month put the brand in her annual list of 'favourite things' – to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Issa Rae, Solange, Dua Lipa, you and me. "This continued idea of community and belonging to something that feels bigger than you" is what makes the Telfar bag stand out, says Antoine, and is ultimately changing the business of fashion bags. Taking home the award for Accessories Designer of the Year at the 2020 CFDA awards, and with a recently sold-out collaboration with Ugg in the bag, Telfar’s brand is proof that democratising fashion is possible, and that luxury and inclusivity aren’t mutually exclusive.
Thanks to Telfar, the criteria of what makes an It bag is changing. Let's hope that inviting everyone to the party will be an essential pillar for fashion brands moving forward. We’ll see you there.