The Rule-Breaking NYC Designer Who Hasn’t Received The Hype He Deserves

Photo: Jason Nocito/Courtesy of Telfar.
Once in a blue moon, a person comes along who manages to straddle art, fashion, and business without ever getting confused — and also hits a nerve with society at large. Many people have pointed to Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia of Vetements and Balenciaga for being the savant of our generation, with his couture take on streetwear that mirrors the borrow-and-repurpose ethos of the internet generation. But, you don't have to look across the Atlantic for that kind of talent; Telfar Clemens has been quietly churning out groundbreaking designs right here in NYC. The 31-year-old 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 today’s conformist, consumerist society (looking cool is just a nice perk).
A black-and-white striped polo is dissected physically but also philosophically. What does that polo represent and how can it be twisted to confront the audience with a certain set of stereotypes or prejudices? A large shopping bag, the brand’s signature item, is the equivalent of the seasonal It bag that every house struggles to create. But the Telfar bag never changes; it comes in three sizes and an array of colors, but the design stays the same. At his recent spring '17 show, even the applause was turned around to confuse the audience; a band of classically trained musicians performed a clapping ceremony during the finale for the audience instead of the audience doing the same for the designer. Much like Margiela did in the '90s, Clemens is changing the way we consider fashion by slightly altering the norm. His commentary has earned him exhibitions at the New Museum and the 2016 Berlin Biennale, and it has made his one of the most coveted shows on the official NYFW schedule. So why is it only now that the international fashion press is catching on? And why have his clothes not been picked up by prestigious retailers? I met up with the designer to discuss his ongoing collaboration with artists Babak Radboy and Avena Gallagher, his favorite designers, his slow but steady path to success, and why he is the new Martin Margiela (according to this journalist).
Photo: Jason Nocito/Courtesy of Telfar.
Your new collection was surprisingly preppy. Why did you go in that direction?
"This collection was based on twisting every single aspect of what I thought preppy culture was about, dissecting those ideas, and conflicting them. It’s a mix of Abercrombie, Ralph Lauren, Polo Sport, Nautica, Under Armour and then also just really gay underwear. You know the really stretchy, nasty gay fabric? It came from there. Me and Babak started looking at clothes and patterns that already exist, like a polo shirt from American Eagle. We dissected that, and made the stripes functional, and we started making stuff graphic." How much of your inspiration comes from clicking around online?
"Not a lot. I think that if I can see it online, I cross it off. If you can google it and find it, take it off. That’s our thing. When we were coming up with ideas, I’ll google it several different times. Google every different aspect of it and if you can’t find it, you know you’re kinda onto something. When I go to China [to visit my factories], things just get so out of context, too." I assume that not a lot of designers actually go to the factory and are part of actually developing their product. Do you think that helps your collection in the end?
"Yeah, absolutely. It’s a blessing and a curse that I don’t speak Chinese. Sometimes we’ll tell [the factories] to do something, and they’ll do it completely wrong, and that’s the best part of the process because you see these thing going wrong, and it turns into this completely different thing that actually isn’t referential. It isn’t what you thought it was supposed to be, and it starts to be completely new."

Do you work as a collective, or do you get final say?

"A lot of conversations will happen between me, Babak, and Avena, where Avena will say ‘Oh, that looks great,’ and Babak will be like, ‘I hate that.’ Majority wins. We collaborate with a lot of different people — each person that comes into the situation will add their two cents, and I really like to leave things up to interpretation and also up to the person. I never want to be like ‘I’m collaborating with you, and this is what you’re going to do.' I’ll design something and I wouldn’t even want to be around Babak and Avena during this design-editing process of what I actually want. So, I’ll design something and then I show them. It’s so strange because sometimes Babak is thinking the exact same thing. I was in a factory making a pair of pants, and I went to his house and there was a sketch on his wall, and it was the exact same pair of pants that I was drawing. We’re the same sign."
Photo: Jason Nocito/Courtesy of Telfar.
What sign?
"Aquarius. I think also we have similar points of reference. We’ll be walking around and be like, ‘Oh, I like that color,’ and one of us will be like, ‘Yeah, I just said the same thing.’ Someone can say something, and then it alters your perception of what they just said. This is where Avena comes in. She knows, like, every single collection." How long have you guys worked together?
"Avena styled my very first show. I’ve known her since I was 16." So you all started together?
"Yeah. In 2004, there was this really funny party called Tokyo Mon Amour, and that’s where we met. Jaiko Suzuki used to throw it, and Avena would go-go dance. She and Lauren Boyle basically helped me with the first runway show. It was at Spencer Sweeney’s apartment in the Lower East Side. I was 18." Now you’re running a business.
"Yes." Do you think this slow but steady rise has made your brand stronger?
"It makes the message stronger. In certain cases, the longer you keep things going and you struggle, the people that aren’t your friends disappear. [Your loyal friends stay] around, even though they don’t have any incentive to be around, and that makes me feel that they believe it more than anything else. It’s the best situation. I can’t imagine not working like that."

It’s like ‘Oh you won’t accept it from a 16-year-old black queen, but this white woman presents it to you, and it’s the best thing in the world’. That’s annoying.

Telfar Clemens
And have you been been happy with taking so long?
"I love money. If I could have been a millionaire at 15, trust me I would have, but I wasn’t doing that for money at 16. I might be doing it for money at 31. That’s a thing I’ve been learning more and more. It’s like 'that’s you — that’s not a trend.' I’ve been learning to respect trusting my instincts more and not playing into trends. Big brands have taken concepts that we released years and years ago and released in that exact same way, but it wasn’t popular when we did it. But, if a person that’s a certain skin color or sexuality presents it, it gets a different feedback. I’ve noticed that, and I’d say that’s the most disappointing thing, because it’s like, ‘Oh you won’t accept it from a 16-year-old Black queen, but this white woman presents it to you, and it’s the best thing in the world?' That’s annoying." So how does it make you feel when young brands rise to success instantly, like Vetements?
"I’m not embarrassed about how long I’ve been around. I started when I was 15. I was making reworked vintage clothes at 15, selling them on Orchard Street and selling them 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. So 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."
Photo: Jason Nocito/Courtesy of Telfar.
Has Telfar always been about deconstructing what you see as a very normative way of dressing?
"Yeah, that’s what I’m inspired by most. That’s where I came from. I never went to fashion school. I wanted to be an accountant. I went to business school at Pace University and went and got a business management degree and a minor in accounting." That's practical.
"Yeah. Well, I don’t know anything. I literally forgot all of that." So what kind of designers inspired you back when you were looking through the archives?
"I love Vivienne Westwood. Jean Paul Gaultier is one of my favorite designers. I literally go to Century 21 and buy every stretchy top that he had. I still have a really serious Gaultier archive. Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garçons. I love International Male, love Levi’s, love Diesel. If you’re a brand and you have an aesthetic that’s actually a thing, I love you. A mass aesthetic means something. If you can put a label on something, like, ‘Oh that’s preppy,' or 'That’s hip hop' — that’s cool to me." It’s funny that you didn't mention Margiela.
"Really?" He twisted the “normal” into something that was new and fresh. Obviously your aesthetics are so different, but that idea of twisting the norm and using it to confront people with a certain behavior is very much the same.
"I’ll tell you something funny. When I was maybe 15 or 16, I didn’t really know who Margiela was. Margiela was not a thing that I knew about. At Century 21, I would find a white T-shirt — and that was my first introduction to Margiela. I was just like, Ugh it’s so old! I was like, Oh, four stitches on the back, whatever!"
Photo: Jason Nocito/Courtesy of Telfar.
Back to you — your clothes always have a twist.
"There’s always a twist, and always a purpose. The twist is the purpose. I grew up shopping with my mom and she'd say, ‘but that’s for girls!’ That was the most infuriating thing, because it’s like, 'That belly top is so cute on me. That Calvin Klein belly top is so cute.'" Would your mom get it for you?
"She would. She would get it, and it would be like this whole thing. But, I'd also buy things myself that my mom wouldn’t want to buy, and have to change in secret to wear. I kinda get that same feeling when I make a pair of shorts that are really risqué. It’s like, you went out, and a million people were like, ‘gasp’ and just loving it, too. I looked out of control. I get a kick out of this, challenging people with clothing, and the uncomfortableness of being new, and being as gay as you want to be. I try to reverse and displease. If you’re wearing a spiked jacket with tall heels, that’s almost acceptable these days. But if you’re wearing baggy capris with a polo shirt and ballet flats, that seems like subculture to me."
September is typically a time when fashion publications definitively tell you what’s in, and what’s out. Fuck that. We’re dedicating the next couple of weeks to celebrate all the iconoclasts, independent thinkers, and individuals with unique personal styles who’d rather say Fuck The Fashion Rules than follow them.

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