New York — Telfar Clemens is creating his own fashion playbook and it's catapulting him to the top. The Queens native says he began designing clothes at 15 because he couldn't find any that fit his style.
"I wasn't allowed to have the clothes that I wanted to wear, because sometimes we'll be in the women's section and I would have to explain this whole thing to my mom, who's actually paying, that I want this crop top," he tells me from his warehouse studio in Bushwick.
Inspired by designer Jean Paul Gaultier, Clemens began creating original, gender-fluid garments he describes as everyday clothing items made "better and nicer for everyday use."
"I'm just looking at what you have, you know, and being like, I'm the clothes that you wear when you're not going to a fashion show, but just living your fashion life."
Clemens never received a formal fashion design education. Instead, he attended Pace University in Manhattan where he studied business management.
"I didn't want to go to school for (fashion) because anything that I went to school for, I ended up hating, I didn't learn anything at school," he said. "So I left business school with the intention of opening my own store and selling my clothes and my friend's clothes — I still want to do that."
Sitting in his white studio, accessorized with his colorful bags, Clemens said he was proud to see his brand skyrocket 15 years after he got his start. Household names such as Solange Knowles, Selena Gomez, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Issa Rae have been spotted with Telfar's signature bags, but Clemens wants everyone to have a piece of his designs — your grandmother, your best friend, your brother and your kids.
"I'm super proud of myself. And also like, I'm happy that it did take this time to actually foster itself," he shared. "I was doing this with no reward, no like recognition, you know, but I was doing it because I wanted to do something that I could actually look back on and know that I was doing something cool."
His functional and stylish bags, which come in multiple colors and three sizes, retail for $150 to $257, a price point he decided would keep them accessible. "I was a DJ," he says. "I'll get paid $150 to $350 a night. I could buy that bag if I wanted to at the end of one night, and I think that that's how it should be."
After rounds of constantly selling out, at times, within the first minute of launch, Clemens and his business partner, artistic director Babak Radboy, launched the bag security program — an opportunity for fans to purchase the coveted bags for 24 hours without fear of selling out. Clemens is considering using the restock model moving forward.
"Can you imagine waking up at seven o'clock West Coast time to buy a bag that's sold out three hours ago that you were waiting for? " he said. "I want people to have this bag."
Success did not come easy for Clemens. He said he was marginalized in the fashion industry by stores who "were pretending that they were holding the keys" to his success.
"I just thought that it wasn't going to be this hard to just do the thing I want to do," he continued. "I was trying to convince fashion people and at the end of the day, I just needed to convince myself that I don't need to be a fashion person to do this job."
His relationship with fashion is like oil and water. "We operate so differently."
"I like everything. I think fashion people like fashion. I love Old Navy, you know? And I love Lululemon. You name it, I like it," he says with a smile on his face. "But I don't have a problem with fashion."
Clemens' latest venture in the accessories world is a du-rag. The genderless headdress, once synonymous with hip-hop stars, has become an item that signifies Black beauty. As a child, he wanted his hair to have a popular wave pattern and his aunt taught him how to achieve it with a du-rag.
"It was like the summer of hair training. You'd learn what your wave pattern was, how you brush your hair, put grease in it, and then you lay it down," said Clemens, who was wearing a black and white Telfar du-rag styled under a baseball cap. "My other experience of it was fashion. In middle school, you had one in every single color that matched your shoes and your outfit."
At $90 a pop — Clemens' take on a du-rag may cause a stir — at my local beauty store, I can grab a du-rag for just $2.
"It'll be interesting to see. But I feel like people pay more for a lot of things. It's like a scarf is $300 at Gucci. People buy like six of them. So why can't you buy a $90 thing that you actually can wear to sleep, to work, to bed, again and again, and again and again."
However, the designer says that one day, he aims to sell a du-rag for the average price, and in the near future release more beauty accessories, including scarves. "I want to offer all of these prints and different ideas that we do have all these different objects that apply in my life."
"The goal is to actually build this business for you to be able to go to Sally Beauty Supply, or like any beauty corner store and be able to buy one," he said.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic upending many, the Telfar brand continues to thrive and gain popularity.
"We knew that in January 2020 was always the year for us to leave fashion. We wanted to take a break after the shows and focus on the business, how to sell clothes, and how to do direct-to-consumer marketing," he said. "We basically just got the chance to sit back and look at what we've achieved."