The Untold Truth Of Telfar

In case you've been living under a rock, the fashion label Telfar has been taking the world by storm. Started by Telfar Clemens in 2005, the eponymous brand exploded on the fashion scene more than a decade later. Though Telfar offers unisex clothing, it's probably best known for its signature Shopping Bag — it's gained so much notoriety that it's nicknamed the "Bushwick Birkin" (via Today). The bag, which ranges in price from $150 to $257, sells out almost immediately after it's restocked, and is a favorite of many celebrities, including Beyonce, Lil Nas X, and Megan Thee Stallion.


According to The New York Times, the fashion industry was expected to lose 90% of its profits in 2020 — but Telfar did its best year up until that point. So what makes this brand stand out among so many other luxury labels? As it turns out, a number of things.

The brand was started by Telfar Clemens

The designer behind the brand, Telfar Clemens, was born in Queens, New York, in 1985. His family moved back to their home country of Liberia for a time, before returning to New York and finally settling in Maryland (via Vogue UK). His interest in fashion began at a young age, and felt restricted by the options that were available to him: "No one made clothes that I wanted to wear — they just didn't exist. I wanted a crop top that said 'B***h' across the front, but I 'couldn't shop in the girls' department.' Having that restriction, of not being able to look how I wanted to look, made me want to make my own things."


Clemens planned to leave Maryland as soon as he could and move permanently to New York. "The day that I graduated high school was the day that I moved. Like the first chance that I got, I was out," he told NPR. He also revealed that he began his fashion career by cutting up T-shirts, reconstructing them into new garments, and selling them on the street after his family members helped him learn how to sew.

It began as a small operation

Telfar Clemens' brand was a pretty small operation in its early days. Clemens went to school in New York City, where he studied business as opposed to fashion, and worked on his clothes in his spare time. "I would go to school at 6am until noon, go home and sleep until about 3pm, then work on my clothing," he told Vogue UK. "Then, I'd DJ in the evenings to earn money — usually from midnight till, like, 4 am. The next day, I'd do it all over again."


Clemens officially established his brand in 2005, when the first Telfar fashion show took place. At the time, he worked alone (via Vogue). However, he soon met Babak Radboy, who became Telfar's creative director, and Avena Gallagher, a stylist. But even when he added people to his team, the whole thing was very DIY in those days. In fact, The New York Times reported that Gallagher didn't even get paid until 2017! "They really understood what I was trying to do," Clemens told Vogue UK of Radboy and Gallagher. "Plus, I was literally working out of Babak's apartment when I didn't have an office, doing my fittings and castings there. Babak was almost forced into working with me." The brand has certainly come a long way since those early years!


The brand strives for inclusivity

Telfar's mission to be an inclusive fashion brand is apparent through and through — from its clothing offerings, its pride in its humble origins, and, of course, its slogan: "It's not for you — it's for everyone."


Babak Radboy, Telfar's creative director, told Women's Wear Daily: "I think the core thing about the line is it's not an identity-based line. Not even just in a racial sense, but even gender and class. The whole point of the line is that it's universal. And that specifically is what makes it politically charged or challenging. But Telfar is saying, 'No, this is normal.'"

Telfar Clemens' own identity as a queer person of color contributes to the brand's all-around message of inclusivity. As one Telfar fan, Kiara Ventura, told The Cut, "Time and time again, luxury brands have failed at their advertising and marketing because there's obviously few to no black or brown people on their team." Ventura continued, saying, "When I look at ads for Telfar, I see black and brown people, I see queer people, I see how it's a genderless brand. I think it's about time the world supports a genuinely inclusive brand." The concept of an "accessible luxury brand" might seem like an oxymoron but, according to Vogue Business, Telfar has managed to do it.


Telfar won the CFDA in 2017

The CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund is a prestigious award given to a young designer selected by the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Vogue Magazine — and in 2017, Telfar took home the grand prize of $400,000 (per Vogue). CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Winners also receive mentorship to help grow their brands. According to Vogue UK, the win allowed Telfar Clemens and creative director Babak Radboy to focus on perfecting what went on to become the brand's most popular item: the vegan-leather Shopping Bag.


Vogue UK dubbed the win a "watershed moment" for the brand, and Clemens and Radboy themselves credit their winnings for allowing them to increase production — which led to a whopping 1,500% increase in sales. And 2017 wasn't the end of the road for Telfar's CFDA awards journey; in 2020, Telfar took the Accessories Designer of the Year award, as Refinery29 reported.

The label is famous for the Telfar Shopping Bag

While Telfar is a fully-fledged fashion label that offers clothes, shoes, and accessories, it is best known for its Shopping Bag — aka the "Bushwick Birkin."  In line with the brand's goal of accessible luxury, these bags are relatively affordable in contrast to many other high-end designer bags: $150 for the smallest size, $202 for the medium, and capping out at $257 for the large.


The bag has become something of a symbol — not a symbol of wealth, but a "symbol of group identity for young, creative New Yorkers, especially queer people and people of color," according to The Cut. Of course, the bag's popularity has expanded past New York into the rest of the country — and the world — but the brand and its iconic bag continue to serve as symbols of expression for a community with similar values. 

Business Insider explained that the bag's design was based on Bloomingdale's shopping bags (hence the name), and features the brand's signature logo, which is comprised of Telfar Clemens' initials, which originates from the way his elementary school teacher wrote them. The Shopping Bag was released in 2014 but it really took off in 2018, after Telfar was able to scale up production with its CFDA prize money. Refinery29 would go on to call the accessory the "most important bag of 2020." 


The brand has had a problem with resellers and bots

With all the buzz surrounding Telfar, it shouldn't come as a surprise that outside forces have tried to cash in on its success. Resellers have targeted Telfar's restocks using bots to scoop up lots of product, which are then sold to the public at a high mark-up. This, of course, defeats the whole purpose of Telfar's message of inclusivity and accessibility.


At one point, Telfar temporarily shut down after the bags sold out in mere seconds. "Telfar is for the people. Not the bots," read an Instagram post uploaded that day (via Vogue Business). However, Telfar Clemens later explained that most of the web traffic had come from real people. "The root of it is not that we shut [the site] because of bots, but simply because there was an over demand flowing into the site at once, a number that was way higher than the bots itself," he told Complex. "Essentially, we broke the internet" (via Complex). Still, having to deal with bots and resellers is not ideal.  

Luckily for fashion lovers, the brand has implemented a Bag Security Program to make it easier for real customers to get the bags they want. 


Telfar has designed White Castle uniforms

Telfar Clemens is a big fan of White Castle, which has become a frequent collaborator for the brand. He has hosted a handful of parties at White Castle restaurants and the burger chain sponsored the clothing brand's 2017 New York Fashion Week show. That same year, Telfar and White Castle teamed up to design fresh new uniforms, according to Vogue.


As Clemens told White Castle, "I grew up around the corner from my local White Castle in Queens, NY, so I am a true life-long craver It has been a dream to work so closely with the team at White Castle. They are true ORIGINALS and this honor means the absolute world to me."

Given Clemens' love for the chain, it makes sense that he jumped at the chance to add on to his uniform designs for White Castle's 100th anniversary in 2021. Vogue reported that fans of the collection who didn't work at a White Castle could actually purchase some of the pieces, the proceeds of which would be donated to the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Liberty and Justice Fund, which helps imprisoned minors make bail.

Telfar designed athletic wear for the Liberian Olympic team

Telfar Clemens is Liberian American, so when he was asked to design outfits for the Liberian Olympic team for the 2020 Summer Olympics, his answer was a resounding "yes." 

"I had been talking about going [to Liberia] for so long, and I was finally there, and it was mind-blowing," he told The New York Times. "And then this happened." It was a perfectly-timed opportunity because Clemens and Telfar's creative director, Babak Radboy, had already been discussing the possibility of expanding the brand to offer athletic clothing. In addition to being a smart business move, the partnership was significant to Clemens on a personal level, as he knew people on the team through his family. "It's meaningful to me on a lot of levels," he added. 


Telfar ended up producing about 70 pieces for the team, including the "three hole top" for the opening ceremony, which was essentially a silk and mesh basketball jersey with dropped shoulders, and the "what!" shorts — compression shorts with a really fun name. 

The brand held a party in a Century 21 department store -- after hours, of course

According to The Cut, Fashion Week 2018's best after-party took place in a Century 21 department store in Lower Manhattan — and the festivities were hosted by none other than Telfar. This makes sense, given Telfar created a capsule collection for Century 21 in 2017, per The New York Times.


Photos from the party show there was a long line to get in, and a journalist for The Cut reported that although the event began at 11 p.m., she didn't get in until 1 a.m. Adding to the relatability of an event hosted in a discount department store were the down-to-earth food offerings of White Castle burgers and onion rings.

Despite Telfar's message of inclusivity and the event's clear attempts to appeal to the average person, a guest leaving the party announced, "Save yourself and don't go in — it's the Clout Olympics." We still would have loved to see what a party inside a department store looked like — with all those clothing racks removed, to boot. Despite the allegedly exclusive nature of the party, the idea of holding a party inside a store known for its discount offerings still absolutely fits with Telfar's overall vibe of being an accessible and approachable fashion label. 


Despite its appeal to accessibility and inclusivity, celebrities love Telfar

When you think "inclusive" and "accessible," your mind probably doesn't jump to the rich and famous. But it appears that a ton of celebrities have gotten behind Telfar's message of inclusivity, authenticity, and expression. Oprah Winfrey, for one, named the Telfar Shopping Bag one of her favorite things of 2020. That distinction likely brought even more buzz to the already-hyped brand — but Oprah's far from the only star to give Telfar her seal of approval. 


Many celebrities — of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds as well as gender identities and expressions– all have the Telfar bag in common. Just a few proponents of the "Bushwick Birkin"? According to Page Six, Dua Lipa, Jeremy O. Harris, A$AP Ferg, Chloë Sevigny, and Selena Gomez are all fans — what a crowd! Nylon further reported that Solange was an especially early adapter, soon followed suit by the likes of "Moonlight" actor Ashton Sanders, Tinashe, Lil Nas X, Bella Hadid, Vanessa Hudgens, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Yep, that's right folks: The Telfar Shopping Bag is a hot commodity even on Capitol Hill. 

Telfar Clemens wants everyone to have a Telfar bag

While some designers experiencing the amount of success that Telfar Clemens has in the last few years may instinctually want to make their designs more exclusive and harder to get, that's never been Telfar's vibe. In fact, Telfar Clemens told Vogue UK, "I just want to be everywhere, truly global. I want to dress everybody." When he says "everybody," he's not only talking about everybody in Hollywood — he really means everybody. He further explained to Dazed, "I want to be mass-marketed in a way that's scary. It's like a Michael Kors bag. Everybody has one of those. But it's even dumber than that. I want to be Michael Kors, but on purpose."


Indeed, Clemens seems bent on rejecting a lot of the things we've come to associate with the luxury fashion world: exclusivity and high price tags, sure, but also, he seems to have some beef with the industry in general. "Fashion's always been the same," he told Dazed when asked about how the fashion world has changed. "I hate fashion people. Nobody involved in fashion has good style." Ooh, burn. We're guessing anyone involved in the Telfar brand is the exception! 

Its Circle Bag caused a bit of a stir

In February 2022, Telfar debuted a new accessory: the Circle Bag. While there was certainly the expected hype and fanfare, the announcement of the bag's price led to some backlash. The new bag was given a pricetag of $567 — a steep jump from even the largest Shopping Bag (via The Cut). The shape of the Circle Bag makes the production process more difficult than that of the Shopping Bag, thus the higher price, The Cut explained. Still, there was some outcry from Telfar fans.  


The situation proved to be an opportunity to discuss Black-owned companies and perceptions surrounding their price points. "We've seen it time and time again ... where Black-owned brands are expected to remain at a certain scale," fashion editor Shelton Boyd-Griffith told The Cut. He went on to point out several examples of other Blacked-owned brands that experienced the same treatment — and other brands helmed by white folks that did not, even when their offerings far exceed their Black-owned equivalents in price. "I want us to challenge the ways we approach Black design talent, allowing them the same space as any other luxury brand," Boyd-Griffith wrote in an op-ed for PopSugar

It's worth noting that even with the higher cost, the Circle Bag sold out as soon as it dropped.     


Telfar has plans to open a flagship store in NYC -- hopefully sometime in 2022

In an interview on "The Breakfast Club" radio show, Telfar Clemens revealed that the brand was hoping to open its first flagship store in New York City — hopefully, later in 2022. "There is one coming," Clemens said on the radio show (via Paper Magazine). "We're opening a store this year in New York City and we're still deciding where that's going to be. I don't want to say too much about it, but we're opening a store."


Paper Magazine suggested that some locations being considered include the Seaport area of Manhattan, and Queens, where Clemens is from. Back in 2020, when speaking to The New York Times, Clemens mentioned his desire to open up a store, saying, "Maybe in New Jersey! Queens. American Dream mall. Brooklyn. I would love to ignore Manhattan."

While it's not confirmed exactly where or when the store will open up for business, it's clear that a flagship is next on the docket for the Telfar brand. Hopefully, a brick-and-mortar location will make it that much easier for fans of the brand to get their hands on a "Bushwick Birkin" of their very own.