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Head of Telfar Clemens, from the Shanzhai Biennial studioPhotography by Harry Griffin

Telfar Clemens vs Babak Radboy

The pioneering designer and his creative director look back on almost ten years of Telfar – and discuss how a decade-old brand stays so ahead of the zeitgeist that it's always pigeonholed as 'emerging'

As part of our new summer US project States of Independence, we've invited our favourite 30 American curators, magazines, creatives and institutions to take over Dazed for a day. Today, kicking off our State of Fashion week, it’s the turn of Telfar – the NYC-based brand pioneering the 'Extremely Normal™' and using the digital in ways that are lightyears ahead of anyone else. Watch out for hacks around the site and a pop quiz with brand founder Telfar Clemens.

Comparing Telfar to any other brand is impossible. Its collections, campaigns and presentations have broken each respective mold consistently since 2006 – so aggressively, in fact, that fashion journalists have always found it difficult to keep up. “It’s constantly ‘emerging designer,’” founder/designer Telfar Clemens says of the press he usually receives. “It’s so fresh to you that I don’t exist. I’ve never existed. We’re kind of into it.” Collaborator Babak Radboy was not, however, into the almost ten-year-old project going unnoticed yet another year, and so for their SS14 collection, he took matters into his own hands, starting with Telfar the avatar: a clapping gif of Clemens found on emailed invitations. “I saw this amazing thing happening without any press, in a windowless room without air conditioning, as if it’s not happening at all,” says Radboy of the impetus for working with Clemens. “Telfar was getting the worst of both [the art and fashion] worlds.” For the AW14 show, a seven-foot tall Telfar stood above a K-Mart-sponsored runway show/pop-up in New York’s New Museum. How it all came together? Simple. The two found a popular model found in fashion marketing, and blatantly exploited it.

“It’s a lot of tricks,” says Clemens. “It looked like we rented out that entire museum, but it was only two floors. The perception of it is bigger than what’s there, which is exactly what fashion is.” In short, once Radboy signed on, Clemens finally came to terms with the idea of faking it until he made it. “It’s happening now,” says Radboy, a visual artist know for pitting the media against itself, so to speak – usually resulting in complete opacity.We’re getting the stockists because people think we have the stockists.”

“All the cities on all our ads, we don’t sell stuff there at all,” Clemens laughs. “It’s just an alphabetical list of cities.” 

“Because we love the global lifestyle,” Radboy adds. “It’s also not a put-on. You all of a sudden become a conservative by not doing things. We want to be our own Diesel, our own Prada Group, and buy ourselves out and make a business that actually works. The thing we always say is that our medium is compromise. We’re not fighting compromise; compromise is a place where you can do really weird shit.”

“For our lookbook,” says Clemens. “He Photoshopped Rihanna wearing this shirt. That’s the stupid way the fashion industry works. Ten years ago, if you made a good shirt, people would say: That’s a good shirt. You didn’t need Rihanna to tell you it’s a good shirt. I’m sending that to [Rihanna’s stylist] Mel Ottenberg and he’s looking at it and he’s like: I did not put Rihanna in that. I went to China and people were like: Oh yeah, Kanye West is wearing your stuff, right? And I’m just like: I guess.” 

To talk to the people behind Telfar and to actually see the pieces are disparate, jarring experiences. Clemens, Radboy, and past collaborators – artists Lizzie Fitch, Ryan Trecartin, Fatima Al Qadiri, Jaiko Suzuki, and DIS Magazine, to name a few – would describe the line now as something of a ploy, creating mass-marketable “Extremely Normal™” basics, with a twist. And yet the best-selling Telfar items so far have a similarly deconstructionist production model as early Maison Martin Margiela, with a similarly niche fan base as that of Bernadette Corporation’s conceptual clothing line. Here’s another clue as to why journalists can’t wrap their minds around Telfar: Clemens himself moves in and out of an appreciation for its inherent context – even throughout our conversation – admitting one minute he loves fashion and hates the art world, and the next, that he hates fashion and that his concepts can only exist in art spaces. For a long overdue look at the label and all of its iterations, Babak Radboy and Telfar Clemens sat down to try and define the clothing line and the phenomenon that is Telfar.

Babak Radboy: You were an Anchor Baby.

Telfar Clemens: I was. That’s when you have a baby here, and take them back to your home country so that you’re a citizen. That’s how my parents are here. But I was born in Queens [New York] and raised in Liberia, West Africa. We moved back here in 1990 when the civil war happened. In 1995, we moved to Maryland. I moved back to New York literally the day after high school was over.

BR: How old were you when you did the first collection?

TC: I think I was 19. But I started the line when I was 15. In high school people would give me their jeans and I would cut them for fifteen bucks. Back then, I used to take [my own style] so seriously, I would fail every single test when my parents would try to get me into private school. I would go A, A, A, A, A all the way down the placement test, because I didn’t want to wear a uniform.

Did people give you shit for what you wore?

TC: It was just like: Faggot. But if nobody said anything about my outfit, I would be like: Okay, something’s really normal and that has to change. And in college, professors would be talking to me, my ass completely out. 

BR: What was your GPA? 

TC: 3.8. Pace University, class of 2008. Yeah, I was getting my business degree the same time I was doing the business. I didn’t learn anything because everything was happening at the same time.

How old were you when you signed to New York Models?

TC: I was 18. I did stuff for like, Dazed, actually. I think the only job I had outside of that was consulting for Earnest Sewn. I had to stand in the store and wear jeans, for 25 dollars an hour. When I started wearing Helmut Lang to work, that’s when they were like: Okay, this is not working.

You never went to fashion school?

TC: I never went to fashion school. Maybe I hate fashion. Around 2009, I was a lot more interested in art than fashion. I hated fashion around that time. I don’t know if I still do. I didn’t want to do a runway show where people were just like, walking, so I started to do exhibitions. Money was also super tight, because the recession was around that time. I remember pre-recession, I was actually comfortable. I had a huge Japanese following. I got a distributor that was putting my stuff into a lot of stores in Japan, and then once the recession hit, they went out of business. I had tons of accounts, but all these stores don’t exist anymore. The triple T-shirt was what was selling the most. It is still, actually. I used to make these pants that were tops. They were these drop-crotch pants that you could unzip, and it’s a jacket. That’s why I would make a video before anything, because I just don’t feel like anyone would understand what the fuck was going on with the collection if they didn’t see that. I wanted to make stuff that just didn’t exist. That was the whole point of the collection in the first place.

Did the early pieces have the same tag that you use now?

TC: I would autograph my tags. It was always that logo. When I first came to this country in 1991, my English was so bad that I had to take this class, it was the class where you just learn basic things. Because in Africa you don’t have the same words, they speak in older English. Americans were like: What are you saying? And I couldn’t understand what they were saying either. It sounded like they were singing! So, I used to have to take this class, just basic American shit. But they give you a symbol as part of this point system and that was the symbol that they gave me, it was like a T and C. This was in Queens, at P.S. 206.

When was your first fashion show? 

TC: Vice Magazine did my first fashion show, and they had a store on Lafayette Street in the early 2000s, where I’d sell my clothes. They did a voguing battle. I think it was at the Ukranian National Home. They had my line battle another line, and the show was called “Vice Is Burning.” I dressed the House of Ninja, with Willi Ninja, who passed away shortly after that. Then, in 2006, GenArt took me on as their Fresh Face designer. That was at Lincoln Center, I think. After that, I started doing two shows a year. I’d do stuff like rent out a movie theater and show the video on loop. The first independent runway show outside of anything sponsored was with Spencer Sweeney. He gave me his apartment in 2007 to do my first runway show that people could come to. Because GenArt was really industry, and your friends couldn’t come.

Do Vice still cover your shows?

TC: Actually, their last review was pretty good. 

BR: It was just the word Telfar over and over again with different punctuation marks. 

TC: Around 2009, I started to do things that were halfway [art] and halfway [fashion]. I wanted it to be an exhibition but at the same time it had to last for four days because I didn’t have a showroom and I needed people to buy stuff. It came to that. I was in Paris. My first presentation there was in 2011. That’s when Lizzie Fitch created Shop Mobile for me. It was like a showroom setting/exhibition/fashion show. Then, in 2013, I completely hated the art world. I love fashion now. For my AW13 collection I created the video game. It came out a month before and anybody that played the game got a chance to put together a look that could potentially win and be a look that we’ll put on the runway. I think there were 33 winners.

What’s Telfar’s goal now? 

TC: I’m separating the brand into so many different things. Maybe 20 years from now I’m just making bed sheets. Whatever is actually making the most money. I love to make clothes, but I am very business-oriented. I’m like: I should make a nail polish…

Have you made a nail polish? 

TC: Well, it’s coming, it’s coming. We’re making a new fragrance, so I’m moving into the beauty industry now. Last season we made toys. The long-term goal is for you to be listening to Telfar music, having some chips from the Telfar store. I got my gas from Telfar!

BR: Well, that’s the thing. You don’t design clothes with a mind towards business at all. The only thing you do is slow down, but that’s something that you’ve only learned to do over time. That means not launching new ideas because you still need to reiterate the last one. 

TC: Yeah, we’ve got sixty different projects, but I don’t know if they can come out now. Nobody gets it. People still don’t get what we did last season, until the video comes out. It’s not necessarily the easiest thing to get into a store when people are just looking for a black shirt. I think when I first started designing there was no point in me making a basic. Who wants a fucking tank top that I made, with nothing on it? I would go for the craziest thing earlier in my career – it’s a trench coat/jumpsuit/this thing/that thing. Right now I’m like: It’s a T-shirt that has a logo on it. I don’t have that thing right now where I’m like: That’s not smart enough. I’m like: Actually that’s the smartest thing, because that’s what that person wants to buy. They don’t want a trench coat/jumpsuit, they want a shirt that has a logo on it.

BR: That’s why Get the LOOK™ is one of the best examples of how it works. It’s this really conceptual thing but it demonstrates itself. We literally sell more pictures of those pants than the pants themselves. It’s a real business model, and if it didn’t actually work it wouldn’t be interesting. That’s the place where compromise becomes the actual medium to demonstrate something, and the market becomes your gallery. It also means that the campaign launches the same day as the show.

TC: T-Shirts come out the same day. There’s a whole other line that’s just merchandise for when you get to the show.

How often do you see people knocking you off?

TC: It used to happen a lot. I made these sarong shorts one time that you tie. A few brands…it was like, direct. Really literal. With the same print. All of these really weird lines that Opening Ceremony would carry and then they actually started to carry my line because I was like: You guys are playing games. Why are you carrying this line that’s like, those jeans that I made that were double-layered. I was like: Okay it’s war. But there’s no way around certain things, and that’s not the only idea I have. I don’t take things like that personally. It’s fashion; everything comes from something.

You have never catered to women the way your competitors have.

TC: Yeah, that’s a huge setback and it’s also the thing that pushed me forward. This doesn’t exist yet for a man. And that’s still kind of my place, I think.

BR: I think it was that show with the crowd-sourced collection that made me so pissed off that this was all happening without any press. I had just finished this Shanzai project where I was working with art and fashion, but playing them off of each other in a way where they work both to your advantage. And Telfar, on the other hand, was getting the worst of both worlds. We started working together after that. Summer 2014 was our first collection.

TC: You had to talk me into a lot of things. Me putting my face on a t-shirt was one; me being in the video was two. 

BR: But it was about doing the most offensive things possible. Offensive to us. My argument was that if you withdraw yourself from it, you’re always going to be the real Telfar behind the brand, but if you put yourself forward in a way that’s totally false, you’re always protected, because people have a decoy Telfar. We have different groups of people who are interested in our work separately and I’ve definitely talked to people who thought that you were a made up person – that I made you up, a complete avatar.

TC: And I want to continue to have that presence. What do I like? I don’t like anything. You don’t know anything but what we show you, which is me smiling and clapping. The same goes for DJing. You wouldn’t even know I was a DJ if you didn’t go to a club, because I’m not posting that. 

BR: Before we started working together, we’d do stuff together, and you’d tell me to pick something from the collections. I’d always want something from three years ago. And I realised that I’m not ready for this stuff that you just made. It’s because you’re doing something that’s so authentically new, it’s not part of the zeitgeist.

TC: The new collection is self-referencing. I’ve created my own language, thanks to you. These last two years are just actually looking at what I’ve made – because I usually don’t look back, I just start making a new thing. But everything we’re doing now is actually a combination of all of these things. All of our references didn’t come from anywhere else but us.

BR: We even did smiling in New York. No one was smiling before we started smiling. I think it’s cute though, because the point is that it’s not happening in this vulnerable underground that’s ripe for mining.

TC: Also, a lot of these themes just come from wanting to get rich immediately. Oh, people are into organic now? Like, I hate recycling, but I’ll be organic… 

BR: The whole strategy with the branding is to create representations of the things that are made and to encode them immediately into images. We’re literally selling Get the LOOK™ as a picture of the clothes so you can like the clothes without buying them. The actual result of the strategy is that Telfar, through the branding, actually doesn’t have to think about branding. You can actually design whatever you want. I don’t even care what you design. The campaigns have nothing to do with clothes. We’re creating a brand that’s free-floating from the actual content. 

TC: The content actually turned into two different brands, too. Right now there’s the shirt that says, Customer/Model. We wanted to do this Idiocracy thing, where you see 60 people and they just have on this shirt that says Customer. If you fell asleep for 10 years and woke up and saw that you’d be like: What the hell is going on? That’s my world. That’s how I look at stuff. I’m like: There’s 60 people that are wearing that same army jacket with leather sleeves from H&M and they’re all walking down Broadway all at the same time. That’s what I want to do. I’m not running away from it, 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.

“I want to be Michael Kors, but on purpose.” – Telfar Clemens

BR: Like, the buttons on the new jeans say Button.

TC: This whole season is just owning all of my themes and actually putting it out there that I did that. Patent-pending is our favorite thing right now. All my belt loops and all my details in the new video – because you can’t tell what the function of something is until you actually see how it works – we’re focusing on those. This season is upgrading the quality and not necessarily reinventing the wheel. People expect you to keep doing the same shit each season anyway – even though Louis Vuitton and Chanel don’t do that at all. If you put out something different each season as a young designer, they’re like: I don’t know where you’re going. That’s what this season’s about.

Is it about getting back at all the people who took your ideas?

TC: I mean, not even. Okay, I made that belt-loop pocket; don’t touch it, that’s mine. I want patent-pending on the video. Jeremy Scott, I’m sorry. I was wearing that plastic Thank You bag I made when he was at my party. It’s just kind of an annoying thing when someone else gets it. And in New York, people are very conscious of where things come from. But the rest of the world is like: Jeremy Scott did that.

BR: But that’s the thing. It doesn’t matter if an actual coat is a different coat because it’s the entire attitude. We like to look at things that happen on accident and do them on purpose. One great model is Dirk Bikkembergs, who is a genius designer. But, if you look at his brand now, it’s really hard to tell if it’s in horrible taste or not. And you look at who buys his brand and it’s people in the developing world who love soccer. It’s the most out-gay collection, selling to straight soccer fans in China. It’s an accident, but let’s do that on purpose.

TC: I’m more inspired by the girl walking down the street than looking at Instagram. It’s about that dirty girl over there, in those tacky K-mart shoes.

Has it always been New York?

TC: Actually, yeah. When I got back from China, I figured out exactly what I wanted out of this collection. I’m looking on the [New York Subway], and there’s literally seven people here with distressed jeans on. That’s still a thing. And there’s six people wearing a biker jacket right now. That’s still a thing. That’s how I start to compile a collection. Everybody wearing those Tory Burch flats. It’s a really thin line, between what I hate and what I hate so much I love it. I like where fashion is right now. You could be watching Ellen and there’s some guy wearing a Rick Owens skirt and spiked jacket. It’s Mad Max. It’s a grandma wearing a jacket that’s tattered and ripped and short, and then she has on these crazy heels with spikes on them, and leggings that you can see completely straight through. There’s applique, and there’s shoulder harnesses, and you can get that at H&M. And nobody knows what decade it is, or what they like. I don’t know what I like.

BR: And nobody’s great. There’s no more great.

TC: Karl Lagerfeld’s great. I love Karl Lagerfeld. He’s the youngest designer in the world. I love Vivienne Westwood. I love Gaultier.

Do you think the fashion world has changed, or have you changed, in order to accept it again?

TC: Fashion’s always been the same. I hate fashion people. Nobody involved in fashion has good style.

BR: The people holding these positions have nothing to do with the history of the form. They don’t share any of the pleasure.

TC: They’re just wearing whatever they get sent. I mean, I’m guilty too. I have no problem with that. I just know the game. Don’t try to like act like you know what clothes are. If everything is out of a box, that’s a gift. People that I respect are people that would steal something. That’s my customer. 

BR: For me, fashion is people who are doing something fucking insane. Being a fashion designer and trying to survive is fucking crazy. Being an artist, on the other hand, is the laziest most self-important thing you could ever imagine doing. It’s so full of bold, up front, hypocrisy. Being a fashion designer is like being a saint. Yohji Yamamoto is like a living saint who has no part in the world around him. It’s like being Cinderella. Your mom and your stepsisters all hate you because you’re so beautiful. 

TC: I couldn’t imagine doing another job. I thought I would be rich right now. When I was 15, I thought I would be retired at 30. But there are a million other things I need to do. I’m looking forward to another 10 years of doing this line. It’s kind of like the first season again. It’s weird. It’s like: Emerging designer!