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Telfar AW18 Look book
Telfar AW18 lookbookPhotography Jason Nocito

Telfar Clemens on walking the line between art and fashion

The designer sits down with creative director Babak Radboy at their democratic discount retailer pop-up

Century 21 is a discount clothing store in downtown Manhattan, blocks away from the World Trade Centre. As a teenager, Telfar Clemens used to shop there for European fashion labels. Now, the American designer (and recent recipient of the CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund) is hosting a conceptual showroom – a self-described ‘democratic fashion experience’ – there. Instead of playing host to a stream of picky buyers from high-end stores, the public pop-up allows customers who come by to vote via Instagram for the clothes from his forthcoming collection they’d most like to see made and sold.

Stacks of old-school box televisions that wouldn’t be out-of-place at an art school warehouse party explain how this all works in flashing white letters. Androgynous mannequins with Telfar’s face – one of which lounges topless at the back of the store – wear clothes that look like distressed, evil spin-offs of the thermal-heavy, American Eagle lines ubiquitous at shopping malls in the early 2000s. And all of this happens in a showroom on the second floor of a discount clothing store, or, as the Telfar promo material calls it, the ‘final resting place for all fashion.’ It’s this heady mix of concept, humor and unabashed new-media marketing that makes Telfar such a unique and beloved figure in today’s fashion world. He’s America’s preeminent truly conceptual designer.

Babak Radboy is his Malcolm McLaren, a flame-throwing impresario, jester, spin-man and press-friendly extrovert. The two make a comfortable yin-yang of personality types. Clemens is softly-spoken, introverted and observant, carefully clad in garments from his collection. Radboy is warm and welcoming, and has an easy way with words, bandying about the kind of bombastic and intentionally controversial, quote-ready phrases that journalists love. Below, they tell us more about the pop-up exercise – as well as the recent AW18 show-slash-concert, and the changing landscape of American avant-garde fashion.

Can you explain what Century 21 is to readers who don’t know or don’t live in New York?

Telfar Clemens: Century 21 is the designer discount store. I mean, they have everything. I used to shop here all the time. Basically buy, return, buy, return. They have this entire European designer section so you could get that and then you could get Haynes, and you could get a microwave. So like a one-stop shop.

Babak Radboy: It was a place where you could buy a microwave and Helmut Lang –

Telfar Clemens: – and some cocoa butter.

Babak Radboy: For 90 dollars. The best prices. And a lot of actually cool people are not shoppers, they do not have money. A DJ does not have money to buy some $900 jacket. This is where you got everything. So for a lot of people, this is just a part of growing up and trying to be cool in New York when you moved here.

Tell us about the concept for the pop-up showroom?

Telfar Clemens: Well it’s really like the customers choose what we put in the stores and what we produce from the new collection.

Babak Radboy: Or at least they have a voice in it. It came from the fact that we don’t follow trends, we don’t look like anything else and we’re making unisex. We’re the only brand of our kind in so many ways. That’s cool for press but stores are like ‘Where do I put this? What floor, even? Do I have to build a little, short floor between men’s and women’s? And is it streetwear? Is it contemporary? Is it luxury?’ So as much as people like the brand, I think we have to have our own communication to customers about what it is – it’s its own category.

Is this also a reaction to past seasons where you felt buyers didn’t pick some of the items you would’ve liked to produce?

Telfar Clemens: I think it’s a progression. Y’know, like, ‘Damn, we didn’t sell anything at that store the season before.’ And it’s basically that they didn’t buy the right stuff. So it looks bad on us. We just want to avoid that.

Babak Radboy: Or the opposite. Like the thigh-hole jeans. When we made that buyers were like, ‘No one’s going to wear that great runway piece.’ But they sold out over and over. This way people can actually be like, ‘Oh my god, that’s cute.’ And then I can show the buyer on my phone –

Telfar Clemens: – How many people like it.

“Century 21 was a place where you could buy a microwave and Helmut Lang” – Babak Radboy

How does the fact you just won the Vogue award fit in?

Telfar Clemens: More people are actually giving us that kind of validation – they want to come and see what we have to offer.

Babak Radboy: The timing is really perfect because the industry is super shook, like they don’t know what’s happening, retail is really suffering so everyone is looking for what they’re supposed to do. And I think that we’re small enough that, it’s not like we’re risking our account at Barney’s if we do a thing at Century 21. Everybody just likes it. This would be a huge, huge faux pas maybe a year ago or a year from now, but right now –

Telfar Clemens: – Right now, it’s good timing.

Can we talk about the runway show? What was the concept behind it?

Telfar Clemens: It was a concert. We want to start having experiences instead of shows.

Babak Radboy: And eventually not adhere to the season, but just make an album or do a tour. It kind of started because we’re unisex. We go on tour essentially with one collection. European men’s to European women’s to New York women’s to European men’s. It feels like you’re just going on tour. And then we were like, literally, let’s go on tour.

Telfar Clemens: And actually bring really cool people and friends of ours to do cool things.

There’s a cast of people that we’ve grown used to seeing at your shows, artists like Ryan Trecartin and musicians like Kelela. What does community mean to you and to the label?

Telfar Clemens: It’s people that really understand who the clothes are made for.

Babak Radboy: But also who the clothes are made by. Cause it’s not like we have some corporate office and have an HR person finding people for us. It’s a different environment that we’re working in that’s based around friendship and –

Telfar Clemens: – Favours and believing in it and –

Babak Radboy: – I’m doing this because this is really good. That’s the way the company works. If it wasn’t good we’d have to pay a different rate and work with shittier people. It’s just a different mode of production that has to do with the fact that people think that we’re doing something important and we think they’re doing something. We’re just all doing good stuff.

I think of the label as coming of age at a really exciting time here in New York City with Dis and Shayne Oliver and Raul Lopez. Is professionalisation and success dampening the chaotic spirit that made that scene so vital?

Babak Radboy: No (laughs).

Telfar Clemens: I don’t think so. I think people are actually getting to do what they want to do and not penny-pinching and kicking themselves after because they spent all their money. I think people are doing things they believe in and just trying to be cooler than they were before.

Babak Radboy: It’s been really hard for all the people you mentioned. It’s not like, ‘Oh it’s the magic of being poor.’ No, it’s like the industry has changed. There’s a certain generation of stylists, photographers, editors who are just like, the Supreme Court. They’re there until they die and then they’re there after they die because they just want other people to be them. I think it’s cool that things feel like they’re starting to actually change. Because for us, I felt like back in 2004 we were ready to do this shit. And we were already doing it and then there’s like the financial crisis and everything just got so conservative and then somehow now, like the shit we were ready to do when we were like 18, is actually possible. Vetements is like shooting Dis lookbooks and they’re like at the top of the industry. So it’s like, ’Okay, cool. Y’all are ready.’ (laughs).

Telfar Clemens: Yeah, I think culture just totally shifted. Our tastes are I guess what people are receptive to.

“You get so much flack for trying to be conceptual in America” – Telfar Clemens

I always thought of Telfar as an equal part art project and fashion line. Is that off-base?

Telfar Clemens: That’s right. We walk the line between art and fashion. It’s definitely not either/or. But I would say it’s a mix of those two things.

Do you think it’s unusual to have a high concept American designer?

Telfar Clemens: It’s so weird (laughs). You get so much flack for trying to be conceptual in America. Whereas it’s celebrated in Europe. But I don’t know. I would just be putting out stupid shit if it actually wasn’t a conceptual brand. It just needs to be new.

You’ve managed to take this ironic, humorous art stance, but also do social-conscious work, like with your work with Riker’s Island inmates. That’s a balance that so few people have managed to do without one negating the other. How do you manage to do that?  

Telfar Clemens: Having character. I think we just do what we believe in. It’s a mix of funny things and good things. And bad things (laughs).