NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 12: Telfar Clemens speaks during a presentation for Telfar during NYF...
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Black In Fashion Spotlight: Telfar Clemens Is Redefining The Industry’s Idea Of Luxury

With viral handbags and prolific collaborations, Telfar Clemens is a name you can’t help but to know.

As one of fashion’s most talked-about designers in recent years, Telfar Clemens is building his brand around race, gender, and financial inclusivity, and it’s redefining the meaning of luxury one drop at a time.

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Telfar Clemens, both the designer and his eponymous label, became a household name among fashion aficionados seemingly overnight. But as it turns out for the designer, acceptance into the luxury fashion space didn’t come quickly.

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Born in New York, Clemens lived a short period of his childhood in his parents’ native country of Liberia, before returning back to New York at age five where he would later fall in love with fashion during high school.

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Fans know Clemens as a designer today, but his first stint in fashion was actually modeling in 2002. A year later, Clemens would professionally try his hand at apparel for the first time, selling deconstructed and revamped vintage styles out of boutiques around New York.

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While studying accounting at Pace University, Clemens launched Telfar in 2005. Not a far cry from where the brand stands today, it championed unisex designs, individuality, and inclusion of all kinds since its inception.

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To say Telfar later exploded is an understatement — Clemens has since created costumes for Solange’s “An Ode To” performance in 2017, developed a capsule collection with White Castle (donating proceeds to bail funds for imprisoned teenagers), released a hit collaboration with Ugg, and contributed to the 2021 Summer Olympics by designing the Liberia team’s official uniforms.

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Clemens’ widespread recognition may not have come immediately, but it’s safe to say the industry is paying attention now. The 37-year-old designer was named the 2017 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund winner, followed by the 2020 National Design Award for fashion design from Cooper Hewitt, GQ’s 2020 Designer of the Year, and was awarded again by the CFDA in 2020 for his accessories.

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Speaking of award-winning accessories, it was Clemens’ Telfar Shopping Bag, launched in 2014, that undoubtedly skyrocketed his brand through the fashion roof. It has since been named one of Oprah’s Favorite Things, worn by Issa Rae, Dua Lipa, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and more, and, having first gained popularity in Clemens’ home city, has even been dubbed the “Bushwick Birkin.”

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Today, a new Shopping Bag release (which Clemens says generally consists of about 3,000 to 7,000 handbags released multiple times a month) is bound to sell out in minutes. In fact, demand even prompted Clemens to implement pre-ordering strategies, called the Bag Security Program, to allow more eager customers an opportunity to purchase.

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By the end of his (ironically) best year, 2020, global fashion shopping platform Lyst had named Clemens’ handbags one of the most-wanted items of the year. Still, Clemens made it clear that exclusivity has never been his goal, and chooses to keep his items at accessible price points for all to enjoy — a philosophy the designer has held since the beginning.

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It’s hard to imagine that Clemens’ success isn’t a direct correlation to what appears to be his values, community, and acceptance, and it’s been made clear by his brand tagline all along: “Not for you, for everyone.”

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Read the rest of our ‘Black In Fashion Spotlight’ series on: André Leon Talley, Virgil Abloh, June Ambrose, Dapper Dan, and Ruth E. Carter.

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