Telfar Clemens Ushers NYFW into the Future

Those who attended last night’s Telfar fashion show at Spring Studios might have caught a glimpse into NYFW’s future; or, at least one of its possible evolutions. As designers explore new ways of presenting their collections and brands struggle to gain (or retain) attention for their products, the manner in which Telfar Clemens – the Liberian-American designer behind Telfar – chose to share his collection felt as original as it did nonchalant.

TELFAR FW18 show in New York. Picture courtesy of Regis Colin Berthelier.

“Instead of a runway, we are throwing a concert,” read the show notes. “Instead of using musicians for their celebrity – we are seeking a core musicality that is shared and human.” A memorable concert and a collective experience it certainly was. Two unique things were immediately noticed as one walked into the gallery: there were hardly any seats (and those available were reserved) and there was a round stage in the middle of the room with only a piano on it. The audience naturally began rounding up around the stage, waiting for the show to begin, much like they would at a concert (and certainly not at a traditional runway show, especially in this venue, where everyone must be seated and quiet before it all can finally begin).

In this case, the show began when the singer, producer, and composer Dev Hynes – better known as Blood Orange – calmly walked out from backstage (sporting the opening look of Telfar’s collection) and made his way to the stage, sitting at the piano and starting the performance.  He was shortly followed by a few more musicians and a slew of vocalists – some professionals, others not, but all unquestionably talented – which included Kelsey Lu, Alton Mason (in fact, a model), 070 Shake, Walter Pierce, Oyinda, and the incredible and very in vogue singer-songwriter Kelela.

Over the course of 20 or so minutes, directed by Hood by Air’s Ian Isiah, the musicians performed a song by Hezekiah Walker called “Grateful,” singing one after another as they took turns walking out of backstage, through the crowd, and onto the stage. In unison they sang the chorus, walking back and forth, sporting what the notes described as “combo-garments” and cut-away pieces which included leg-warmer jeans, a turtleneck halter, and a distinctive backless sweater-vest. It was a scene to be seen and, certainly, a concert to be heard.

We caught up backstage with a joyful and celebrated Clemens after the show to talk about what had just taken place, why less is more, and the need to make fashion less intimidating.

TELFAR FW18 show in New York. Picture courtesy of Regis Colin Berthelier.

What was tonight about?

We wanted to have a concert, or some sort of experience that was based around music, joining people together who would never have collaborated on a song together. We wanted to include different ranges of fame, of talent, and musical backgrounds.

Yet it was fluid and harmonious sonically, but also in terms of their stage presence.

In a way, the idea is to make that statement, to state that. A lot of difference makes for a great outcome, for a unique greatness, you know?

Was there an inspiration for the collection?

Our theme this season was “Rock” and how ubiquitous that genre has become. Everyone is “Rock”…a grandma can be “Rock”…like everyone is a ‘rocker’ when it comes to clothing. When you start to dissect that aesthetic and actually apply it to our clothes, we just thought it was quite funny and very fitting for a runway show….  

Funny but also quite clever…

Yeah! We payed attention to details for sure… The show, for instance, even followed the same sequence that a concert like this would have, but it also followed the sequence of a runway show. It opened with piano, the first outfit, and then the second part was the bass player, then the guitar came out, followed by the first voice, and the next one…. 

TELFAR FW18 show in New York. Picture courtesy of Regis Colin Berthelier.

What’s interesting is that the sequence worked on both levels, for the way in which the looks were shown one after another, but also the way in which the different artists layered upon each other as they came out and got on stage.


Did you come up with the sequence?

Not really… Ian Isiah and Dev Hynes did, along with everyone else really. I mean, in terms of the concert it was really their collaboration, their doing.

The concert was quite something and, I must admit, at first and again towards the end, I had a hard time focusing on the clothes…

(laughs) That's how we wanted it to be!

Was there a defining look this evening, one that maybe encapsulates what the collection means?

All of them! Every piece! Everything is elevated right now. We're thinking about things in a different way where less is more…where less is almost greater. You pay more attention to more than one thing. It’s a whole. We want our clothes to have a context that comes with an experience. “Oh, I went to this thing and the clothing is cool because...” It’s not your typical fashion show where it’s one look after another like, “oh, there is one look number one and then there’s that person and that paid celebrity.” We collaborated with people who have other things to do, you know what I mean? They’re super busy with their own projects and they were like, "nah, I want to do this show."

An interesting way to organize and interpret a fashion show, especially considering the increasing experimentation that is going on with formats these days during NYFW. Yet, as you describe it, it doesn’t seem like a forced attempt, or even an attempt to replace a traditional format. It’s more like natural evolution…

Yeah. I'm the Fashion Week footprint. I’m releasing a collection and I'm releasing it on individual people who are just beautiful in their own way, and literally showed you the clothes.

And NYFW week acts as a framework for that?

Well, I made it a framework for that.

2017 was a great year for you and, among many other accomplishments, last November you won the coveted CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, which represents close to half a million dollars; by most standards a nice chunk of change. Has this had a major impact on how you work, in your process?

For sure, I’ve been working really hard on the collection…everything fits, I can focus on the looks and the fabrics…I can actually use real leather now! (laughs) It also gives me the opportunity to focus on specifics and the detailing is really on point now. It’s basically allowing us to elevate what we have been doing since the beginning. Nowadays, I get to work with a design team and I get to make more than one sample of something before it hits the runway. It’s great.

TELFAR FW18 show in New York. Picture courtesy of Regis Colin Berthelier.

And speaking of things happening for you in 2017, how was it working with Century 21? (Clemens designed a capsule collection specifically for Next Century, a sister concept store nestled inside downtown’s Century 21)

Oh my God, I love them! It was amazing… I pretty much chose my college based on where Century 21 was. I went to Pace University downtown, because it was next to this store where you could find and look at almost every single designer, and you get it for a cheap price. That’s what I would do between classes. I’d just go and literally switch up price tags. (laughs) If a Comme des Garçons jacket was too expensive, I’d find another tag. Or if it was just the right price, I’d buy and return. Honestly, it was almost meant to be…. Babak Radboy [Telfar’s creative director] and I had been working on that Century 21 logo two years ago, way before it became the final logo for the capsule collection. Like, we had created this way before we even started to work with Century 21.

You’ve mentioned Telfar being “horizontal, democratic and universal” – what does that mean today?

It means our brand includes everyone; we try to be really inclusive about it all. If you like me, I like you. It’s not about how much money or how many followers you have, or anything. If you’re cool, you’re cool. I want to keep things spread out so that anyone can afford some of our clothes. Fashion is all based on intimidation…maybe initially you might be intimidated but then you look at the price and you think, “oh, ok, I can buy that….I can afford it,” and you become part of this too.


See Telfar's full FW18 show in New York here.