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New York Designer and DJ Telfar Makes Uniforms for the Club

Venus X, Ma Nguzu, and Joey LaBeija headlined Telfar's White Castle afterparty this week. Here, he tells us how his club kid days shaped his career in fashion.

by Michelle Lhooq
Feb 18 2016, 6:20pm

Photo by Sam Clarke

Getting into a club in New York these days is kind of like waiting in line for a movie theater—a relatively docile, well-behaved affair, usually involving claiming pre-ordered tickets. But this past Tuesday, at the afterparty for fashion designer Telfar's FW16 runway show, the shitshow on the street was a sight to behold. Surges of club kids in thick winter coats charged the entrance like black waves crashing against a fortress at high tide. Panicked staffers in blue uniforms struggled to keep the doors shut, shouting at everyone to go home. The scent of chicken nuggets curling in the air only added to the surreal pandemonium. I'd never seen anything like it; then again, I'd never been to a party in a White Castle before.

That's right: for the second year in a row, Telfar was holding the afterparty for his NYFW show at a White Castle near Time Square, this time headlined by Venus X, Asma Maroof of Nguzunguzu (AKA Ma Nguzu), and Joey Labeija. When I finally wormed my way inside, I found the fast food chain transformed into a weird, protracted party zone. From behind the cashier counter, Venus X DJed back-to-back with Ma Nguzu, both of them wearing white shirts with the Telfar logo that said: "Customer." The tag team laughed and clutched each other to blasts of jagged synths, pounding subs and thin strips of syrupy vocals—if you closed your eyes, it was just like being at GHE20G0TH1K, but with less cigarette smoke and more fried food.

Telfar's fast food rave could have been a homage to Michael Alig's "outlaw parties" in the 90s, when the notorious club kid and his friends would storm an unsuspecting McDonald's or Dunkin Donuts, dressed in outlandish costumes and blasting music from boomboxes. But the party was also a celebration of the Telfar brand, which puts a rigorously original spin on middle-class workwear while emphasizing functionality, utilitarianism and minimalism. The menu on the backboard displayed designs from the latest collection debuted earlier that evening, which is made from wool, denim and cotton fabrics in shades of brown, black and white, cheekily playing on the idea of "basics"—in both senses of the word.

Telfar's FW16 show (Photo by Sam Clarke)

Pulling open a thick metal door, I wandered into the basement, where Joey LaBeija shot through turn-up club tracks and reggaeton followed by a set of creaking hip-hop from a shirtless, grinning Telfar while everyone dissolved into a mash of sweaty limbs. Eventually, we all wound up back upstairs, everyone giddily savoring the final moments of the party. I spotted Fatima al Qadiri dancing with a White Castle employee in the kitchen as LaBeija hoisted himself up on the counter, grabbed the mic, and started an impromptu chant: Go Venus, that's my DJ, go Asma, that's my DJ... Around 1AM, the fluorescent lights flickered on and we spilled back onto the street.

Telfar is part of a crew of New York artists for whom nightlife is not an escape, but an identity. In the early and mid-2000s, years before his fashion label took off, Telfar would DJ up to five nights a week, often accompanied by his childhood friend and fellow DJ/designer Shayne from Hood By Air. (Shayne was a key member of GHE20G0TH1K, where Telfar would often spin too.) The two of them also threw parties together, including a long-running experimental hip-hop night called Banjii in the Basement at Home Sweet Home on the Lower East Side.

"You know, the club kid and nightlife community is really a meeting place in terms of getting the best talent in the city to be involved in what you're doing," Telfar told me on a Skype call last week from his working space in the New Museum's New Inc, where he was finishing up preparations for his runway show. In the following interview, Telfar reflects on how those wild nights tearing up the town fueled his career as a designer, his long-running collaboration with Fatima Al Qadiri, and the similarities between club wear and work wear.

THUMP: I'd like to start with your earliest days as a club kid. You moved to New York from Liberia as a kid right? What were your first clubbing experiences in New York?

Telfar: I was born here, moved to Liberia, and came back in 1990 when the Liberian Civil War sparked. I was five. I basically live in the same apartment that I came back to. I think the first party I would go to when I was 17 or 18 was Melissa Burns' party at Orchard Bar. That party was where I met a lot of my friends. She used to have one at Marquee as well. That was like, 2003?

From there it was Happy Ending, Lit, Arlene's Grocery, and I used to go to a club called Temperamental, and La Escualita as well. Temperamental used to be gay, black, Latin—it was a mix between a poetry night and a hip-hop dance party. It used to be at a club called Opaline, which was also a really crazy place that was on Avenue A. I don't know what it's called now.

(Photo by Sam Clarke)

It sounds like you were pretty omnivorous when it came to nightlife. You were going to bottle service clubs like Marquee and underground gay clubs like Escuelita.

I remember as a teenager I would mesh with a lot of types of nightlife experiences—house clubs, hip-hop clubs, Latin clubs. Then in my 20s I got sexually overdriven to the point where I'm like, only going to gay clubs. The Internet changed a lot of things too.

How so?

There was a website called Last Night's Party where you would go to see what happened last night. Once you saw an image of a nightclub out in public, it was like, "oh great, that club's over." Back then, you'd be terrified to be in a certain place because it just looks so shady. Now, people know what to expect. I just remember you would not take a picture at a club and spend your whole night retaking that picture. It was actually like, "you've lost your phone that night!" So even the fact of remembering what happened last night was a lot different.

How did your career as a designer grow out of these clubbing experiences?

I started designing my line when I was 15, and nightlife really did pay for a lot of how that happened. I would DJ three or four nights a week just to be able to do a collection and actually live in New York and be an independent gentleman. DJing also got me around the world and helped me to meet other people.

What sort of parties or clubs were you playing in when you started DJing?

I had my own parties. I would play Happy Ending on Thursday. I used to do a party with Timmy D that was called Something Tight.

That's the party where you met Ryan Trecartin right?

He would come to my party, and a lot of people would also guest DJ, like Kingdom and Shayne from Hood By Air. Me and Shayne had several parties together, including an experimental hip-hop and R&B one called Banjii in the Basement at Lucky Cheng's that moved to Home Sweet Home. I used to do The Cock on Wednesdays, and then on the weekend I used to do Mr. Black with Michael Magnan and Ladyfag. So I used to be out almost four to five nights per week DJing different parties to make [the label] Telfar happen.

What was your party Something Tight like?

I would always just play what I wanted to play. We would mix up a lot of different vibes so that it was a lot more dance-y or whatever. It was kind of fluid—Courtney Love mixed with Brandy. If you came out to hear me DJ, it's not something that you're going to hear anywhere else. Our thing is to really be like, "OK, now this song?"

It sounds like you were doing the highbrow/lowbrow mashup musically the same way you do stylistically now.

For me everything is highbrow, or just "leveled brow" actually. I can't really tell what's highbrow or lowbrow musically—[the distinction] gets on my nerves. A song from a reality show isn't as good as a song on some indie label? I don't really have those kind of barriers. I understand them, but for me, if she made a hit, she made a hit.

Which is why, I guess, you're throwing a party at White Castle.

Yeah, and the fact that they're just so cool, and the type of company that I want to align myself with. They're a family-owned business and they totally get what I'm trying to do. We're an American, independently-owned business composed of a very small team, and that's how they interact too. To go further with our relationship, I am working with them now on the 95th anniversary White Castle uniforms. It's basically a staple human uniform at the end of the day. I'm repurposing what actual workwear is.

How does the music you hear out influence your designs?

It's a different arena for me when I think about what I do for a show and what I would want to listen to at a club. I always partner with a musician or an artist to make a unique sound inspired by what the clothes look like. I've been working with Fatima al Qadiri, one of my leading collaborators when it comes to music. She categorizes herself as an electronic musician, but I think her scope is way beyond. I think of her as a classical composer in a way, but she does it in the form of electronic instruments. So we kind of riffed off club music, but I want it to sound different than what club music would be.

Did she work with you on the latest collection?

We made over 17 songs together over the past decade for runways shows, along with this new track [for the current season]. Fatima is really protective of her music, she wouldn't even leak it to the press. So we're going to release all of these songs as an album compilation together. It should come out in time for our next runway show, or maybe when we open our store in Berlin.

Oh cool, tell me more about the store?

We're doing a project with DIS magazine and the Berlin Biennale. I'm going to be the head designer of the uniforms for the museum, and I'm going to be exhibiting a new project too. There's going to be a shop that is pretty representative of what my website is, and a lot of my video work.

What were some of your inspirations for the current collection?

I'm always influenced by my past collections and past ideas I've presented. It's teetering on the fence between what's streetwear and what's formal, what's normal and what's extreme. I think that's going to leave a lot [of room] for an extension of the idea of what Telfar is. At the end of the day, I consider it an avant-garde, genderless, utilitarian clothing brand that is influenced by art, with an emphasis on fashion.

Venus X and Ma Nguzu (Photo by The Cobra Snake)

Those three qualities you just mentioned—avant-garde, genderless, utilitarian—are also very applicable to what you want from clubwear. Some people design clubwear that's very ornamented and looks great, but you can't dance in it.

I think this collection is actually for everybody. I'm more like, "you can get that into the club with this outfit" basically [laughs]. Whatever I wear to the club I'm wearing all day long. I think that this collection very much speaks to that kind of attitude, like "I'm going everywhere in this outfit, and I look good anywhere that I go."

Both you and Shayne from HBA are DJs and designers coming from a similar scene. How does his approach to DJing compare to yours? Do you guys go out together all the time?

We're best friends. I mean, we grew up together, he's one of my oldest friends. We definitely have a similar but different language, but I think it totally makes sense. He's my home boy, literally. When it comes to DJing, he has a different type of music that he likes and also mixes things in a nontraditional way that I don't think anyone but he and Venus, and people in the GHE20G0THIK scene do.

Right, their is sort of broken up and choppy.

Yeah, and I love things to sound like it's on Hot 97, and it's mixed almost perfectly. It's funny because they're two very different styles, but at the same time, it's like I'll mix something weird, and it doesn't match until the end, and it's like, "oh shit." But that's what I really respect Shayne's DJing—it doesn't sound like anything anyone else was sounding like, at all. And it still doesn't. When I go to GHE20G0THIK it doesn't sound like any other party.

And that has since spread around the world. Are you going to the GHE20G0THIK party tonight?

Yeah I'll have to sneak out after I'm done here. But I might be setting myself up for trouble if this barn owl won't leave... I am pretty bad these days about being like, "I'm going to go home now [from the party]." So I'm very irresponsible when it comes to that. I'm going to be a real fashion bitch, still out from the night before with the stamp on my hand.

That's what's so great—you're living it. You're not trying to just show up to the party because you want to network. You're there because you enjoy the fucking party.

The last thing I want to do is network. Like when I leave the studio, I want to talk to my actual friends because I don't get to see a lot of people anymore. The less you're in the club scene, the less you get to communicate with your peers. So when I'm out, I don't need anything from anyone. The reason I'm there is either for music, men, or general enjoyment.

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Joey LaBeija