Unisex Fashion Designer Telfar Is Inspired by Himself

We talked to him about the tenth anniversary of his brand and his upcoming collection.

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Feb 13 2015, 5:26pm

Telfar Clemens (right)

Ten years after Queens native Telfar Clemens launched his eponymous fashion brand, Telfar, he got on a plane to Hong Kong to begin the process of creating its 25th collection. He went to the island city looking for inspiration, but settled as he has over the past years, on his "simplex" theme, which takes basics like polos shirts and denim jeans and deconstructs them into his own mutated aesthetic. From far away, Telfar's clothes almost look like something you'd find on a mannequin at Sears, if you stretched them out, cut them up, and placed them on a model with an eerie grin.

Telfar's latest self-titled fall/winter 2015 ready-to-wear collection will be presented on Sunday during New York Fashion Week at Artists Space in Tribeca. The magic of this season lies in the designer's ability to re-imagine the ordinary features of clothing—like the way he transforms tags, belt loops, and the built-in cuffs into peculiar pockets. It's these kinds of small, odd flourishes that make his garments unique and highly sought-after. The collection will feature lots of black corduroy fabrics, and at least one thigh-high jean look, all worn by his usual crew of multiracial models.

As it has been for the past couple of years, Telfar is presenting one of the most anticipated shows of the season, helping shift influence away from the storied fashion houses showing at Lincoln Center to the independent brands of Downtown Manhattan. I had the opportunity to catch up with the designer to discuss how his brand has evolved over the decade, racism in the fashion industry, and what it was like creating a collection inspired by himself.

Telfar spring/summer 2014 looks.

VICE: What's the inspiration behind this season's collection?
Telfar: We are inspired by ourselves. This collection will reference past seasons. This is the ten-year anniversary of the brand. We are looking at things we did in the first show styling-wise and shifting some of the concepts from the past and fusing them into the "simplex" aesthetic.

Your clothes are unisex—why is that important for you as opposed to doing menswear and womenswear separately?
It's how I dress. When I was younger, I would find a nice shirt and my mom would be like, "That's in the women's section." So I always thought that things that are trendy are geared toward woman first then men later. So in my line, I change the size and not the design because I believe if it looks good on you, it's for you. I want people to make up their own mind about what they like.

I know you DJ a lot of parties downtown and in Brooklyn. Does music also influence how you design?
It's my environment. It's where I am and I'm very much Downtown. And that has definitely fused itself into the brand. But the brand is for everyone. It's not really about the scene. It can be for a 50-year-old man or a five-year-old child. The only thing that is important about the clothes is that they are recognizably Telfar.

What makes the clothes recognizably Telfar?
It's the details. You would see a certain pocket you wouldn't see anywhere else. All the pockets on my clothes are placed in spots where they would have to have two functions. The belt loops on my jeans are pockets as well. The tags in the clothes are pockets. The cuffs in the jeans from this season are pockets. Any little detail you see this season is more than likely a pocket. I have shirt with black-and-white stripes and one of the stripes is a pocket. There is a knit sweater in this collection that has a big waistband and it's so big because it is a pocket.

A design from 2010

A design from 2011

You always cast a very diverse group of models. Is that purposeful?
It's purposeful in the way that fashion is for everybody. I hate it that there are dynamics that goes against that in a weird way. Being diverse is the future. It is also representative of what the brand is.

Have you experience any personal racism in the industry?
In the way that people would sometimes be like, "Oh, you are black?" They wouldn't think that I made this brand. In the younger days of the brand, VICE had a store on Lafayette Street in the early 2000s, and they were the first store to start selling my stuff. I remember people in the store who would say things like, "Oh, that Japanese line."

Why do you think it was hard for them to consider that a black dude was behind Telfar?
It wasn't hard. It's just when people think of a black designer, they expect for it to have a hip-hop influence. Or they want it to have a street edge—they want a TV representation of what a black line is. They just think of Puffy. I think of my line as encompassing everything.

Do the people, who say, "Oh this has to be Japanese because there isn't a street element to your clothes" disappoint you?
It's an assumption that doesn't necessarily have an effect on me.

Spring/summer 2015 behind-the-scenes photo

When you give interviews, do you often get questions about your race?
Yeah, I guess so. There is always this question of how I feel about being a black designer. And I'm like, I feel great. There have been tons of great black designers and they might not be put in the forefront, but they are important.

I asked you that because white designers or artists don't get that question. It seems like a burden only designers of color have to carry. I know for you being a designer is about the clothes and it has very little to do with your ethnic background, but for some reason people want to reduce it to that.
The thing that kind of annoys me about it is that they want this story and it can't just be about me making a really cool jacket. It has to be about the jacket somehow being about where I'm from. I do think this question is very important this year because things have boiled over and have become overtly racist.

Switching over a bit, color seems to be important to you, this season are we getting more color?
Black actually was a big color for me this season. It's something I have been getting into again. I have been ignoring the color black for a lot of seasons.

Is that because it's a fall/winter vibe?
I think it's about the fact that I'm influenced by the idea of what people think is fashion and twisting it. What people generally think to be fashion is black.

Your runway presentations are legendary. What can we expect?
A return to Telfar, and it's a testament to ten years of growth. And corduroy made a huge come back this season. Corduroy everything and denim everything, but the theme is Telfar.

A spring/summer 2015 look

Spring/summer 2015 behind-the-scenes photo

A spring/summer 2015 look

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