Gay Times Magazine - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy Stevens Anazco Words Dino Bon­ačić Fash­ion Heather New­berger

From hum­ble be­gin­nings in Queens, Tel­far has taken the world by storm with his uniquely sim­ple, uni­sex de­signs. Cham­pi­oning di­ver­sity in all that he does, we get an in­sight into his cre­ative process and his rise to ac­claim.

Be­ing gay in 2018 is sup­posed to be about be­ing free, be­ing proud of who you are with no

con­se­quences for be­ing who you are.

When he was a kid, Tel­far Cle­mens’ mum and dad had some pretty strict ideas of how he should dress. “The clothes I wanted to wear did not ex­ist, es­pe­cially in the menswear mar­ket,” he ex­plains. “I was al­ways at­tracted to the con­cep­tual ad­van­tages that wom­enswear had over menswear, but grow­ing up I wasn’t al­lowed by my par­ents to wear or buy wom­enswear, so I started to make my own clothes – I wanted to make a line that was gen­der­less and spoke to peo­ple like me.” Fast-for­ward a cou­ple of decades, and this idea so sim­ple in its core seems to have snow­balled into some­thing quite ma­jes­tic. Tel­far is on the fore­front of a revo­lu­tion, with his epony­mous la­bel break­ing the ar­chaic stan­dards the fash­ion in­dus­try has set as the norm, and in­fil­trat­ing sub­ver­sive sto­ry­lines into the main­stream con­ver­sa­tion.

Launched in 2003, Tel­far is an ode to its founder’s her­itage. As a fash­ion brand, it cel­e­brates black cul­ture, New York City and queer­ness while push­ing the lim­its of that Venn di­a­gram above and be­yond. Tel­far is about beau­ti­fully de­signed clothes, well-con­structed rein­ter­pre­ta­tions of fa­mil­iar codes of tra­di­tional, cis­gen­der dress­ing with a slight twist. As his for­ma­tive idea of fash­ion came from a per­sonal need for gen­der-bend­ing, Tel­far’s clothes laud the true def­i­ni­tion of uni­sex, and ques­tion the ideas of gen­der in a highly sex­ual (but also sexy) way. And no, it’s not about girls wear­ing over­sized men’s shirts and guys walk­ing around in flo­ral bomber jack­ets. It’s about re­think­ing how dif­fer­ent we imag­ine a ‘male’ ver­sus a ‘fe­male’ wardrobe. It’s about a pair of jeans that look hot on who­ever wears them; a polo t-shirt with a cut-out which gives its owner a sen­sual aura; track­suit bot­toms that feel com­fort­able and look sexy. His clothes were never about avant-garde in a way his peer Shayne Oliver of Hood By Air mar­kets him­self. They are wear­able, just slightly ab­nor­mal.

Yet, look­ing at the hype around streetwearin­spired brands like Off-White and Vete­ments, or just star­ing at the win­dows of H&M and Ur­ban Out­fit­ters, fash­ion seems to have steered into Tel­far’s uni­sex ac­tivewear di­rec­tion. Why now? “I’m not sure, could be a num­ber of rea­sons, but I think it’s mainly a shift in how peo­ple see the world and an ac­tual shift in so­ci­ety. It’s nat­u­ral to just like or ap­pre­ci­ate some things and to just let peo­ple be them­selves and look how they want to look, or feel com­fort­able look­ing.” But what­ever that spark for change is, it’s def­i­nitely one of the rea­sons why Tel­far was re­cently awarded with one of the most pres­ti­gious prizes in the fash­ion in­dus­try.

In Novem­ber 2017, Amer­i­can Vogue’s edi­tor-inchief Anna Win­tour named him the CFDA Vogue Fash­ion Fund win­ner for the year and handed him a check for $400K, both of which of­fered Tel­far a whole new chap­ter. “I can fi­nally start to work like the busi­ness I have dreamed of, and to make the clothes I al­ways wanted to make – all on my own terms,” he says. For the first time, a black de­signer whose brand ethos re­volves around en­joy­ing queer­ness was recog­nised by the in­dus­try that mostly over­looks all of the above. “It felt much bi¢er than just win­ning money, but a new kind of ac­cep­tance and nod to the core val­ues of the brand and the type of peo­ple it rep­re­sents.” Tel­far as a brand is an ode to its founder’s her­itage. Cle­mens is a proud Queens, NY-na­tive who pur­sues the cel­e­bra­tion of his black her­itage with ev­ery­thing he does. He has also been a NYC-fix­ture for years. The fash­ion in­sid­ers knew who he was, the party an­i­mals knew about his leg­endary af­ter-par­ties, and the fast-food lovers all over Amer­ica have prob­a­bly faced his work with­out even know­ing.

“What started as a run­way show spon­sor­ship in 2015 turned into a de­sign part­ner­ship for the new uni­forms in 2017,” Tel­far de­scribes his col­lab­o­ra­tion with Amer­ica’s old­est fast food chain White Cas­tle. An in­cred­i­ble ini­tia­tive had the de­signer cre­at­ing uni­forms for the 400 White Cas­tle lo­ca­tions na­tion­wide and man­u­fac­tur­ing 12,000 sets which are still in use. The (now closed) Times Square branch of the restau­rant was also the home of some of the most no­to­ri­ous New York Fash­ion Week af­ter-par­ties, thanks to Tel­far. “Peo­ple are still talk­ing about them – and YES the burg­ers were free. Ev­ery­thing was free and re­ally fun,” the de­signer rem­i­nisces. But it wasn’t just about fun and games. The uni­form col­lab­o­ra­tion also launched a line of White Cas­tle x Tel­far merch on the fash­ion brand’s web­site (it’s cur­rently sold out), with 100 per cent of the prof­its help­ing to bail mi­nors from Rik­ers Is­land jail, which is in­fa­mous for lock­ing up young black men. This level of high-im­pact com­mu­nity work that Tel­far achieves with his fash­ion is what makes his work unique.

Cle­mens’ ways of sub­vert­ing sex­u­al­ity and what the term ‘Amer­i­cana’ stands for in to­day’s fucked up world is what sig­ni­fies how big of a mar­ket­ing ge­nius he ac­tu­ally is. To­gether with the cre­ative di­rec­tor of Tel­far, multi-dis­ci­plinary artist Babak Rad­boy, he pushes the bound­aries of how we per­ceive lux­ury fash­ion. The tal­ented de­signer has pre­vi­ously said that his dream is to be­come the next “Michael Kors, but on pur­pose,” ref­er­enc­ing the all-Amer­i­can dream Kors pack­aged into mid-level lux­ury bags and ac­ces­sories with a sim­ple logo. It’s also un­de­ni­able that the Tel­far logo has im­mense com­mer­cial po­ten­tial due to its straight­for­ward sim­plic­ity. But don’t be fooled at what it looks like at a glance. Tel­far serves its black queer­ness in a highly in­cen­di­ary, al­most per­verse way while also giv­ing credit where it’s due: “Be­ing gay in 2018 is sup­posed to be about be­ing free, be­ing proud of who you are with no con­se­quences for be­ing who you are. I feel like gay peo­ple from older gen­er­a­tions had to fight a lot harder in or­der for us to have the ba­sic free­doms we have to­day.”

A long-term sup­porter of queer artists, Tel­far has pre­vi­ously worked with ev­ery­one from well­known mu­si­cians Kelela, Ian Isa­iah and Dev Hynes aka Blood Or­ange (all of which were part of his most re­cent presentation at New York Fash­ion week), to more ob­scure South African duo FAKA who spun the records at Tel­far’s Jan­uary 2018 Mi­lan ex­hi­bi­tion, Nude. The men­tioned show at NYFW was also cel­e­brated with a big af­ter-party at Cen­tury 21, a dis­count depart­ment store and an­other New York City sta­ple. This event was the sec­ond stop on the “Tel­far world tour” af­ter the Mi­lan ex­hi­bi­tion, fur­ther proof Cle­mens is riff­ing off ev­ery­thing pop cul­ture has to of­fer. Whether it’s mu­sic, fast food or art, it’s about sur­round­ing your­self with peo­ple that share the same sen­si­bil­ity. “Unity means a lot to me, my core group of friends and peo­ple I con­sider fam­ily come from all dif­fer­ent back­grounds and sex­ual iden­ti­ties,” he says. But it’s not just about cre­at­ing for that in­ner cir­cle. Tel­far’s fash­ion is demo­cratic, si­mul­ta­ne­ously ground­break­ing and ap­proach­able. “The peo­ple that fol­low the brand are su­per im­por­tant – we may not have the same goals, as­pi­ra­tions, or any­thing in com­mon... But at the end of the day, we at least share an in­ter­est in the cloth­ing it­self.”

Both as a brand and as a hu­man be­ing, Tel­far rep­re­sents a num­ber of com­mu­ni­ties that have on­go­ingly been un­der-rep­re­sented in the fash­ion in­dus­try. But as his recog­ni­tion seems to be gain­ing mo­men­tum and his dreams of be­ing black, queer and part of the main­stream be­come closer to re­al­ity, it seems like the world is fi­nally catch­ing up with Tel­far Cle­mens.

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