By Ramishah Maruf and Clare Duffy, CNN
New York (CNN) — Boxy, colorful and emblazoned with the brand’s signature “TC” logo, Telfar’s “Shopping Bag” handbags have for years been prized accessories among the fashion conscious.
The bags — modeled after the shape of a Bloomingdale’s shopping bag — have been worn by everyone from Beyoncé and model Bella Hadid to US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. A Telfar bag even served as a plot point on the ABC sitcom “Abbott Elementary.”
But they’re also a common sight among Brooklyn creatives or as office-worker tote bags. That universal appeal is by design; the bag’s nickname, the “Bushwick Birkin,” combines the names of the once-industrial, now-hip Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn and the notoriously exclusive (priced up to six figures) Hermès Birkin handbags. By contrast, even the most expensive Shopping Bags often cost less than $300.
Telfar Clemens — founder of the eponymous brand, which has been in business since long before the Shopping Bag — made it his company’s motto to make designs “not for you, for everyone,” including, and perhaps especially, those who can’t typically afford designer brands. That’s encompassed everything from lower prices than many luxury peers to unisex clothing that goes well beyond jeans and T-shirts.
“Unity means a lot to me,” Clemens told Gay Times in a 2018 interview. “My core group of friends and people I consider family come from all different backgrounds and sexual identities.”
But the strategy hasn’t come without risk. In the world of luxury fashion, exclusivity, often through high prices or restricting access, is often a central driver of consumer demand and brand value.
Clemens, however, has made a career of challenging longstanding fashion industry wisdom. He’s partnered with mainstream brands like Ugg, for example. In September, Telfar launched a live, 24-hour streaming site called TelfarTV.
And this year, he took things a step further by letting customers decide how much to pay for his products. The strategy, his version of “dynamic pricing,” means that the greater the demand for an item, the less expensive it will be.
In an industry known for gatekeeping, Telfar has become iconic by inviting everyone in. As the brand has reached new heights, Clemens has worked to bring along the customers who got him there.
Clemens “is a genius at identifying the customer, connecting with the customer and being unapologetic about it, too,” said Lois Sakany, co-founder of the streetwear and culture blog Snobette.
Clemens declined to sit down with CNN for an interview for this piece.
Maker of the ‘Bushwick Birkin’
“This Telfar bag imported. Birkins? Them s**t’s in storage,” Beyoncé sang in the final song on last year’s “Renaissance” album.
That Telfar bag was “imported” from New York City, where Clemens was born to Liberian parents in Queens in 1985. The family moved to Liberia when he was young and returned to the United States at the outbreak of the second Liberian civil war in the late 1990s.
Clemens, now 38, launched Telfar in 2005 while he was a student at New York’s Pace University. Telfar’s clothing has always been unisex, something novel at the time. As a Black, queer designer making genderless clothing in the early aughts, Clemens went largely ignored by the fashion establishment for years.
“For a really long time, I just didn’t get a review,” Clemens said on The Breakfast Club radio show in 2022. “It took 10 years to really get fashion attention.”
Since then, however, Clemens has won a laundry list of fashion awards, including the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2017. That same year he dressed Beyoncé’s sister, Solange Knowles, for a performance at the Guggenheim Museum; in 2020, he designed Liberia’s Olympic uniforms. Last year, Telfar closed New York Fashion Week — a major honor.
But Telfar’s breakout product was the Shopping Bag, first produced in 2014.
The “Bushwick Birkin” — which has repeatedly appeared on Oprah’s list of favorite things — had it all. The vegan leather tote comes in three sizes and nearly any color, usable as an everyday work bag or for nights out.
The Covid-19 pandemic sent the popularity of the Shopping Bag to new heights — new bag releases announced online sold out in minutes.
“Even my next-door neighbor has one,” Pratt Institute fashion design professor Adrienne Jones told CNN. “You can’t be on the planet and not know about [Telfar].”
Clemens made the bags accessible to a wide range of people. The brand launched the Telfar Bag Security Program in 2020 as a 24-hour event where customers could pre-order an unlimited number of bags in any size and color. The event stood in contrast to Telfar’s normal releases — and the model of drops from other fashion brands — wherein product is limited. The program has returned at various times over the past several years, although the brand said its June Bag Security Program would be its last.
In contrast, last year, Chanel told Reuters it placed caps on how many quilted Classic Flap handbags a customer could buy and was considering more limits on luxury products in certain markets. Analysts said that was to challenge the reseller market and keep the brand exclusive.
“We literally do exactly what we want as a company. That’s exactly what we are doing by moving on from (the Bag Security Program), too,” Clemens said, according to a widely reported statement at the time.
Instead, this holiday season, Telfar launched a “Gifted” program, which gave anyone who bought a handbag from November 17 to 20 a gift code to give a Shopping Bag to someone else. All the customers had to do was submit a short video explaining who the bag was for.
Such programs show “that just because Beyoncé mentioned your name in a song, it doesn’t mean that [Telfar has] moved away from the community that’s really built this brand as well,” said Laticha Brown, fashion business management chair at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
In 2015, Telfar had an unusual partner at New York Fashion Week: fast-food chain White Castle. In the following years, Telfar designed uniforms for White Castle employees, as well as a collection celebrating the chain’s 100th anniversary, which was sold to the public. Profits from the collection were donated to the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Liberty and Justice Fund, which provides bail money to jailed minors.
“White Castle supported us before our success and we consider them family,” said Babak Radboy, Telfar’s creative director, in a statement for the White Castle anniversary collection. “Their team would serve Sliders backstage at all our shows and were basically part of our team. It’s still the only thing open after midnight in Telfar’s hood — seeing our uniforms there means something to us, and so we take it personally.”
Similarly, last year, Clemens hosted the brand’s first-ever brick-and-mortar bag release at the Brooklyn location of low-priced retail chain Rainbow.
Followers of the brand say it’s partnerships like those that set Telfar apart. For decades, luxury fashion houses have worked to cultivate a lifestyle that’s aspirational but not attainable, perpetually leaving most consumers looking from the outside in. Clemens, by contrast, creates a very different universe.
In the world of Telfar, “there’s nothing wrong with being middle class or working class,” Sakany said. “I think it touches people and it makes them feel more valuable.”
Clemens has also never shied away from his queerness, Sakany said. And as the world has increasingly moved to accept and celebrate queer lifestyles and fashion, Telfar’s once boundary-pushing emphasis on unisex styles became a harbinger for other big-name brands.
Today, mass-market retailers like Old Navy sell gender-neutral clothing.
“If you’re a gay, Black or trans person, you are wearing whatever you want to wear, whatever makes you feel good, and there’s no label to it,” said Pratt’s Jones.
Radical pricing model
Many designers will charge as much as they think customers will pay — an arbitrary system, Clemens and Radboy thought. Why charge $600 for a hoodie, Radboy told Fast Company earlier this year, when only one class of person — someone rich — could buy it? So, the pair devised a new pricing model.
When Telfar dropped its latest unisex clothing line in March, the garment prices weren’t fixed. Instead, prices were set at wholesale cost at the time of the collection’s launch and increased incrementally at a rate of about one cent every 20 minutes. The price would be set “forever” when the item sold out, meaning the quicker an item flew off the (digital) shelves, the cheaper it would be. Telfar called it a “sale in reverse.”
The dynamic pricing model was yet another way of making sure more people could afford to get their hands on Telfar’s designs. But it was also so different that it risked confusing customers.
“It shows that he’s like, ‘I trust my customer is going to ride with me,’” Sakany said. “This is radical, it’s difficult to understand … but I think [his customer] cares about him and his brand enough to figure it out.”
The new pricing system also served Clemens’ business interests. For designers, failing to accurately predict demand and making too much inventory can hurt a brand’s image and value — it’s how items can eventually end up in discount stores like T.J. Maxx or on clearance racks, losing that designer money and cachet, according to Jones.
With the dynamic pricing model, Telfar incentivized customers to provide data on which items were most in demand. And that data can now be used to better plan inventory buys for future collections.
It’s not clear whether Telfar will continue using the dynamic pricing model for future collections, but the brand has nonetheless proven that selling luxury fashion can work differently. “It was a game changer,” Jones said.
Now, with TelfarTV, Telfar invites customers to show off what they’ve copped while simultaneously helping to promote the brand.
The channel, which can be viewed online or via several streaming services, encourages viewers to send in videos to be featured on the program — it’s a stream of TikTok-like videos showing customers squealing as they unbox their bags, person-on-the street interviews, snippets of products and more.
While TelfarTV is, in essence, free, user-generated marketing, it’s also yet another way of involving fans in the ongoing story of Telfar.
“Who doesn’t want to be part of the team of your favorite designers?” Jones said. When you submit your content to TelfarTV, “you actually become a part of the commercial success.”
And in a world where loyalty to a brand often means signaling an allegiance with that company’s entire value system, it makes sense to give customers a platform to show and share in their love for its products.
“When we say Black-owned we are not talking about one person,” reads the TelfarTV FAQ. “We didn’t get to where we are alone.”