Telfar Clemens, a fashion designer, was thinking about cargo when he wrote this. After four months in a warehouse in the Brooklyn district of Bushwick, his label, Telfar, relocated to a new studio four shipping containers down the street in July this year. Stacks of shipping containers stood opposite from a corrugated-metal quonset house in a gravel yard that reminded me of a landing runway in a tropical nation, open to the weather and readily demolished in the event of a mass departure. When Clemens was designing his Spring 2020 collection, he took the freight economy into consideration. T-shirts and jeans, sweatshirts and tracksuits, polo shirts and basketball shorts have all become a lingua franca as a result of globalization. These are the kind of clothing that Clemens has returned to the most in his design work throughout the years. The clothing produced by the label are conventional shapes that seem to have gone through a process of alienation. Under the tagline “Not for You, but For Everyone,” they’re being marketed.
On a sunny day in July, I paid Clemens a visit in the red Hyundai shipping container that he was using as a temporary office. He is thirty-five years old, lanky and elegant, and he has a gap-toothed smile and a smokey chuckle to go with it. On that particular day, he was dressed casually in a net tank top with Rastafarian stripes from the dollar shop, Telfar knee-length denim shorts, a gold Telfar-logo necklace, and black Converse shoes from Converse. Clemens was presenting his Spring 2020 collection in Paris for the first time, marking the designer’s first trip over the Atlantic. He and Avena Gallagher, Telfar’s longstanding stylist, had chosen to experiment with an archetype, that of the freshly arrived immigrant naf, also known as a Johnny Just Come in the West African diaspora, as a starting point for their collaboration. Clemens referred to it as “you’ve-just-arrived-in-this-country sort of fashion,” in which new and used garments were mixed in an unintentionally mismatched manner. Photos of Clemens sporting several variants of the style were displayed on a board, including a starched collar over a sweatshirt, running shorts over fishnets, and track trousers combined with a jacket, among others. There were a lot of cargo pockets in this collection. Some were placed in the expected locations, such as on trousers and jackets, but others were attached to the sleeves of T-shirts or around the waistbands of jeans.
Clemens was born in Queens, New York, to parents who were originally from Liberia. In 2005, while still a student at Pace University, he launched his own clothing line. At the time, many of his acquaintances dressed in ways that transcended gender boundaries, and Telfar’s outfits were branded as unisex a decade before the likes of Gucci, Balenciaga, and Tom Ford had coed runway presentations, among other things. As much an art practice as it was a clothing brand, Telfar was worn largely by a tiny, well-heeled group of individuals for many years, particularly those who visited the roaming New York party ghe20g0th1k and subscribed to the online arts and Internet culture journal DIS.
Many of Clemens’ design inspirations have originated from passing pedestrians: a tank top made to seem like it has fallen off one shoulder; “drop-waist jeans” that look like boxers coming out from underneath drooping trousers; and a tank top fashioned to look like it has fallen off one shoulder. Clemens’ work pays a subtle tribute to street shopping, as seen by the gold chains pinned in lines on red velveteen sofas and the sundresses on headless Styrofoam mannequins that often appear in his work. On a recent trip to Florence, Italy, he noted that the omnipresent puffer coats, when contrasted against the city’s historic architecture, had the appearance of suits of armor. Italian Renaissance paintings, with their ruched clothing, reminded him of braided T-shirts he’d seen on the streets of seaside towns. According to a Telfar press statement, the final collection “was like a drunk Medici daughter on spring break in Ocean City, Maryland.”