Telfar Clemens Is Rewriting the Rules of Luxury Retail
Clemens at home in his LeFrak City apartment in Queens, New York. Clemens wears a Telfar track jacket and pants, and his own Ugg slippers.(Photo: Sue Kwon)

Christmas came early for some who placed an order through the Telfar Bag Security Program. The innovative retail concept allowed fans of the New York label to preorder the always sold-out Shopping Bag—a.k.a. the Bushwick Birkin, or simply the Telfar bag, as the accessibly priced vegan leather tote is known—for guaranteed delivery between December 15 and January 15. The Shopping Bag comes in three sizes and 17 colors, including the medium oxblood recently spotted on the shoulder of U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Every one of those 51 combinations was on the menu during a 24-hour window in August, with no purchase limits. Contrary to conventional luxury marketing, the Bag Security Program is not designed to exclude. It’s in keeping with the ethos of the brand’s founder, Telfar Clemens, who won the 2020 CFDA Award for American Accessories Designer of the Year, and it’s helped position Telfar for success during the pandemic, when much of the fashion industry is still beholden to traditional retail models that are no longer working.

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Clemens never intended to design a status bag—quite the opposite. He has taken great pride in collaborations with fast-food chains (White Castle), big-box stores (Kmart), and global fashion brands (Ugg) since starting his business back in 2005 with the slogan not for you—for everyone. Luxury handbags that cost more than a month’s rent convey wealth and social standing. Or, as Clemens’s creative director and business partner, Babak Radboy, concisely puts it, “I’m a highly functioning 35-year-old; I can afford this.” By contrast, a Telfar bag will set you back anywhere from $150 for the smallest size to $257 for the largest. Clemens, a 35-year-old Queens native who lives with his aunt in the same LeFrak City apartment where he was born, set the price to be in line with what he was taking home from a night of deejaying not too long ago. “It doesn’t have this kind of fashion attitude that’s like, ‘Oh, my God, you have that bag,’ ” he says of the Shopping Bag’s appeal and price point. “It’s like, ‘No, the old lady does too, and so does that baby, and so do I.”

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It doesn’t have this kind of fashion attitude that’s like, ‘Oh, my God, you have that bag.’

The style, first introduced for Fall 2014, is an overnight success many years in the making. “The inspiration was basically how good people look after they buy something, that consumer’s glow,” Clemens says of the tote, which is modeled on a New York holiday standard, the Bloomingdale’s Little (and Medium and Big) Brown Bag. “I’d see someone with three different sizes of Bloomie’s bags, and I was like, ‘Wow, they look really good.’ ” The oversize embossed logo—a “T” inside a “C”—is styled the way one of Clemens’s teachers at P.S. 206 drew his initials on the chalkboard.

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And until this year, the Shopping Bag has been continuously available on the brand’s Web site, when an average replenishment of 3,000 to 5,000 bags meant to last a few months started selling out in under a minute. This past July, so many people logged on for a 6 a.m. restock that the e-com store crashed. With fans taking to Twitter to post memes airing their disappointment at sleeping through their alarms or simply not having fast enough fingers, #Telfar became the third most trending topic in the U.S. At the time Clemens and Radboy were observing the social media fracas from Oaxaca. (Radboy was stuck in Mexico when travel restrictions were enacted, and Clemens decided to join him after an apartment fire forced him to evacuate temporarily.) “I was like, ‘shit,’ ” Clemens recalls. “It’s really a bad feeling to have people pissed. It’s really not our vibe at all.”

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Telfar Clemens Is Rewriting the Rules of Luxury Retail
Clemens in front of the Unisphere at Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens, New York. Clemens wears a Telfar puffer jacket, hoodie, jeans, and Ugg x Telfar boots. (Photo: Sue Kwon)

The Bag Security Program offered a brilliantly simple solution to Telfar’s supply problem: By asking customers to preorder, Clemens and Radboy were able to finally catch up while also reverse engineering the true demand, enabling them to scale production appropriately going forward. “The whole point of the Shopping Bag was accessibility and community, which is why there was so much demand,” Radboy explains. “But then we got to the point where most of the people who wanted the bag couldn’t get it, and we couldn’t get any idea of how many people that was.”

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While Clemens and Radboy won’t confirm exactly how many bags they’ve sold through the Bag Security Program, they will say that it generated 10 times the number of sales in the entirety of 2019. They attribute that explosive growth to organic engagement: The followers of the @telfarglobal Instagram account—which these days is populated with memes as well as crowdsourced pictures of Shopping Bags along for socially distanced park outings or masked grocery store runs—increased by a factor of four to more than 300,000 since the onset of the pandemic. “While everyone else’s Instagram shut down or started to reflect things that were shot months ago that don’t look like the world anymore, every single day it just looks like today,” says Radboy. “Every Telfar bag on Instagram is actually someone wearing one in the world.”

Photographer: Sue Kwon; Styling: Avena Gallagher; Artistic Direction: Babak Radboy; Hair & Grooming: Latisha Chong; Makeup: Michela Wariebi for Pat McGrath Labs

This article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR US