Liberian-American designer Telfar Clemens’s approach to fashion is summarized in his current collection’s tagline: “Not for you—for everyone.” Inclusivity
has been the organizing principle of his runway collections since he began in 2006, but the social and
political landscape is helping make his defance of
gender, race, and class resonate widely. Last year,
Clemens won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund—and
was also tasked with creating the uniforms for White
Castle’s 15,000 employees.
What attracted you to fashion? [I wanted] to make the
clothes that basically didn’t exist for me when I was a child. I
was always attracted to women’s wear, but I was never allowed
to wear it, so I made sure there were no gender assignments.
You get to wear exactly what you want.
Your work is hard to categorize, by design. What kind of
customer responds to the Telfar brand? I think our relationship with our customers is different from other brands because
it is not based on the psychology of scarcity and inadequacy,
which is basically what drives the fashion industry. [With Telfar,]
there’s a community of people who, for the first time, feel like a
brand represents them. Last season, we let people on Instagram vote on which clothes we would make, then followed up
with them when that thing was released. It’s not the customer
who just wants to buy a Vuitton handbag.
How did your partnership with White Castle come about?
A 1-800 call to White Castle. Just kidding. It started when they
wanted to sponsor our runway show at New York Fashion Week
last year. [Several mass-market brands, such as McDonald’s and
Tupperware, have recently sponsored fashion shows.] We had
an idea at the last minute to do our after-party at their Times
Square location—it’s the most fun I’ve ever had at a party—and
photos of that event went viral. They asked us if [designing uni-forms] was something we were interested in, and we definitely
were. We adapted one of our signature, unisex styles and will
make a new version every season. It has become a really beautiful thing. We went to their headquarters, in Columbus, Ohio,
and met tons of employees. For the first time, they didn’t feel
like their bodies were just billboards for whatever the new marketing slogan was. These uniforms are pretty coveted now.
Opening Ceremony wants to carry them and sell them for $200.
That makes the workers behind the counter feel very cool.