The Year of Telfar: How a Liberian-American fashion designer got Oprah and AOC excited over a shopping bag

BY Preta Peace Namasaba April 2, 2024 5:57 AM EDT
Telfar Clemens. Photo credit: Gap Inc.

Liberian-American fashion designer Telfar Clemens’ literally-named Shopping Bag has been described as the “it bag”. It is unisex, made of vegan faux leather, and branded with the signature “T” Telfar logo. The bag has been known for selling out within minutes of every restock with demand crashing its e-commerce site in 2020.

Born in Queens, New York to Liberian parents, Clemens grew up in Liberia for sometime but left following the outbreak of that country’s second civil war. The family moved to Maryland where Clemens initially became interested in fashion. He began mixing clothes that were traditionally made for women to create a unisex wardrobe at 15. His iconic logo represents both his initials and the symbol his teachers used in an English course meant to temper his Liberian accent.

Clemens went on to earn a degree in accounting at Pace University where he founded Telfar in 2005. He started repurposing Bob Marley T-shirts and selling them in downtown consignment shops. His first wholesale client was Funky Lala (a now-closed boutique), located in the East Village, that sold out Clemens’ T-shirts. Clemens went on to intern at a men’s wear line, and sustained himself by working as a model and DJ. He used his earnings to develop his brand.

“I went to school at six in the morning and I would work on the line at noon and then I would DJ from midnight to 4 a.m. and do it all over again,” Clemens said of his early days building Telfar.

In 2013, Clemens’ longtime friend Babak Radboy joined the fashion label as creative director and business partner. They have collectively grown the brand into an affordable, inclusive, and immensely popular industry name. Telfar released its first iteration of the Telfar Shopping Bag in 2014. It became so popular that it’s been dubbed the “Bushwick Burkin,” selling out immediately in every color upon release. Clemens earned the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award in 2017 which he used to further fund production of the Telfar Shopping Bag.

But it wasn’t until 2020 that Telfar really took off.

The demand for Telfar’s bags skyrocketed during the pandemic with fashion sources calling it a must-have staple. The bag was promoted by prominent figures such as Oprah Winfrey, Swae Lee, Dua Lipa, and congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, among others. Collections sold out within seconds of every restock that demand crashed the e-commerce site in July 2020. Concerns of resale bots came up but it was concluded that the issue was due to organic demand. This rapid rise in popularity led the New York Times to name 2020, “the Year of Telfar.”

Clemens won the CFDA award for American Accessories Designer of the Year in 2020 and used his prize fund to boost production. Despite Telfar going viral and being in such high demand, he had never intended for his bags to be in limited stocks. Clemens consequently instituted the Telfar Security Bag Program after seeing his bags on reseller sites. The program offered an unlimited number of bags in any color for pre-order over 24 hours with guaranteed delivery. His affordable pricing model is making the fashion industry more inclusive and luxury fashion more attainable.

“Taking these things that people are used to wearing and recontextualizing them for a new person and a new time is what makes a lot of the stuff ‘me,’” Clemens said of what makes his brand unique.

In addition to bags, Telfar has produced clothing, jewelry, belts, and shoes. Clemens also launched a line of luxury durags in 2020. He has since collaborated with UGG, White Castle, and Gap Inc., among others.