Jhe motto of black-owned New York fashion brand Telfar is “It’s not for you, it’s for everyone”. While this was hailed as a victory for inclusivity, the epic New York Fashion Week show aimed to define what it meant to designer Telfar Clemens and his collaborators. A press release, distributed to guests, asked “how can a black business with almost all-black customers – be the result of someone else’s inclusivity?”

Exploring what inclusivity means to Clemens and his collaborators was an attack on the senses.

It all started with a film from Telfar TV, the channel created by the brand at the start of the year. With the raw but fun feel of late night TV, presenters included designer Telfar Clemens and singer Ian Isiah, with various brand fans calling, spontaneous prayers and sleepcams.

This was followed by a more conventional fashion show, featuring a diverse cast and a live experimental jazz collective, the collaborators of Solange Standing On The Corner Art Ensemble.

The models wore a hugely coveted collection of sportswear-influenced attire – the inspiration for which began with Clemens’ work for the Liberian Olympic team last year (he’s a Liberian-American). Here were long basketball shirts, baseball tops and ski suits. Sweatpants with cutouts on the model’s legs managed to put a new twist on this extremely familiar item. The Telfar T logo found on its out-of-stock bags has been transposed to the top of the tall boots which will also be in demand next season.

A model walks the catwalk during the Telfar New York Fashion Week show. Photography: Dan Lecca

After a re-screening by Telfar TV, a second part of the collection debuted – featuring oversized jeans, maxi skirts and more baseball shirts. It culminated with all the models, Clemens and collaborators flooding the stage. “Wow,” Clemens said into the microphone. Any guest watching the hour-long visual spectacle should agree.

Telfar was founded in 2005 by Clemens and his business partner Babak Radboy. Initially popular within the club scene of which it was a part, the brand hit the radar of the wider fashion industry with the vegan leather shopping bags it is now known for.

First on the catwalk in 2014, the bags – which were based on the dimensions of a Bloomingdale’s bag – have become a catwalk hit. Sometimes called “Bushwick Birkin” because of their popularity in trendy Brooklyn, the bags have now been worn by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Oprah and Solange, and won Telfar the Design Museum’s Fashion Design of 2020 award.

The bag was a pandemic success story. Lyst named Telfar’s medium shopping bag as the “hottest product” in the third quarter. Searches for the brand increased by 61% as demand for its bags increased by 270%.