I first discovered Telfar Clemens, the 28 year old Liberian-raised, New York-bred fashion designer, online. Clemens launched his eponymously titled brand, Telfar, in 2005 as a progressive attempt to deconstruct traditionalism in fashion, specifically targeting commercialism and brand dissemination. Since then he has pushed out sixteen collections (two ironically under an American Apparel diffusion line, un.der t), collaborated with a lot of fancy friends, and became one of the most engaging ‘new’ designers in the online community. His aesthetic combines elements from active wear with an air of Eastern European irony (or 90’s nostalgia, you pick), and has become a contemporary staple of sorts in New York City.
I sat down to speak with Clemens on the eve of the opening of his latest exhibition, Quilted/Comfort, a participatory installation in collaboration with New York Gallery and DIS Magazine. The space, a small white room in the depths of Hell’s Kitchen, contains Telfar’s structural namesake, Shop-Mobile, and displays canvas-white pieces from his new collection; there is also a lounge area with quilted cotton furniture, an interactive touch screen video game (aptly titled Telfar-style), which saves user-designed Telfar looks. The goal of the space is to emphasize the dialogue between the designer and the public, and to introduce elements of his Autumn/Winter 2013 collection.
Joshua Glass: What is ‘Quilted/Comfort’ about? How do your clothes and the new video game (produced by Alan Schaffer) interact with each other?
Telfar Clemens: I named the installation after the fabrication I used. I consider denim, flannel, cotton jersey and sweatpant-type-jersey fabrics comfort fabrics, and then I hand quilted them myself. I was really into the feeling of insulation for fall, and I wanted to take common clothes – like your basic denim jacket or your basic jeans – and transform them. I wanted to make them different but still feel familiar, so I brought that feeling into to the collection. We’re using the video game as a tool to basically style my runway presentation for Fashion Week. It’s very interactive. All the clothes you see here in the gallery are proto-types, and they’re all all-white 100% cotton pieces. They’re also in the video game and we’re asking users to organize and color the samples however they want. We’re letting members of the DIS community, and the public, have a voice in my show. Eventually these physical samples here will be dyed and decorated by myself to mirror the winning looks from the game. In February you’ll see the finished results.
Joshua: Do you have any qualms about giving up a sense of power to the public?
Telfar: No. I think it’s a new approach to design. Usually when a designer designs something it comes straight from him. But I think the option of, you know, something as little as changing a color is a really important thing. I work a lot in unisex and when you change the color of certain things you can change the perception of who the garment is for, or what the garment even looks like as a whole. I’m excited to see the community’s reaction. A big part of winter is getting dressed and layering, so I’m giving each person the entire collection as their chance to do that.
Joshua: I’ve heard a lot of the same ‘conceptual terms’ used to describe you and your work. I’d like to just do a little word-association to see how you respond to these ideas. The first one is “unfashion” – how do you relate to that?
Telfar: I think I identity with the concept of unfashion a lot. A lot of the things that I am, and am influenced by, are things that people don’t necessarily find fashionable. And when I twist and turn them into something that I make, it’s new, but it’s also an updated version of the most basic version of anything – say jeans, like Levi’s. I also find things from the dollar store interesting. I love basic white tee shirts – playing with their silhouette and trying to see what you can get with that’s new.
Joshua: “Urban Protective.”
Telfar Clemens: I based this collection on the idea that a flannel shirt can be quilted. Urban Protective is outerwear in the form of a dress shirt or an intimate. I wanted a lighter feeling to the things we wear and I want them to be used as other things then how we use them now.
Telfar: For me, I need pockets and I need separate ones so I know where I’m putting each thing, so I don’t have to keep on looking for them. Today people have a lot more belongings and functionality gives them something to do with them. A big theme I’m working with, is a sense of belonging. Like for instance – how I dressed the chairs for the exhibition – you look the same as the furniture, the furniture belongs to the space, the space belongs to the clothing.
Joshua: That’s great. I can see a lot of that resonating in your work here. What are your thoughts on the relationship between fashion and new media today. I mean, I first heard about you online, and here you have this ‘video game’ that’s going to be dictating your next fashion show, and it also lives online.
Telfar Clemens: I love information being out. It’s the most logical and also informative way for people to live because you don’t look up things that you don’t want to know about. It’s good for me because I like to include people on a global level in the work that I’m doing. Everything I’m doing is very time sensitive – what I’m doing in this season and where I’m going next season and everything I’m working on – it’s all very temporal. The internet just helps make sure everybody knows what’s happening. There is also definitely a trendy aspect about things being online.
Joshua: One of the online platforms you use is DIS Magazine. Could you tell me a little bit more of your relationship with them?
Telfar: We’re all best friends – from back before there was DIS or before there was Telfar or anything. They’re all my really good friends and I think they’re all really smart, and there’s a lot of things that we’ve been planning to do. It’s really cool that I get to work with my friends on a lot of my work. It’s like, when we’re hanging out we’re working and when we’re working we’re hanging out. It’s nice to share that experience of each collection with them, because they know exactly what is going on and how it applies to everything else.
Joshua: Other than the DIS team I know you’ve been collaborating with a lot of the same people over the last few years.
Telfar: Definitely. I’ve worked a lot with Ryan Trecartin, Alan Shaffer, Lizzie Fitch and Nick Rodrigues – especially the last two. Lizzie made the entire environment for this space. I basically tell her what I want from a collection or the experience that I want, and she fully manufactures it into a physical form. I told her I wanted a gaming station, and she built this wonderful touch screen experience as well as an avatar mannequin to live in the gallery and the game. She also built my Mobile Shop with Nick.
Joshua: If someone was to look at your clothes, or visit your space, what’s the ultimate perspective that you’re hoping to come across?
Telfar: That there’s a story behind my clothes. Whatever story that is, I don’t know, but I want to make sure that it’s displayed accurately. I like things that are, and that aren’t. I don’t really have any ‘thing’ that I think I need to prove, but I definitely have things that I need to contribute. I’m hoping to keep adding to the world every time I release a something.
All photos by Adam Gundersheimer
Quilted/Comfort is on view at New York Gallery located in the Film Center Building at 630 9th Avenue in Suite 308 now, until February 23.