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  • Claire Kalikman

Telfar Clemens, the It Bag, and Me

Telfar Clemens photographed by James Ryang

ONE OF THE MOST IN-DEMAND YOUNG DESIGNERS IS BANKING ON SLOW FASHION, WRITES CLAIRE KALIKMAN. Today I bought a bag. Not just any bag. I won’t even see this bag for 6 months.

But this is a special bag. Exactly what I’ve been looking for.

I recently retired a favourite bag I’ve owned since I was 13 that my brother brought back for me on a trip to Paris. This bag felt like my first grown-up bag - I mean, it came from Paris.

In the intervening eight years, it came with me everywhere, accompanied me on dates, museum visits, doctor’s appointments, and adventures big and small. My most vivid memory of the bag is clutching it in my lap on the crowded Moscow metro, where placing a bag on the seat beside you is akin to a cardinal sin.

So I was devastated when gaping holes appeared in all four corners and I started to lose quarters and pens out the sides. The leather on the straps had worn through. It was time for a new bag.

And that’s when I heard about the ‘Bushwick Birkin’ - the Telfar Clemens It-Bag that’s so popular it sells out in seconds.

I really like this bag: it’s the right size, made of “vegan” leather and hopefully durable, has a subtle logo.  It comes in oxblood, a color that can also just be called maroon (is it still vegan if it’s called oxblood?) but screams “fashion” when it’s called oxblood.

The Telfar Clemens medium “Shopping Bag” in Oxblood

Now, Clemens is a fashion rebel who refuses to buy into the conventional fashion calendar; he drops product online, at multiple times of the year, when it suits him. But he hadn’t reckoned on the bots. These bags were turning up on resale sights for ten times the price. The designer, a New York-born queer Liberian-American who launched his unisex fashion line in 2004, had set out to create a ‘democratic’ bag, not an exclusive piece that sells for thousands and thousands. But also, he said in a statement, “when thousands of bags sell per second, we can’t even know how many to make. We plan production 6 months in advance, [and] it takes time and money to make bags.”

His pieces are relatively modestly priced, from $150 for a small bag to $257 for a large one. But his Shopping Bags (as he calls them) were being snapped so quickly that it’s difficult to get one at its original price.

To combat all this, for one day only in August, his team announced that they would open a list to buy as many bags as you ‘needed,’ called the “Bag Security Program.” Bots need not apply.

There was a catch (there always is, isn’t there?). You would have to buy into the slow fashion system. That is, you must wait... 

Clemens’ team will produce thousands of bags, but the the batch won’t be ready for at least 6 months.

People, by human nature, do not like waiting, and we’re not used to it - the fast fashion system has made it easy for us to satisfy every fashion whim immediately. 

Clemens’ idea is both ideological and practical: to show people that good things are worth waiting for, and because he runs a small business, to have the runway to produce the bags with the upfront financing. There’s also the added benefit that the on-demand model limits waste and extra inventory. One of the rules of the Bag Security Program, along with “be cool,” is that no alterations or cancellations are allowed, thus ensuring that his team won’t be left with any unsold inventory. As the pandemic leaves retailers all over the world with loads of unsold inventory, Clemens may be showcasing the mode of the future. 

According to Telfar’s website, he set out to “make clothes that do not exist on the market - just as you do not exist in the world.” The brand tagline is “not for you, for everyone.” I’m fine with waiting. It gives me time to think about what I’ll do and where I’ll go with this bag. I’m a soon-to-be college graduate and this will be my first-real-job bag. I picture myself in a jaunty beret and fabulous coat, tromping through one of the major fashion cities, with this bag on my shoulder. Or sitting in a cafe and pulling out my notebook and writing down ideas for my next story.

My bag is supposed to arrive by January 15th. I have no idea where I will be or what I will be doing on January 15th. And that makes it all the more thrilling to imagine.


Claire Kalikman is Wardrobe Crisis Magazine’s content editor. Read her essay on the future of rental here.

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