Ever since his homegrown label, Telfar, won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award in 2016, things have been moving quickly for the designer Telfar Clemens. He has established himself as a preeminent New York voice, become a favorite of modern style oracles like Frank Ocean and Solange, landed a spot on the Paris Fashion Week schedule, and seen a bag of his own design—the so-called “Bushwick Birkin”—become a viral sensation. Any conversation about designers charting the future of fashion would have to include Clemens. So where was he looking for inspiration for his latest collection? The Renaissance!
“It's really crazy if the same thing that's 2020 is 1420,” Clemens told me a few days before his Fall-Winter 2020 runway show. Uh, yes, definitely! But Clemens’s clothes were unisex well before unisex became a marketing term, and his very presence on the biggest stages in fashion is a political statement—so what got him looking so far back in time?
For one, we were in the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence, where Clemens was showing as a guest designer at the menswear trade show known as Pitti Uomo.
We were also standing inside a massive palace. One of the perks of being on the Pitti schedule, which falls in between London and Milan fashion weeks, is that Pitti and the city of Florence sets guest designers up with Medici palazzos, medieval sacristies, and Tuscan villas to use as show locations. Nearly all are epic, but the one on the banks of the Arno that Clemens had scored was fuck you large, the kind one might build to celebrate the successful conquest of a neighboring merchant state.
In a soaring chamber attached to the main ballroom, a curly-haired Florentine boy, ruffled shirt erupting under his chin, observed Clemens and longtime Telfar creative director Babak Radboy’s final show preparations from a painting hanging on the wall. “I just began to see so many correlations between the clothes I actually make and the clothes that were in these paintings,” Clemens said, gesturing at the boy. I could see the appeal for a designer who has been doing his part to reprogram the codes of menswear. After all, what did men wear in Renaissance times? Tights! Flamboyant coats! Codpieces! “They look really good!” Clemens cooed. “And to be able to see that slight hint of historical tackiness of, you know, a cathedral, you can read that and you can interpret it and turn it into a T-shirt,” added Radboy.
The room was serving as a closet of sorts as Clemens and Radboy narrowed down the final looks that would appear in the show. At first glance, I saw more GHE20G0TH1K than Uffizi Gallery in the mix. Clemens and Radboy helped me out: a pair of low-rise, candy-striped jersey trousers that were set to open the show were “Pierre Cardin-slash-Renaissance-slash-Carhartt-slash-Telfar,” they told me. A moto jacket made out of thinly-puffed down was “romantic-biker-Baroque-creep.” Sprinkled throughout were princely velvets, peasant culottes, and formal ruffles. A pair of almond-toe loafers, with a chunky Vibram sole and embossed logo on the tongue, were immediately legible, and fantastic—as simple and appealing (and cleverly branded) as the now-ubiquitous Telfar shopping bag.
Telfar shows are never only about the clothes, and are never (as a rule) simple, white-box runway show experiences. What, I wondered, would Clemens have in store for the Pitti crowd in a few days’ time? It turns out Clemens and Radboy themselves didn’t entirely know, because they were operating by the golden rule of mansion-sitting: when someone gives you the keys to one for a week, you make the most of it. So the night before the show, Clemens invited several dozen of his friends and collaborators over for a dinner, jam session, and sleepover where the show music and choreography would be worked out. (“We've done a ton of planning around the day before the show, and no planning for the show,” said Radboy.)
But if “jam session” suggests a hazy laziness, you haven’t been to a Telfar jam session: this one featured, according to one attendee, none other than Solange, Kelela, and free jazz outfit Standing On The Corner, who took turns performing while guests dined on a meal catered by queer cooking collective Spiral Test Kitchen. (Clemens’s preview of the menu went thusly: “There’s going to be some hearts. Blood. Whole animals. And there’s going to be a glory hole of food.” Buon appetito!)
When guests climbed a set of wide stone staircases to enter the main ballroom for the show on Thursday night, there was no leftover blood—or food glory hole—to be found. There was instead a ringed table in the center of the room, which, besides serving as the runway, bore the remnants of what looked like a sprawling and very carnivorous banquet: femurs gutted of their marrow, desiccated pomegranates, and plenty of empty bottles of Pinot Grigio.
Before the show, I wondered if the exquisitely-tailored Florentine set was ready for a dose of underground American fashion. “Anything and everything can be tailored,” Clemens replied. Even a T-shirt, you ask? To a heavy Standing On The Corner jam, as Solange and menswear all star Grace Wales Bonner looked on, models wearing black T-shirts with pleated fronts answered that question. Others stomped across the table in logo-emblazoned cable-knit sweaters that hung like a priest’s vestments; a few wore Telfar’s signature jean jacket, now with a formal high collar. Telfar’s diverse coalition of fans might not jump on the jewel-toned peasant pants (although, in all likelihood, they might), but it’s easy to imagine seeing this season’s leather-denim jean hybrids (a Telfar signature) in every bar from Chelsea to Crown Heights. There was true tailoring, too: as emerging singer Hawa strutted across the table in a show-closing performance, a pair of Italian-made trousers, in a JNCO-wide fit, paired with a precise, cropped black blazers, ended the show with a stroke of romanticism.
Of Telfar’s recent shows, this one was the least overtly political—unlike the past two seasons, there was no Jeremy O. Harris monologue on the menu. But Clemens’s Pitti spot represented something more momentous. The story of fashion in the last half-decade has been written by the gatecrashers, by Virgil Abloh and Kerby Jean-Raymond and every designer who was once told that luxury fashion was not for them. Clemens has long been on that list, too. But now, after over a decade and a half of making clothes for kids whose identities and tastes weren’t spoken to by the system, he didn’t even find a gate to crash at Pitti: the organizers opened the doors and let them in.
When I asked Pitti Immagine CEO Raffaello Napoleone why Pitti chose Telfar and Stefano Pilati’s label Random Identities, both of which are gender agnostic and proudly inclusive, he replied: “That’s exactly why. We want to be the place where new projects can be launched. We are looking for new experiences! We are not looking for fashion shows.”
As part of Pitti Uomo’s support for Telfar, Napoleone gave Clemens the resources to produce the entire collection in Italy. “Everybody's looking for that, to work with really great people that actually believe in this next generation of what fashion is,” said Clemens, who spent the last two months working in Lugo, Italy. Clemens has been here before: he and Radboy are masters of leveraging partnerships with the likes of White Castle and Budweiser into large-scale projects. The payoff was obvious when I felt the clothes. The brand’s signature hybridized cut-and-sew pieces had a new sense of precision, the leather pants felt rich and buttery. The best part? Telfar’s fair prices will remain about the same.
“It's always been someone seeing the value in what I'm making,” Clemens said about getting to work in Italy. “And giving me a chance to do that. In Italy, you're working with a person that's used to working in a certain way—rather than making something in a quantity-heavy sort of way, it's a quality-heavy kind of way. It changes your design technique and how you can nuance something,” Clemens said. The Pitti guests might remember the Telfar experience as one hell of a dinner party. For Clemens, it was more than that: “It's a brand new chapter of what the brand is,” he said. “I did a lot of fucking work and did a lot of things over the past few months. But to have this kind of support is what I've been working 17 years for. To be able to do what I want and what I believe in.”
Originally Appeared on GQ