Buffalo Zine:
Martine Rose & Telfar

Hottest Designers On The Block: From Hackney To Chinatown

Huge con­glom­er­ates dom­i­nate the fash­ion indus­try, but a hand­ful of design­ers con­tinue to put inno­va­tion and cre­ativ­ity first. There are no better exam­ples than TELFAR CLEMENS and MARTINE ROSE. Despite living on oppo­site sides of the pond, they both reject the sti­fling cycle of show sched­ules, mass pro­duc­tion and celebrity place­ment. Martine came to Buffalo HQ for a call with Telfar — together they dis­cuss how the London expe­ri­ence of com­mu­nity dif­fers from New York, and how it shapes their uncon­ven­tional approaches to life and work.

LYNETTE NYLANDER: Let’s talk about com­mu­nity, and what it means to be a local. I thought we could start with Telfar — what does that mean to you? I have an under­stand­ing that for you it’s some­thing very inter­na­tional, you call your brand Telfar Global, which I find really inter­est­ing.

TELFAR CLEMENS: Yes, that’s my inter­net handle. Although my brand is just called Telfar. This idea of a global com­mu­nity is impor­tant, in terms of having a diverse group of friends from all over the world. It’s super impor­tant. Because you get influ­ences from all sorts of dif­fer­ent cul­tures. I think that adds flavour to any­thing.

MARTINE: For me it’s exactly the same. I’ve always lived in London, and the city is a huge influ­ence on my work, it’s really where I get my inspi­ra­tion from. Particularly where I’ve been based, in Tottenham. Telfar, do you know London very well?

TELFAR: Not so well, but..

LYNETTE: London and New York def­i­nitely mirror.

MARTINE: I feel like London and New York have always been sister cities. Tottenham is get­ting trendier and more expen­sive now, but it’s always been the rougher end of London..

TELFAR: Is that where you’re from?

MARTINE: Yes. [laughs] It’s truly one of the most diverse areas of London, as far as I’m aware. It’s Cuban, it’s Brazilian, it’s Jamaican, African, Polish, white, every­thing.

TELFAR: I’ve been living in Jackson Heights in Queens, and they say it’s the second most diverse place in the world. Everybody’s from some­where else, it’s a total melt­ing pot. I can’t be in a place where everyone’s the same. It’s my worst case sce­nario, I don’t feel at home at all. 

LYNETTE: Is your studio in Queens as well?

TELFAR: No actu­ally. I work in Chinatown.

MARTINE: And does that influ­ence your work, do you think?

TELFAR: Yeah, I think so. I have a com­pletely dif­fer­ent take on gar­ments, what it means, even some­thing as simple as the con­text and the place it’s dis­played. I have had so many peri­ods of trying to figure out what just one gar­ment means.

LYNETTE: Martine, why Tottenham? Is there a story?

MARTINE: No, there’s not really a story, def­i­nitely not an inter­est­ing one anyway. It was just that it was cheap. It’s a char­ity funded place where I worked, and I couldn’t afford any­thing, I had less than noth­ing when I started out. The rent was, up until about a year ago, £150 a month. 

LYNETTE: What!

TELFAR: Oh my god.

LYNETTE: Where did you find that? It’s such a gem!

MARTINE: Such a gem. I mean, it’s not that cheap any­more, because the char­ity moved out. 

LYNETTE: But you said you had less than noth­ing when you started out. Why did that feel like the oppor­tune moment to launch your career in such a risky indus­try?

MARTINE: Honestly, and I don’t want this to sound too pes­simistic, I didn’t know what else to do. There was noth­ing else that I really wanted to do.

TELFAR: That’s pretty much how I feel about fash­ion. It’s what you have to do to sur­vive, and it’s easier than work­ing for some­one else. For me, I’d rather just know that this shirt cost 20 dol­lars or 40 dol­lars, and have the money, and know the ins and outs of every­thing. To be in con­trol.

LYNETTE: Telfar, what were you doing before?

TELFAR: Nothing! I’ve always done this.

MARTINE: Same, I’ve always worked for myself.

TELFAR: Since I was fif­teen. I started my line by sell­ing clothes to school­mates. I would buy a pair of jeans and cut them up in a cer­tain way, and some­one would ask me to repro­duce them.

MARTINE: No way.

TELFAR: And at eigh­teen I used to repur­pose vin­tage clothes. I basi­cally started there, I would sell my stuff at all of these con­cept shops, and vin­tage resold retail­ers, right in Chinatown. That’s basi­cally how I started.

MARTINE: You were eigh­teen then? 

TELFAR: I was eigh­teen. It was my fresh­man year of col­lege.

MARTINE: So you’re quite the entre­pre­neur, really.

TELFAR: I just never wanted to work for anyone else. I actu­ally had thought about becom­ing an accoun­tant.

MARTINE: [laughs] What!

TELFAR: And then doing a fash­ion line on the side.

MARTINE: I don’t think I ever really had the con­fi­dence to work for some­one else, to be honest. I think my moti­va­tion came from a lack of con­fi­dence really, in that I didn’t know what I could offer some­one else, but I knew what I could do for myself. 

TELFAR: I always think about this. If I were to start design­ing for some­body else, for a fash­ion house, would it still just look like me? I don’t know. What I do is what it is, I’m not a trained designer. I started by taking things apart and sewing them back together, in order to learn how to con­struct clothes. I never really wanted them to be clothes that are indus­try stan­dard in that way. What makes cloth­ing stand out is when it isn’t like that.

MARTINE: I find that really inter­est­ing also, because I have never been a maker. Sometimes when you speak to design­ers, they say that they knew that was their des­tiny from such a young age, they were always making clothes, but it wasn’t like that at all for me. I was never very good at making. I never liked it. I was far more inter­ested in the cul­ture that sur­rounds clothes. The tribal nature of club cul­ture, that’s how I got into fash­ion really. I exper­i­mented with weird clothes myself, but I never really made my own clothes. Wearing them, but never making them. 

LYNETTE: Talking about it now, would you guys ever work for any­body else?

MARTINE: I don’t think I could, no.

TELFAR: I mean, I have and I think I could in the future. I’d be inter­ested in seeing what might happen, but I’m inter­ested in Telfar first and fore­most. But then there are cer­tain brands where I see a poten­tial for crossover, and I start think­ing about what I could do for them, and some­thing I could bring to it. But it’s not nec­es­sar­ily about col­lab­o­ra­tion. It’s always about me bring­ing some­thing to it.

MARTINE: Absolutely, I love col­lab­o­rat­ing. It’s a totally dif­fer­ent thing. I buzz off work­ing with other people, the ideas, the con­ver­sa­tion. But I don’t know if I could ever stop work­ing for myself, and get a nine-to-five job.

TELFAR: If I wasn’t being cre­ative each year, I feel like I wouldn’t be uphold­ing my duty to myself. That’s a dif­fi­cult thing, to be in fash­ion and have that atti­tude, because that’s not how it works. 

LYNETTE: Well, another thing that I think uni­fies both of you is that you have a really uncom­pro­mis­ing approach — nei­ther of you have ever allowed your­selves to be fully absorbed into the indus­try. I know Martine, for exam­ple, you dip in and out of the show sched­ule, you’re not bound by that pre­scrip­tive way of doing things. And I feel like Telfar, your ide­ol­ogy is sim­i­lar. Do you ever feel pres­sured by those para­me­ters?

TELFAR: Well you know Martine, the best thing I ever heard, was that col­lec­tion where you lit­er­ally just showed one look.

[Everyone laughs.]

LYNETTE: You took the piss, Martine!

TELFAR: It’s really com­mend­able. You know how fash­ion people can be like, that look you’re putting out there, it better be the best look you can deliver. I live to dis­ap­point, because that’s where the really excit­ing stuff is. I just want to give an honest impres­sion of what I’m doing, you know? With every­thing, I want to be the person to do it first. 

MARTINE: And just to spark a con­ver­sa­tion.

TELFAR: For me, if there’s some explicit ref­er­ence, I can’t handle it. What I show is based so pre­cisely on what I was doing and work­ing on that year, or that period of time in which I came up with it, and there’s no way to recre­ate that expe­ri­ence. There’s a level of total trans­parency. We would play music at the shows which wasn’t avail­able, because it was part of that expe­ri­ence. If some­one asked what the music was after­wards, we’d say, well you had to have been there to hear it. 

MARTINE: I love that. It’s a moment, and if you’re not there you missed it.

LYNETTE: I felt like that with your show this season, Martine. It was so spe­cial — and we’re going to be talk­ing about gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, that’s one of the points on my list! But it was just the per­fect exam­ple of how you can really inte­grate fash­ion into com­mu­nity with­out com­pletely demol­ish­ing what exists already. Telfar wasn’t at the show, right?

TELFAR: I wish.

LYNETTE: Oh I feel bad now! [Telfar laughs] Just making sure, Telfar, just making sure. It was so com­mend­able, because not only does nobody bother to show in London in that way, usu­ally it’s, you know, east London design­ers show­ing in 18th-cen­tury aris­to­cratic houses, and the con­tra­dic­tion isn’t lost on us. But you did away with all of that. You showed in — is it Cuban, that market?

MARTINE: It’s Colombian. It’s an indoor market in Tottenham, which is quite far out of London, espe­cially for fash­ion people. Getting people there in the first place was scary! And there was a fuck­ing tube strike as well. I thought, oh well, nobody’s gonna come. But it’s a really spe­cial place, and they’re plan­ning to pull it down. It was an African market, then a Jamaican market years ago, and now it’s Colombian. But it’s a living, breath­ing set, and the sense of com­mu­nity is pal­pa­ble, and they’re going to pull it down. It’s only two min­utes from my studio, so I just thought, I want to use it! And they were so happy to have a fash­ion crowd. I mean, they were con­fused by the whole thing, they were like what the fuck is this!” But it was excit­ing. I asked the market traders to keep the shops open, to keep serv­ing food and doing people’s nails and hair, because I wanted every­one vis­it­ing to get a sense of the market as a living, breath­ing space.

TELFAR: You didn’t want to be like, we’re shut­ting this whole place down, so that the fash­ion people can come.

MARTINE: Exactly.

TELFAR: It’s a sim­i­lar thing between me and White Castle. We have this part­ner­ship with them, and there’s never any list, or any­thing like that. When it first hap­pened, people were scared to come in, and so it ended up with a lot of people who’d attended the show being con­fused, trying to walk in and get­ting turned away. Then we had loads of random people who didn’t care and just walked in with con­fi­dence and they got in. And of course, that made the party better, because you need some­one random to bring that excite­ment.

MARTINE: You need people who aren’t in the indus­try to make it real.

TELFAR: I would rather con­duct my after­party like that, rather than it be this sort of, no sorry, we don’t know who this is, so he’s not coming in”

MARTINE: He might not have a high-pow­ered job, but hey, he’s going to add some­thing to this.

LYNETTE: Telfar, how did that even come about? Who approached who in that sit­u­a­tion? This is some­thing of per­sonal inter­est, because I’ve always found that col­lab­o­ra­tion insanely bril­liant. It would be like a British ver­sion of — we have a chicken shop called Morley’s, which is like a really cult thing..

TELFAR: Oh, I know Morley’s.

LYNETTE: Yeah, you know it. It tran­scends the oceans between us. [laughs] It would be like a designer doing an amaz­ing party in there. I’m just inter­ested in how that even hap­pened!

TELFAR: I mean, I’m work­ing with them in a pro­fes­sional capac­ity. It’s really again this idea of the fash­ion indus­try being bigger and wider, and expand­ing the def­i­n­i­tion of what’s con­sid­ered fash­ion. What we’re doing is cre­at­ing uni­forms for an entire nation. And we’re making clothes that you could buy at a White Castle, so any­body can own a piece of Telfar. You can buy it from your high end stores, or the White Castle on your local street, your hip­sters or your aver­age guys. The person that got it for free.

MARTINE: I guess this is an exten­sion of your com­mu­nity then, in a way. You’re build­ing it. 

TELFAR: My com­mu­nity is every­body.

LYNETTE: That’s the kind of democ­ra­ti­sa­tion that fash­ion really needs. We’ve gone so far in one direc­tion — it reminds me of a piece that I was edit­ing yes­ter­day, about the lan­guage used around fash­ion. Is it fash­ion or is it luxury? And in some ways, you shouldn’t sep­a­rate them, because it breeds this kind of exclu­siv­ity. Is a hoodie a luxury good? Well it is, if it’s £1800, and it’s from Kashmir and made by Celine. But if it’s a cotton hoodie, that’s more indica­tive of what we expect from a hoodie as a soci­ety, and then it becomes some­thing totally dif­fer­ent. But on the other hand, if things are defined, then there’s no expec­ta­tion for it to per­form that other pur­pose. Luxury can just be an Hermes scarf, because that’s almost all they do. But on the other hand, fash­ion can be a cel­e­bra­tion and explo­ration of every­thing. I think that’s what it’s meant to be. 

MARTINE: For me, luxury has always been a really con­fus­ing word. I never knew how to apply it to what I did. As far as I’m con­cerned, luxury can be some­thing as simple as a piece of cotton. But if that piece of cotton is silkscreen-printed and washed, then I’m happy to say that’s luxury, because there are some hours that have gone into that little square, that’s going on to someone’s jumper. Luxury is so much more than cash­mere, by which I mean any sort of tra­di­tional notion of what you think you’re paying for, when buying a luxury good. Luxury is giving some­one a piece of myself. 

LYNETTE: A piece of some­thing they couldn’t get any­where else. What do you think about that, Telfar?

TELFAR: I mean, I do have this weird aver­sion to luxury. I never want any­thing that’s con­sid­ered to have an it factor’. Having names for fab­rics and all of that. I just want the nicest cotton that feels like the type of cotton I’m wear­ing. It’s always based on my expe­ri­ence with clothes, and that’s a very vast expe­ri­ence. At the end of the day, cotton is cotton, it’s about how it’s treated. My think­ing is, will you ever get this again? Because that’s luxury.

MARTINE: There’s an under­tone of luxury that feels elit­ist, inac­ces­si­ble, a tone that doesn’t sit that well with me. I don’t think we’re living in a world of inac­ces­si­bil­ity any­more, I think that we’re def­i­nitely moving towards this notion of walls coming down, the patri­archy con­trol­ling what is and isn’t upheld within the fash­ion indus­try is being chal­lenged. There’s people that still want to hold onto that. What really annoyed be was that the British Fashion Awards’ cat­e­gory for inter­na­tional urban luxury…

TELFAR: Oh my god.

MARTINE: Sorry Telfar, if you didn’t know, the British Fashion Awards were renamed the Fashion Awards to try and make it more global, although I don’t feel like I saw a real global pres­ence. And then one of the cat­e­gories was called the International Urban Luxury fash­ion award… I’m not sure if that’s right, but it was some­thing insane. And then they ended up giving it to Vetements, which is fair enough, but it’s almost like the cat­e­gory was pre-made for that brand.

LYNETTE: That win.

MARTINE: Exactly. It wasn’t a real global look at how streetwear is break­ing down bound­aries.

LYNETTE: And always has been. 

TELFAR: Yeah. I’d rather just not be awarded, if it’s going to be that type of award.

MARTINE: Honestly, I’ve never won a com­pe­ti­tion, I’ve never entered any­thing, I’m just not inter­ested, it doesn’t really mean any­thing to me. The recog­ni­tion is nice, but who is it from?

LYNETTE: I do think the indus­try is so depen­dent on time, place and cir­cum­stance. Rather than output, inter­est and qual­ity.

MARTINE: One hun­dred per­cent.

LYNETTE: But anyway, Telfar I want to talk to you about your col­lab­o­ra­tions with artists, with Babak Radboy and DIS Collective for exam­ple. Is there crossover there? How would you define your­self when you’re col­lab­o­rat­ing with people like that?

TELFAR: I came from an art back­ground, and that’s always been part of my work. All my best friends are artists, and the way I would put out work orig­i­nally was through col­lab­o­rat­ing with them. Like we were just talk­ing about, top edi­tors would come to my shows, when it was some­thing very inde­pen­dent — and they would tell me it was the best thing they’d seen all week but they couldn’t write about it, because their editor wouldn’t let them. 

MARTINE: Telfar, this season was the first season I’ve ever had a review. And I’m ten years in, you know.

TELFAR: With DIS, it was just nice to have to people who believe in you. Friends of mine who were musi­cians and putting some­thing out, coming to me and saying you’re the only one who can work on this with me. That’s how so many of these col­lab­o­ra­tions hap­pened.

MARTINE: That’s nice.

TELFAR: It wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily like I knew this person was a video artist, or I knew this person was going to be a suc­cess­ful musi­cian, I just thought they were cool. And what they had could add to the expe­ri­ence of what my col­lec­tion was. 

LYNETTE: You also said you love col­lab­o­ra­tions, Martine.

MARTINE: I love them, yeah. I’ve done Timberland, Caterpillar, Napapijri.

LYNETTE: The boys went wild for the Napapijri one. Has it come out yet?

MARTINE: No, but I know, it did go a bit wild. A bit nuts. [laughs] I don’t know, it’s the same thing as Telfar, I’m excited by an exchange of ideas. Sometimes I’m just inspired by a person and how a person is, and it just so hap­pens that they make videos, and then I col­lab­o­rate with them. I’m not talk­ing about com­mer­cial col­lab­o­ra­tions, I mean col­lab­o­rat­ing on every sort of level. Even with my interns. it’s col­lab­o­ra­tive. Sometimes you get a team where they’re just so inspir­ing.

LYNETTE: How big is your team, Telfar?

TELFAR: It’s really small. It’s basi­cally me, Babak Radboy, my cre­ative direc­tor, and then my styl­ist Avena Gallagher. People slip in from time to time, of course. People have other things going on, so if some­one does some­thing really well, it means you have to leave them free to do what­ever they want — we keep things pretty..

MARTINE: Tight!

TELFAR: Yeah. It’s sort of relaxed over here, in terms of how big the team is. And around fash­ion week time, people come back together. 

LYNETTE: What about you Martine?

MARTINE: That sounds very sim­i­lar. The same size as me, really. It’s my studio man­ager, my pro­duc­tion man­ager, my styl­ist and me. And my pat­tern cutter. Again, it’s a really small, tight team, that expands and shrinks depend­ing on the time of the season. I work with Sharna Osborne a lot, var­i­ous other people come in and out. 

LYNETTE: And Telfar, you spent some time in your child­hood in Liberia, right?

TELFAR: Yeah, I’m Liberian. I was born here, and I’m basi­cally an anchor baby. I lived my first five years in Liberia. 

LYNETTE: What was that like?

TELFAR: I mean, Liberia, when I was there we were upper middle class, there was a driver, a nanny, because my par­ents were in the gov­ern­ment. But when I was five, this war broke out, and I came back to New York, to Queens. It was so dif­fer­ent. I mean, Liberian people speak English, but it’s very much a broken English, and nobody under­stood what I was saying. It was a really cute time, a typ­i­cal American expe­ri­ence.

LYNETTE: You grew up in Queens and you still live in Queens, right?

TELFAR: Yeah. In the house I was born in, actu­ally!

MARTINE: Oh wow! Really!

TELFAR: I just moved back there.

MARTINE: That’s really cool. That’s amaz­ing.

LYNETTE: It’s inter­est­ing, because I’d say that fash­ion in London is still very much defined by a spe­cific area, that being east London. Is there an area in New York that you feel is kind of sim­i­lar at the minute? Where there’s a high con­cen­tra­tion of design­ers, styl­ists, edi­tors, where they all hang out and work.

TELFAR: I think prob­a­bly the Lower East Side feels like that for me. I some­times think I can’t ever seem to leave this area — it’s been a con­stant through­out my entire New York life. We’re back in the same build­ing that my styl­ist and cre­ative direc­tor used to live in when I first started to work. I remem­ber cast­ing in their apart­ment build­ing. And we’re work­ing now in an office across from there. So for me now, it’s like Chinatown, Lower East Side. I was saying the other day, can’t we just get another neigh­bour­hood to be in?”

MARTINE: That’s pretty much the same with east London. You cannot escape that how­ever-many-mile radius. 

LYNETTE: But you should be care­ful, because Tottenham is..

MARTINE: Oh, Tottenham is coming up babes, I know, I know. 

LYNETTE: So yeah, where Martine is based, there’s loads more design­ers, and people have realised what a gem it is, because it’s so well located.

TELFAR: It’s hap­pen­ing every­where. But I also feel that too, I’m like, woah, if I’m here–

LYNETTE: Yeah. You can’t be the only one that’s freak­ing out about it. Why don’t we do some­thing fun?

MARTINE: [laughs] Yes, let’s.

LYNETTE: So. If there’s one ques­tion you could ask Telfar, what would it be Martine? And Telfar, vice versa. 

MARTINE: Oh shit. Let me think for a second, I want it to be a good one. Well actu­ally, I think we’ve been going for more or less the same length of time — when did you set up your label? For me it was about 10 years ago now.

TELFAR: Yeah, that was when I first started making clothes from scratch. 

MARTINE: Looking back on your expe­ri­ence, and how you’ve built the label, I’m inter­ested to know if you feel the same way. For me, I’d never worked for anyone else, so I had no model to base it on — it was like guess­work, grop­ing in the dark, trying to figure out how a busi­ness runs. I had no idea, I don’t think I have any idea still, I’m not a busi­nessper­son at all. So what I wanted to ask was, look­ing back, would you do it any dif­fer­ently?

TELFAR: Wow. Yeah. I mean, maybe we should just ask each other the same ques­tion here. I have to say that I’m learn­ing from my mis­takes as I go. I def­i­nitely have a road to travel on, in terms of fig­ur­ing out exactly what works for me. I don’t think I would do it dif­fer­ently though. Everything — even look­ing back at the mis­takes that hap­pened — I think they..

MARTINE: They lead to some­thing spe­cial.

LYNETTE: Telfar, what’s your ques­tion?

TELFAR: I mean, how do you better that? [laughs] Is there any­thing that you would have done dif­fer­ently? And what are you going to do with the award [LVMH Prize 2017] if you win, because I’m sure you will. I wish you the best of luck really, I mean, of course you need to win.

MARTINE: Oh, you’re so lovely. Thank you. I don’t know, I totally agree with your state­ment there. Every mis­take and fuck-up, and there’s been loads, has led me to some­thing else. So I def­i­nitely wouldn’t change a thing. And it’s only recently, when I’ve started work­ing in-house for other design­ers, I’m like fuck, that’s how they do it!” It’s much more stream­lined. And I’m not a very stream­lined person, I’m def­i­nitely learn­ing on the jobs. So you’re right, it’s more about adapt­ing myself to the future, and how to go for­ward, rather than chang­ing any­thing in my past. In terms of the award, I don’t know.

TELFAR: It’s some cool shit though.

MARTINE: You’re lovely.