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.
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.
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.
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..
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.