Telfar: creating a collectible that anyone can truly own
In 2021, Guess came under social media scrutiny for selling what appeared to be a blatant counterfeit of the popular and often sold out Telfar Shopping Bag. Telfar founder and designer Telfar Clemens may have had reason to sue Guess for trademark infringement, and Guess was no stranger to such lawsuits; Gucci had done just that a decade earlier when it sought $221 million in damages from Guess over the use of its famous “G” logo. But Clemens, aware of both the value of its bags and – perhaps more than can be said of most major brands – the Streisand effect, did nothing.
And he had nothing to do. In the face of growing bad press, Signal Brands, which licenses Guess bags, pulled the Telfar lookalikes from shelves of their own volition. “Signal Brands does not wish to create any impediment to the success of Telfar Global and as such has independently decided to discontinue selling the G-logo bags,” it said in a statement.
The decision speaks to the true appeal of Telfar’s vegan leather bags, which has nothing to do with large sums of money or strangled access. It doesn’t matter if there is a copycat version, because Telfar buyers are buying more than aesthetics or exclusivity: they are buying into a community. “Not for you – for everyone”, as Telfar’s slogan says loud and clear. These aspects put the Telfar shopping bag in a class of its own as a modern collectible. As part of an ongoing series examining what makes popular products of our time into modern collectibles, we describe how the Telfar shopping bag has carved out a fashion lane of its own.
Most modern collectibles subvert traditional models and institutions. This can take the form of products like sneakers that win a spot at an auction house or a hoodie that makes it to a luxury catwalk.
“In my first ten years as a designer, I never received a single criticism,” Clemens told The Cut in 2018. “But we won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2017, and since then , Telfar is the poster for the mission. accomplished in inclusion.
With this momentum, then, it might have seemed to some that the Telfar brand and its shopping bags had come out of “nowhere” when the fashion powerhouses began to take notice. But Clemens first launched his eponymous brand in 2005 and the shopping bag in 2014. The bags were inspired by an item the masses could already get their hands on: small, medium and large paper shopping bags. Bloomingdale’s brown.
Telfar’s profile certainly started to rise from 2018; Clemens’ victory at the CFDA was followed by reports in the New York Times and an exhibition at Pitti Uomo in Florence, at a time when the fashion industry was being criticized for its lack of support for black designers. But the Telfar brand had already found success on its own terms, without institutional support, and Clemens dismissed the idea that his brand represented the new “inclusive” ideals of fashion. When his Gap collaboration was, perhaps unceremoniously, dismissed following the announcement of the retailer’s partnership with Yeezy in 2020, Clemens didn’t make a fuss. Why should he? His bags were selling faster than they could make them. Industry needed Telfar more than Telfar needed industry.
VALUE OF POPULAR CULTURE
Modern collectibles have a high popular cultural value – this can include new brands but also long-standing luxury brands. This takes the form of products that sit at the intersection of fashion, art and music.
When Telfar snagged a feature in In the style magazine to promote the brand’s Ugg collaboration, Clemens invited members of a veritable television institution to model its merchandise: the stars of The Real Housewives of the Potomac. The playful shoot was not only a nod to Clemens’ Maryland roots, but also speaks to how Telfar’s reach goes far beyond fashion. As Clemens noted in the accompanying interview, a lack of institutional support in fashion forced him to look outside of traditional fashion weeks to show off his clothes, making Telfar a “cultural brand”. more than a fashion label.
Telfar’s collaboration choices also testify to this attraction; in addition to working with fashion brands like Ugg, Telfar outfitted Liberian athletes for the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics and launched a collaboration with fast-food chain White Castle. Her bags have also appeared on HBO Unsafe, who made a point of outfitting their characters with black designers; a season five episode even served as an unofficial reveal for a never-before-seen bag color. Telfar customers are, after all, pop culture savvy consumers, as evidenced by their use of internet jokes and slang in brand discussion.
Telfar is so much more than the Shopping Bag, but with its simple yet prominent logo and instantly recognizable silhouette, the bag has become iconic to the brand as a whole, and continues to feature many to Telfar as a whole – it does not Perhaps comes as no surprise to some that the Olympic gig took place when sprinter Emmanuel Matadi saw his girlfriend’s obsession with Telfar bags and learned of Clemens’ Liberian heritage.
Modern collectibles need to have mass appeal – that means attracting new audiences. While traditional luxury and traditional art spaces were closed to the masthead public – apart from the viewer – modern collectibles depend on the approval of public opinion through channels such as social media.
The ‘Bushwick Birkin’, as Telfar’s shopping bag has been playfully dubbed, alludes to the democratic nature of the bag: it is attractive and accessible to a young, stylish and less affluent clientele. The item’s appeal goes far beyond the Brooklyn 20s, as by 2021 the bags had made their way to Oprah’s Favorite Things, a segment on Wendy Williams’ talk show, and features on the dots. sale of Today to the Wall Street Journal.
But the bag also appeals to an audience often shunned in mainstream spaces: people of color, gay people, shoppers who can’t afford a $1,000 bag. The bag’s starting price, $150 for a mini, isn’t nothing, but it’s far more accessible than perhaps any other bag with Telfar’s cache. And its design was conceived as a unisex product, long before mainstream brands embraced “genderless” or “fluid” designs. Since the launch of the bag, Telfar has never relied on traditional marketing. Instead, the bag’s popularity grew through word of mouth and social media. While the bag has appeared on the arms of celebrities more recently, Telfar continues to celebrate the fans who made the bag what it is, reposting images of the many customers who share images of their bags on Instagram or TikTok.
Modern collectibles are products that, due to factors such as popular culture and hype, are in high demand when they are released. Many of these products follow a drop pattern that has been popularized by streetwear stalwarts like Supreme.
As immortalized in Sex and the City, the famous Hermès Birkin not only has a high price, but a waiting list (which only those with a certain “status”, such as Lucy Liu, can circumvent ). Such a system asks, would the bag still be available if someone could have one? How much value does an item lose if “too many” people also wear it?
For Telfar, the answer is no. That the bag is so ubiquitous in no way diminishes its appeal. As 2020 dawned, it was clear that demand was outstripping supply, as new bag colors were steadily selling out within minutes online. Rather than reveling in the scarcity of bags, Telfar completely changed the model and launched the Bag Security Program: For 24 hours, any customer could purchase a bag of any color or size, with the bags then being made to order and shipped within the following timeframes. month. But the launch of the BSP hasn’t diminished the hype around new drops; Telfar continues to release the bag in anticipated new colors like “Margarine” of 2022, and the bags continue to sell out immediately. And those who missed them the first time will just have to wait for the next BSP to get theirs.
Modern collectibles derive their value from cultural capital, mass appeal and instant demand. This translates into products like sneakers, hoodies, and toys that achieve instant resale value. These products are finding their way to sites like StockX and Grailed, but have also made their way to auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s.
Granted, brands aren’t reaping the benefits of high resale value on their freebies on StockX and other secondary marketplaces. But sky-high resale prices still give brands a certain halo effect, in essence a clear indication that their items have been a hit.
Telfar has a different relationship with resale. Of course, the bags appear on resale sites like Grailed and StockX, where they can go up to double their retail price. But Telfar’s platform has tried to ensure that the bags go to those who really want them, not just those who want to resell them, through the bag security program as well as the introduction of a system Captcha to repel bots. It’s likely that Telfar could have limited the drops, kept some colors to single releases, and seen the resale value go up and up. But that would go against the nature of the bags, which testify to the value of a dedicated community whose numbers are only growing.
Modern collectibles include products such as sneakers, handbags, streetwear, and toys.
Handbags have always had a certain cultural appeal, but the bags that have achieved collector status have often done so through high-end materials or unique editions, think Kim Kardashian’s George Condo Birkin bag or to Judith Leiber’s once-ubiquitous Swarovski crystal-encrusted minaudières.
Telfar’s shopping bags don’t boast any high-end materials or embellishments, just vegan leather (a material once known as the less-than-appealing “pleather”) in a bevy of eye-catching colors. Everyone has their color and size preference, but there is no “special” Telfar bag that only celebrities can snag.
Modern collectibles do not create value over time, but rather create almost instantaneous value.
Even though the Shopping Bag exploded onto a massive scene years after its release, bags are not a trend. Their popularity is not based on a certain time or a certain release, for those who appreciate style, they have always had value. Institutional approval of Telfar’s fashion might wane over time, but that wouldn’t matter; bags build their value on their own.