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Brands on the Rise is a regular Ad Age feature spotlighting the marketing and business tactics of successful challenger brands. Read other installments here.
For brands, getting a shout-out from Beyoncé is worth more than money can buy. It’s even more valuable when it fits the brand’s positioning. So when the superstar singer did both for Black-owned apparel brand Telfar this summer, it gave another push for an already hot brand. “So elegant and raunchy, this haute couture I’m flaunting. This Telfar bag imported, Birkins, them shits in storage— I’m in my bag,” Beyonce sings in her new song “Summer Renaissance,” which was released in July.
The direct comparison between Telfar and exclusive Birkin bags (Telfar has also been dubbed “the Bushwick Burkin”) is in line with how the brand has framed itself: standing for inclusivity and democratizing a traditionally elite luxury fashion sector with prices that are more accessible, ranging from $150 to $257.
But there is more to Telfar’s rise than a mention from Queen Bey. It has burst into pop culture with an approach encapsulated by a tagline scripted on its website: “Not for You—for Everyone.”
Telfar declined a request for an interview and did not disclose sales figures. Sales results are also not readily available through third-party providers. But there is evidence the brand is gaining popularity. Searches for the word “Telfar” and “Telfar bag” picked up for the first time in 2020, according to Google Trends, and have been increasing with fluctuations since.
Searches for “Telfar bag” rose again in July, after Beyoncé’s album came out—double the searches for “Birkin bag.” In a similar time period, views for Telfar jumped by 85% globally on resale site The RealReal and searches, page views and clicks on “add to bag” for the brand’s products increased by 47% on resale website Fashionphile, according to Vogue.
Below, more on Telfar’s origin story, its marketing approach and what might be next for the brand, which is shaking up luxury fashion.
Started by Liberian-American designer Telfar Clemens in 2005, Telfar gained popularity in 2020, particularly within the Black community. Its key product is a handbag known for its shopping bag silhouette and the “TC” logo, a combination of the designer’s initials. Its other products range from sneakers and socks to durags and hats to jewelry. Its aim to appeal to the masses is termed “masstige,” a combination of “masses” and “prestige,” according to Mona Mrad, assistant professor in marketing at the American University of Sharjah.
Queens-born Clemens started the brand as an undergraduate at Pace University in New York. Black and openly queer, Clemens worked as a DJ and model on the side and based his brand on the street style that he saw every day.
In 2013, Clemens partnered with Babak Radboy, who became Telfar’s creative director, according to an interview with NPR in February. Avena Gallagher, a stylist who is married to Radboy and who has worked with Clemens since he started his brand, said Telfar was “a one-man show” for a long time, according to a 2020 interview with the New York Times. “In the beginning, he was fueled by this very bouncy-happy energy, but at some points he got really tired. We got really close to calling it quits.”
“I’m not going to be fooled into thinking I have a place in this thing where I’ve been told I have no place,” Clemens said in the Times interview.
In 2014, the brand released its Telfar Bag, which was mentioned by Oprah Winfrey and other celebrities. The bag is available in three sizes and became known as the “Bushwick Burkin,” given “a status symbol for people into fashion, especially in Brooklyn,” makeup artist Xya Rachel said in an interview with The Cut—meaning a Birkin “but for those who don’t have Hermès kinda coins. Hence, Bushwick Birkin. It’s not that serious; it’s mostly just funny as hell,” Rachel said in the interview.
The brand also partnered with Kmart for a 2014 fashion show and White Castle to design the fast food brand’s uniforms in 2020, according to Vogue.
During the pandemic, Telfar boomed while other fashion brands declined when fashion shows were canceled and retail stores shut down.
At the start of 2020, just before COVID-19 hit the U.S., the brand ignored the Met Gala and held its own event in January. “In January 2019, we set the date of January 2020 to be out of the fashion system. We couldn’t keep investing ourselves in something we didn’t control,” said Radboy in an interview with Vogue.
It also pulled its products from wholesalers so that it controlled its sales. This rejection of typical forms of revenue meant that when the pandemic shut fashion shows and retail stores down, the brand was able to sustain itself, according to an interview with the New York Times. It was “the best year” for the brand, said Clemens in the interview.
Telfar saw a 270% increase in searches week-on-week from August to December 2020, according to fashion search website Lyst. It collaborated with brands such as Ugg. Clemens was given awards including the Council of Fashion Designers of America Award for best accessories designer, the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for fashion design and GQ designer of the year.
“A lot of celebrities have become endorsers of the brand,” said Quan Xie, assistant professor of advertising in the Temerlin Advertising Institute at Southern Methodist University. Before Beyoncé’s “Renaissance” mention, Telfar was on Oprah’s list of favorite things, mentioned in an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Instagram story, and had one of its bags toted by Issa Rae on season four of the TV show “Insecure.”
Beyoncé rocking a white Teflar bag 😍 pic.twitter.com/qy80gWVUqe
Telfar’s focus on inclusion and community can be seen in its marketing, ranging from how it launched its own media channel to moves to ensure loyal customers get first dibs at hot products.
The brand created a streaming channel that it calls “Telfar TV” in September 2021. “Basically we launched a TV Channel without any content—because we are tired of being content for other channels,” according to the channel’s website. Consumers are invited to “take part in what it becomes by sending us your videos” and can also watch live shows, buy products and learn about apparel drops, according to the channel’s site. The channel was launched to promote and sell the brand’s duffel bag–people had to scan a QR code that came on screen for a minute at a time in order to purchase the bag.
The streaming channel can be viewed on telfar.tv by downloading an app, or through Apple TV, Roku, Google Play or Amazon Fire TV.
“In a world where our content is truly managed by the big social media platforms, what they’re trying to do is invite the community and say here, instead of dumping it on TikTok, come here,” said Thomaï Serdari, professor of marketing at NYU Stern and director of the university’s fashion and luxury MBA program. This is reminiscent of athletic retailer Lululemon’s efforts to frame itself as uniting its consumer base around “something greater, the aspiration that unites us all,” said Serdari.
Louis Vuitton has used its website to stream performance art related to its collection, said Serdari. But Telfar’s channel is different in that it’s “bottom up”–an attempt to “have a two-way dialogue” between brand and consumer, she said.
Telfar has also taken a consumer-focused approach to its product launches, gaining recognition for its bag security program in 2020, which aimed to prioritize loyal customers by stopping bulk ordering by resellers and others (some using bots). The program enables people to pre-order bags in the size and color they wanted for a limited period. The bag security program is now in its fourth iteration.
The brand also launched a blind drop in March, where it blurred out any details about the actual product it was planning on launching.
YOU ASKED FOR IT — so we FINALLY made a ████, in collaboration with ████®, with ████, ████ and ████, ALL STYLES dropping MARCH 25— BLIND PRE-ORDER just in time for ████. ONLY at https://t.co/EpbOnsgxIz pic.twitter.com/l4ooMAyU2S
It invited consumers to pre-order a product they didn’t know anything about, which turned out to be a circle bag made in collaboration with lifestyle brand Eastpak.
Serdari questioned that approach. “I’m not sure that the relationship between the brand and the consumer is equal,” said Serdari. In her view, the blind drop reinforces the notion of consumerism and goes against the brand’s ideal of equality and inclusion by creating a power imbalance.
But Xie said “they’re trying to create an experience” that is “fun and playful, even exciting.” The blind drop appeals to Gen Z and millennials, the brand’s major consumer base, she said. But she agreed that the strategy could backfire “if the final products are not very satisfactory for consumers … Consumers can feel that they’ve been manipulated.”
In addition to inclusivity, the brand has appealed to values around sustainability by placing an emphasis on the “vegan” nature of bags. But Serdari raised questions about where and how the bags are made. “Sustainability has so many tenets,” she said. “They don’t reveal any of this.”
The bags are made in Chinese factories in which conditions are unknown, and the bag’s “faux leather” are also made of a blend of polyester and polyurethane, according to the FAQ section on Telfar’s website. Despite emphasizing its use of vegan leather, the brand has partnered with shoe company Ugg and uses real fur and suede, according to its FAQ.
Although Telfar has often been positioned in relation to luxury brands, the question of whether Telfar counts as a luxury brand—and whether it wants to be—remains up for debate.
The traditional definition of “luxury” is a combination of factors including limited stock, skilled craftsmanship, rare materials and high prices, according to Serdari. Telfar’s prices are much lower than those of brands such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton, and its “operations (are also not) aligned with what luxury brands do,” said Serdari.
But Mrad said that “it might become a luxury brand with time” and the luxury industry has also had to evolve to meet changing consumer tastes, such as streetwear trends and values around sustainability.
According to Xie, “whether they become a luxury brand (doesn’t seem to be) their main concern.” She said that instead, “they want to be inclusive, they want to give their fans a way to express themselves, express their political statements.”
Telfar has fostered an identity for those who wear it, according to Xie. It helps consumers silently take a stand on “topics that can be sensitive” and find people who agree with them, she said.
Telfar has also created marketing that fits with its message, which is unusual for an apparel brand, said Albert Thompson, managing director of digital innovation at multicultural agency Walton Isaacson. The “marketing match(es) who the design is made for” rather than placing designs on random mannequins like brands such as Zara, he said.
Telfar at the end of August released a black and yellow bag, partnering for a second time with Eastpak—the brand it first worked with for the blind drop in March. Telfar also has plans to open a flagship store in New York, which Clemens announced during a March interview with “The Breakfast Club” radio show.
A post shared by @telfarglobal
Telfar will need to adapt to maintain interest and grow—if that is its goal, according to specialists. If it wants to go global, the brand might have to create more universally appealing advertising to appeal to different cultures and backgrounds, said Mrad.
In order to maintain the message of inclusivity, Telfar will also have to contend with other factors such as body type and inclusive sizing, said Thompson. He added that “it depends on how big (the brand gets.) If they’re in 500 stores nationwide, it will become a problem.”
The brand will also “need to pay more attention to the product that they’re creating,” according to Serdari. This includes “innovation” in the other products it creates, such as its shoes.
In this article:
Jade Yan is a general assignment reporter for Ad Age. She has worked for the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, along with The South Side Weekly, City Bureau and The Peoria Journal-Star.