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The enviable power of the Telfar shopping bag

By Kristopher Fraser

Aug 5, 2020


A kiss on the hand might be quite continental, but a handbag is a girl’s (or boy’s) best friend. It is a known fact that a woman do carry an evening bag at dinner time, according to RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Bob, the Drag Queen in her infamous song “Purse First.” Throughout the course of modern history, entire fashion subcultures have been built around designer handbags from the Chanel 2.55 to the Fendi Baguette, the latter of which came to fame thanks to “Sex and the City.” Each year, fashion designers duke it out in the accessories category for who will come through with the It Bags of the year.

It might seem frivolous, but when accessories are often the bread and butter for many fashion brands, particularly luxury and contemporary fashion brands, handbags are the queen supreme. Walking through the streets of Brooklyn, one particular handbag has begun to reign supreme, the Telfar Shopping Bag. On the outside it might just seem a logo shopping tote, but the culture of the Telfar shopping bag permeates much deeper than that.

Queens, New York-born Telfar Clemens is the founder of the eponymous Telfar label. The Liberian-American designer was the first Black designer to win the Vogue/CFDA Fashion Fund, which came with a 400,000 dollar prize that allowed him to continue producing the Telfar Shopping Bags. In 2005, while still a student at Pace University, Clemens found the label which slowly, but surely began developing a strong following.

The Telfar Shopping Bag could arguably be the It Bag of the last decade

It was the Telfar Shopping Bag that truly put the designer on the map though. Dubbed “The Bushwick Birkin”, the Telfar Shopping Bag has been coined one of the decade’s most important accessories. While it might seem like just another shopping bag, the culture and iconography of the bag are much deeper than that.

Clemens, born to immigrant parents, represents the breaking of a glass ceiling in the fashion industry where few like him have been represented. For generations, Black talent in fashion have had to work twice as hard to get half the recognition their white counterparts had. When Telfar claimed the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund prize, it was a moment that would be a turning point in history for Black creatives in the fashion industry.

As It Bags go, many often come with four figure price tags that result in months of saving, accumulation of credit card debt, or the investment piece of the year for those privileged enough. The Telfar Shopping Bag, on the other hand, can be found in an average price range of between 128 and 270 dollars based on the size. The accessible pricing is the kind of thing one would expect from a brand in mass market department stores, not a cult streetwear label, but therein lies the appeal of the Telfar Shopping Bag. It’s a bag that says fashion can be obtainable for everyone, not just a select few.

What the Teflar Shopping Bag’s consumers get from the bag is a symbol of inclusivity. Telfar’s genderless, Brooklyn streetwear chic label is for those who have long been left on the outskirts of society. It’s a bag that resonates with those who may have might be just starting to “make it” and can obtain their first fashion piece, it is a symbol that a queer Black man from an immigrant background can find success against all odds, and of course, it is also functional.

Democratization was always at the key of Telfar’s brand DNA. The designer has held pop-ups at discount chain Century 21, and has collaborated with White Castle (yes, the fast-food chain) to design uniforms for their staff. In the world of Telfar, there is no exclusion. The brand can go from the streets of Brookyln to the White Castle off of the highway.

The Telfar Shopping Bag was first introduced for fall/winter 2014. At the time, Telfar was still on climbing the ladder to fashion stardom, but he had his customer, and it was a customer he knew well. The bag in itself was inspired by the Bloomingdale’s shopping bag. Clemens measured a Bloomingdale’s shopping bag to get the measurements for his, and thus the Telfar Shopping Bag was born.

In Telfar’s unisex spirit, the bag has found an audience of both male and female consumers. The universalness of the bag goes far beyond just price point as well, it comes in a variety of colors from black to bright pink. There’s a bag for any situation, from the large bag, fit for a stylist on the go, to the small shopping tote, which is great for going to the club. The bag has also been great for Telfar’s sales.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Telfar shopping tote has catapulted the brand’s sales from 100,000 dollars a year to 1.6 million dollars a year. The bag has become so popular that it is virtually impossible to get. Stockists from Farfetch to Ssense regularly sell out of the bag, and the bag is even sold out on Telfar’s own e-commerce channels. Unlike many other coveted It bags like the Hermes Birkin or the Gabriela Hearst Nina, the Telfar Shopping Bag doesn’t have a waitlist, so it’s like a reenactment of the Hunger Games trying to get your hands on one at this point.

This year, Telfar has been nominated for the CFDA Award for Accessories Designer of the Year. The designer was also nominated in 2019 but lost to Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen of The Row. With the growing popularity of the bag, could this finally be Telfar’s year to shine?

The Telfar Shopping Bag, just like the man who created it, is a disruptor to the fashion establishment. It’s not mass-market fashion, but still accessible, unlike other contemporary and luxury brands. It represents a turning point in fashion history for what Black designers could achieve. It’s not a status symbol, but, rather, a symbol of diversity and inclusion. The contents of the Telfar Shopping Bag go far beyond what you put inside. It’s a beacon to a new generation of fashion lovers and those who now see themselves represented by a high-fashion brand for the first time.

photo1: via shop.oogaboogastore.com
photos 2 and 3: via Telfar Facebook page