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Telfar Clemens, Tommy Hilfiger and the State of American Fashion

BoF brings you a conversation between the designers Telfar Clemens and Tommy Hilfiger on the rise of their respective labels and the state of American fashion past and present, courtesy of System magazine.
Telfar Clemens by Juergen Teller | Source: Courtesy System
By
  • System Magazine

Telfar Clemens: Hey, Tommy. Nice to finally meet you. I'm such a huge fan.

Tommy Hilfiger: Nice to finally meet you, too. I love what you're doing. I love when you piece and patch all that cool stuff together, and I love those bags you're doing. How many people are on your team?

Telfar: About six of us. We're a really small team.

Tommy: How are you getting on selling on e-commerce?

Telfar: Luckily, we already began the year shifting our energy towards working on our e-commerce, to make that our main focus, and right now of course that is the thing that everyone is forced to rely on, so we are in a good place. We planned about a year ahead to skip Spring/Summer 2021 and make this big shift towards a different way of doing business. We were really lucky, because that took wholesale out of our P & L, even though it was growing really well. We've really wanted to focus on reaching the people who matter to the brand, which isn't necessarily fashion people. We have a whole community outside of the world of fashion.

We have a whole community outside of the world of fashion.

Tommy: Which stores are you in?

Telfar: We sell at a lot of stores. In New York, our main stores are Opening Ceremony and Dover Street Market. In Paris, it's Galeries Lafayette, and a lot of the new stores there.

Tommy: But no Neiman's or Saks?

Telfar: No. We have Browns in London, though. The big department stores have been courting us for years, and the ones that we do deal with, we do well in. But we are a different kind of brand from where retail is right now. Like, I really want to be independent.

Tommy: ...and you don't want to sell at discount prices, anyway, and all the department stores will slash the prices.

Telfar: Our stuff is already kind of discounted. I have never wanted people to think that the price is what makes the garment what it is. I'm a Century 21 kind of person, to be honest: I got my entire fashion education from going to the European fashion designer section at Century 21, opening things up, trying them on, buying them, turning them inside out, returning them. That is how I learned about fashion, just by seeing everything all together. I think of it all as one thing. I don't really think that fashion needs to be expensive. That's the thing with me — I am inspired by the most ubiquitous things, from Old Navy to Comme des Garçons.

Tommy: How much are your bags? Those totes with that cool logo?

Telfar: There are three different sizes and the smallest one starts at $120; the biggest is $280.

Tommy: Wow, that's a good price. The logo is really awesome. Is it embossed?

Telfar: It's a debossed logo. The T and the C are for Telfar Clemens. My teacher made the logo for me when I was in kindergarten. He was such a cool teacher. I put that on all my designs.

Tommy: What are we going to talk about today?

Telfar: We were really inspired by the story of how you started, with the George Lois billboard in Times Square.

Tommy: OK, I can tell you that story.

Telfar: I would love to hear it, because we followed that narrative when we presented Telfar as a big-bucks-celebrity designer, when it was actually just the two of us — myself and Babak [Radboy, Telfar's creative director]. To know that there was that precedent was pretty amazing for us.

I have never wanted people to think that the price is what makes the garment what it is.

Tommy: In 1985, I was thinking about doing some advertising, but I didn't really have any money to do it. This Indian guy who was backing me, Mohan Murjani, introduced me to [legendary art director] George Lois. George hadn't really done any fashion advertising prior to that, and I explained to him that I was always looking at Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren ads, and maybe I'd want to put a model on a beach and, you know, photograph him with his hair blowing in the wind or with his shirt untucked. And he just looked at me and said, 'That is bullshit! You don't want to do that.' And I was, like, 'OK, why not?' And he said, 'Because everyone else is doing that.' He told me to give him a couple of days and he went back to his studio. When he came back, he brought boards with ads plastered on them — Giorgio Armani ads, Calvin Klein ads, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Perry Ellis — but he'd removed the names from all the ad images. He then started asking people in the room, 'Could you identify these ads?' They were saying that the Ralph Lauren ad, shot in black-and-white by Bruce Weber, was the Calvin Klein ad, because the Calvin Klein ad was also shot by Bruce Weber in black-and-white, and it also had horses in the background. And then Giorgio Armani looked like Donna Karan... Basically, everybody looked the same.

Telfar: That's so true.

Tommy: Then he pulled out a new board that said: 'The 4 great American designers for men are: R____L_____,P____E____,C_____K____, … and T____H_______. This is the logo of the least-known of the four, but he's the next big American designer.' And I just said, 'Fuck, you can't do that!' And he said, 'Yes, you can. It's legal.' And I was, like, 'Yes, but people are going to think I'm crazy. These guys are big established designers, I can't do that.' And he looked at me and said, 'Well, OK, if you do what you say you want to do — just photograph a model on the beach — you're going to need about 20 years and millions of dollars to break through.' He kept saying that you have to disrupt the marketplace so that people will remember your name, know who you are, and will talk about you everywhere.

Telfar: What did you understand he meant by the word everywhere?

Tommy: Everywhere! Like, we would become the water-cooler conversation, the dinner-party conversation, the cocktail-party conversation, even conversations over bongs... Everything! I said, 'OK, I've got nothing to lose, let's go for it.' So we bought a Times Square billboard and that was it, that was the establishing of Tommy Hilfiger, the brand and the flag. Nobody knew me before then, but everyone was suddenly talking about it, saying that's crazy, how could he do this, who does this kid think he is? He's not a fashion designer; he didn't go to design school; he'll be out of business in six months, blah, blah, blah. But it worked in establishing the name, shoulder to shoulder with some of the biggest names in fashion at the time.

Telfar: Were people pissed at you? Like your peers?

Tommy: Very! They hated it. They might still hate me, I don't know. I don't really care.

Telfar: Oh my God!

Tommy: My clothes were an alternative to Ralph Lauren and the other clothes out there, because I wanted to make preppy classics cool. I started using a lot of athletic influences: oversize jerseys, hockey jerseys, football jerseys, putting big numbers and a big logo... And all the hip-hop kids started wearing the big logos on the streets, and they would wear my jeans, like, 10 sizes too big.

Telfar: Yeah, of course.

Tommy: And then I met Snoop. He wore one of the rugby jerseys on Saturday Night Live [on 19 March 1994], and people went crazy. And then Puffy and Russell Simmons and everybody started wearing the clothes, and that's when the business really blew up. I still held onto the preppy all-American look, which was the mainstay of the business: the basics.

Telfar: I really love that every single person could wear it and it matched their personality. And they are still wearing it...

Tommy: Men, women, children, all different backgrounds, all different sizes. And everyone wears it in a totally different way.

Telfar: That definitely strikes a chord with us. With us, there is an avant-garde strain, but the things we are deconstructing are the commonest things possible. That is the communication that we want to have.

Tommy: I think it is genius, by the way. You saw out of the box: the deconstructing and the reconstructing of all of the cool essentials and basics, workwear and athletic wear. Honestly, if I had to do it all again, I would do the same thing you guys are doing.

Telfar: That's so cool to hear. When I was younger, I wanted a really tight Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt to show off my belly button, but I'd have to go to the women's section to get that look. Today, my take with my brand is that things are just for people; we're erasing where it comes from or who is supposed to wear it. It's just letting people find what they want and appreciate what they like.

My take with my brand is that things are just for people; we're erasing where it comes from or who is supposed to wear it.

Tommy: Before I started Tommy Hilfiger, when I was 18 years old, I opened my first shop. It was called People's Place, and all the clothes were for 'the people.' Everything was for everybody. This was 1969, and I had People's Place throughout the 1970s. It was a time when everything was for everybody: bell-bottoms and midriff tops... A lot of the rock stars started wearing glam, and it was all inspired by that movement.

Telfar: That is amazing. So it was based on size and style. Where was this?

Tommy: I opened my first one in my hometown of Elmira, New York, which is in the middle of New York state. Then I opened more stores on college campuses. I was selling to college students all this cool stuff that I would find in little shops in the Village, in SoHo, in St Mark's Place. I would bring it all back upstate to resell to my customers.

Telfar: You were like a vintage dealer, a designer, a fashion dude.

Tommy: I guess you could say that.

Telfar: Growing up, shopping for clothes was my one freedom. That was my principal motivation, and the same motivation for choosing my college in New York, which was down near the Fashion District. When I was growing up, there was this whole rumour going around that you didn't want Black people wearing your clothes. Talking to you now, and seeing how that was such a core part of launching your business, I just think that what you've done is super cool and inspiring.

Tommy: The person who started that rumour must have been a competitor, but we never found out who. The rumour said I was on Oprah when I said that. But when Oprah heard the rumour, she was like, 'What? He was never even on the show!' So she called me and said, 'Come on the show, I want you to quash the rumour.'

Telfar: You knew Oprah?

Tommy: We knew each other through Quincy Jones, who's a very good friend of mine. And Oprah was, like, 'There is no way he said that. He was not even on the show.' There are still stupid people out there today who believe it, but it is so far from the truth.

Telfar: I mean, looking back, your fashion shows and campaigns featured all my favourite artists, like Aaliyah...

Tommy: Exactly. I just think there was somebody jealous or vindictive who wanted to put me out of business by making up that rumour. I mean, the part of culture that drove my business came from the streets and from my love for music, from the fashion to the clubs to who is up-and-coming. More than anything, it just hurt my heart to hear that.

Telfar: It is really cool to hear the back story of that whole thing. It's important to hear, because there is so much misrepresentation in the fashion industry, and so many people trying to be something they are not. Especially now, when things are expected to be inclusive, but it's often just token. To hear how you've genuinely been inclusive is really cool.

Tommy: Even from the early days, when I started doing ads in magazines, I wanted people who were not just models; I wanted Aaliyah, musicians, real people. Beyoncé was my first fragrance face. I met her when she was 16 and I was doing a fashion show at Macy's. The DJ had cancelled, so my brother Andy came up to me and said, 'Tommy, there are these three girls who have a group, they dress just like Aaliyah, and they could perform during the show.' I was like, 'OK, bring them on stage, let them perform.' I turned around and asked, 'Who's the one in the middle? She's got a great voice and a great look.' And Andy said, 'Oh, her name's Beyoncé.' That was before Destiny's Child was even known. It's crazy.

Telfar: Wow, that's amazing. What are you up to right now in the midst of all this quarantine?

Tommy: I am trying to figure out what the next step is, because I don't want to go back to what we were doing before. We already did the big, see-now-buy-now fashion shows. We moved into digital media and entertainment for the shows, because we wanted them to be a big spectacle where people could actually buy 'off the runway.' We are now trying to figure out livestream shopping, because I think it is going to be really big.

Telfar: Like a shopping network?

Tommy: Yes, I definitely want to do that. Every day I think about that and I'm trying to get my team to think way ahead. When I'm not doing that, I go hiking in the morning or biking. I play some tennis. I hang out with my kids. I have seven children. My son is a musician in LA; you should go online and look him up: Ricky Hil. Then my daughter has a collection called Foo and Foo; she is in Dover Street Market, too. Then I have another daughter in LA — she's married to an artist — and I have kids who are autistic, and then I have some younger kids.

Telfar: You've got a full house going on. Are you guys all quarantining together?

Tommy: My older kids are in LA and we're quarantining in Mustique with the younger kids. What about you? Are you living in Brooklyn?

I don't like things that are overpriced for no reason, that are based on an idea of 'luxury' that isn't grounded in anything.

Telfar: No, right now I'm in the East Village. I'm staying in Babak's apartment while this is all going on, but I usually live in Queens. Basically, in January we did Pitti Uomo, which was our last show for 2020, and since then we've decided to work on new projects, focus on the business and find new ways to express our work. Film and entertainment, like you said, is such a big interest to me right now. I have made a video for every single collection I have done, and that's been a big part of drawing people into my world and displaying my work. Right now, I really want to focus on that channel, too, exactly as you said.

Tommy: That's very cool. I love it.

Telfar: Last season, for our show in Paris, we started to make a movie. It is a movie in a really loose sense, part reality, part scripted. I want to explore all these different avenues and try to create things that work for us and things that actually display what is going on right now. But, tell me, what do you dislike about fashion right now?

Tommy: What do I dislike? I dislike snobbism. I hate it. I also think a lot of the luxury brands are ripping people off, because their price points are way too expensive.

Telfar: One of my qualms with 'street fashion' or 'high-end fashion,' is the fact that the place it is coming from or the person that it is referencing, isn't even allowed to be in its presence! It's a big problem for me.

Tommy: Yes, I agree. It is so inauthentic.

Telfar: I don't like things that are overpriced for no reason, that are based on an idea of 'luxury' that isn't grounded in anything: like department store lines with cashmere sweaters that cost thousands of dollars simply because they're from that particular department store. The other thing I don't particularly like is the phenomenon of celebrity designers; people who say they do a thing that actually isn't a thing. You know, you show up to the reality show and you see the clothes, but there's no feeling behind it.

Tommy: I think that era is over; that's probably a thing of the past.

Telfar: The fashion industry that I grew up in was so celebrity-driven. You needed to jump through so many hoops, besides just looking at the clothes.

Tommy: That's going to change; I think fashion has to become more real.

Telfar: The thing that has been fuelling our bag sales, almost making our Telfar bag an It bag, is the fact that the people who can afford to wear it are the people who actually wear it. We mirror-image our customer, basically. So, anyone who tags anything to our Instagram, gets reposted. It's almost like making the customer the celebrity, because everyone is a celebrity these days.

Tommy: I think that is really smart. You're thinking out of the box, but it's also realistic and authentic. That is why I have been watching you and I'm so impressed. I'm always like, who is new, who is relevant, who is making a difference? And when System asked me to do this interview with you, I was like, 'Wow, did you read my mind?' Because I have total respect for you and what you are doing.

Telfar: Oh, wow, thank you so much. That means a lot. I jumped when I saw that you had DM-ed us on Instagram, and I was, like, 'Wait, shit, is this the real fucking Tommy Hilfiger?' I have so much respect for everything you have done and the influence of that on how I view clothes. It's funny, because I have this picture of myself from seventh grade, when I wore a Tommy Hilfiger shirt every single day. That's how I picture myself at that age.

The cover from issue 15 of System magazine, featuring Telfar Clemens by Juergen Teller
| Source: Courtesy System

Tommy: Where did you go to school?

Telfar: I went to P.S. 206 in Queens, where I grew up. I'm Liberian-American, so I went to school a bit in Liberia, in Queens, Maryland, DC, Virginia, and then back in New York. So, I am mostly a New Yorker, but a little from the nation's capital.

Tommy: You've got experience from all over. You know, when we are both back in the city at the same time, I would really like to take you to my archives in Long Island. I have archives that go back over 40 years. I have to take you there; I think you would love it. And I think we should do something together.

Telfar: I'm so down with that! I'm really happy to talk to you. Thanks for taking the time, and I hope we get to hang out super soon.

Tommy: Thanks. And congratulations on your success.

This conversation first appeared in issue 15 of System magazine, featuring Virgil Abloh, Kim Jones, Victoria Beckham, Telfar Clemens, Silvia Fendi, Rick Owens, Pierpaolo Piccioli, Jonathan Anderson, Bella Hadid, Charles Jeffrey, Tommy Hilfiger, Daniel Lee, Matthew Williams, Gwendoline Christie, Andreas Kronthaler, Lotta Volkova and more.

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