Designer Telfar Clemens didn’t have a traditional runway show during New York Fashion Week. Instead, he brought fashion to Brooklyn and it spilled into the streets.
On Sunday, Telfar, the “Black-owned, non-gendered fashion project,” took over retail chain store Rainbow on Fulton Street downtown in the Brooklyn borough of New York, and filled it with thousands of his signature Shopping Bags. It was the brand’s first in-person opportunity for customers to shop its largest drop of handbags.
Clemens, a Liberian American, established his brand in 2005 in the Queens borough when he was 20 and since then has been putting on experiential fashion shows and working with an eclectic group of partners — designing Liberia’s Olympic uniforms, working with White Castle three times, beer brand Budweiser, popping up in Paris to debut Converse Mary Janes, even launching Telfar TV, a 24-hour public access channel.
The shoppings bags were launched in 2014, inspired by the little brown bag from the Bloomingdale’s department store. The vegan leather boxy bag with double shoulder straps and top handles, stamped with Clemens’ initials, comes in three sizes and cost between $150 and $257. In New York, it quickly became an It Bag among young queer people and with Black and Hispanic people.
By 2019, the shopping bags were dubbed the “Bushwick Birkin” and seen on celebrities such as singer Solange Knowles and actor Ashton Sanders of Moonlight. In 2020, the bags reached cult-level status, with TV host Oprah Winfrey naming it among her favorite things and the drops trending on Twitter because the bags were so hard to snag.
Those who were hoping to to score a bag in Brooklyn on Sunday had to abide by a few stipulations: You had to be in line to shop (the line formally started at 3 p.m. — but more on that later), had to purchase the bags while in line, and were only allowed to buy a maximum of five. The event was filmed, so as the email sent out to prospective shoppers read, “if you don’t want to be on TV this is not for you.”
I got to Rainbow just after 3 p.m., and the line was already wrapped around the block.
And trust me, it was a show. I spent only one chaotic hour in the Telfar line, where I met a lot of cool people.
At the back of the line was Nuha Mahmud.
She loves Telfar because she has a colorful personality and said the brand has something for everyone. “Affordable luxury that you can use in classy, casual, fun or elegant settings,” she said.
Clemens’ decision to host his pop-up at Rainbow, a store popular with Black women for its inexpensive, trendy pieces, was also exciting to Mahmud.
“I think most people look down on [Rainbow] because it’s not luxurious or considered top quality, so there’s a negative connotation easily associated with the store. But he really said, ‘F that,’ ” she said.
“The pop-up gave first access to his bags to people of color, him giving back to his community,” said Mahmud. “And Rainbow, a majority of the people that shop there are [Black and brown], so I really think he made a big statement with that. And it was perfectly fitting, Rainbow for the rainbow drop.”
I told Mahmud I would save her place if she wanted to go see what the front of the line looked like. There, she met a girl, who, along with her mom, had arrived at 8 a.m.
“Her mom was like, ‘You have to do what you have to do,’ and I was like, ‘I respect you.’ I had my mom do that for me when I was 15 years old for One Direction tickets.”
Mahmud didn’t realize just how expansive Telfar’s rainbow was until she walked past the front of the store.
“I didn’t even know they offered that many colors. I’ve never seen that lime green. There was like a periwinkle, too.”
The shopping bags (and the ongoing demand for them), are a manifestation of Clemens’ philosophy that luxury doesn’t have to be exclusionary. The bag is more than a symbol. It’s now representative of a community. The brand’s marketing often includes content created on customers’ personal social media. The Real Housewives of New York City cast member Sonja Morgan appeared in an 2018 ad campaign and last year, Telfar tapped the cast of The Real Housewives of Potomac to show off the Telfar x UGG collaboration.
Around 3:44 p.m., a man in a security uniform walked up as I chatted with Mahmud to inform me that I was no longer in a line.
“The line no longer exists, people just don’t want to stop standing in the line,” the security officer said. “If you are where you are right now, you’re not going inside. Those people,” he said, pointing, “half a block around, the line ended there. That was at least 35 minutes ago. People just keep lining up.
“That’s nothing I can control, but I can at least tell you that,” he said. “I’m being told there will be an opportunity to shop the bags online, that’s what I’m being told. If you stand here, it’s not going to do you anything but look great.”
“This is all the same line?” a woman asks as they pass by. I said yes and asked if they were in it already. “Oh, no, girl, I’m just going to wait to shop online. This is cute though,” she said, motioning at the line and kept walking.
A little further up in line, I met Tatiana Woodburn and Maya Lord-Dagostino, best friends living together in Brooklyn. “We got here at 3:15 p.m. and now we’re hearing rumors about there being a cutoff, they are talking about a cutoff,” Woodburn said.
“I love my Telfeezy. I love it down, but that’s so early,” Woodburn said when she heard a rumor people had been in line since 3 a.m.
Tiffany Torres, of New Jersey, got in line at 2:30 p.m. “I just like the bag,” Torres said. “It says something. It just gives you a vibe, a look. Like when you walk in and you have that Telfar in your hand, it’s like ‘She’s down. She’s with it.’ And it’s a Black-owned business.
“So, I like it but [get in line at] 4-o’clock-in-the-morning like it?” asked Torres. “I might not like it that much. Now, sitting by my computer at 8:55 a.m., maybe.” (Telfar drops usually happen online at 9 a.m. EST.)
Woodburn, Lord-Dagostino, and Torres all laugh. They decide to stay in line and see what the vibe is. “Everyone got what they got, but they need to swipe your card, so I mean, maybe those cards might not hit,” Torres said. “And I’ll be right here.”
“Telfar is such a staple thing. Being from the boroughs — I’m from Brooklyn, born and raised — you have to know it,” said Lord-Dagostino.
Woodburn didn’t own a shopping bag yet (though she does own a mini duffel bag in black), Lord-Dagostino has three, and Torres has two. I explained that I own several, including a mini white with shorter shoulder straps from 2019 (newer editions of the bag can be worn crossbody, and also include dust bags).
Torres noted that the packaging keeps getting better, too.
“I have the Eastpak mini collaboration,” said Lord-Dagostino. “The packaging is beautiful. I went through a lot to get that bag with the people at UPS. They sent it back to the company. I was like, ‘Are you trying to take my Telfeezy? This is important.’ ”
The security guard never did come to talk to them. “Please, Telfeezy God,” said Lord-Dagostino. “Fingers crossed,” said Torres.
I introduced myself to two other women, Jordan Exum and Oly Nwankwo, who met at an engineering camp in 2013. Only Nwankwo went on to become a civil engineer, and the two remained friends.
Exum said she texted Nwankwo, asking if she heard about the pop-up shop. “I was like, we should go, when else are we going to have this opportunity. Bag Security takes a long time, or else, if you want a specific color, you have to wait for the drops.”
In 2020, when resellers and bots were buying up Telfar’s shopping bag inventory as it dropped, limiting how many customers were able to get the bag directly from the brand’s website, the designer introduced the Bag Security Program. The program allowed people to buy as many shopping bags, any size, and in any color they wanted for 24 hours. The bags were made to order and shipped within six months. The brand has done Bag Security four times now.
“I don’t have a Telfar bag yet. Every time Bag Security comes around I’m busy, I have work, I’m in a meeting, so I wasn’t going to come today until she texted me,” said Nwankwo.
The next day, Mahmud posted her bag haul to Instagram. After the security guard told us we weren’t in a line, she went and stood in front of the store to take in the scene. Around 6 p.m, she said, she was allowed inside.
“I was in front of the shop hanging around and they let me in about two hours later,” Mahmud confirmed via Instagram direct message. “My friends and I just enjoyed the vibes in the front. They only let me go inside and I bought for all of us.”
One thing Mahmud said she observed was just how kind other shoppers were.
“Everyone was truly looking out for one another in the front, strangers that didn’t even know each other but were standing side by side,” she said. “If one got a chance to go in, they would go inside and get bags for each other. Such a good crowd and everyone just trusted each other with that, which I think speaks a lot to the crowd and type of people he appeals to.”
Telfar announced the rainbow would be moving online Sept. 23. Every bag, in every color, and in every size will be available for purchase.