The Real Lessons of Telfar, Kanye and the Gap

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Late last week, when the embattled Gap brand announced, with great fanfare, that it was embarking on a 10-year partnership with Kanye West to create a new brand, Yeezy Gap, in an all-in bid for relevance and revitalization, a corner of the panting internet noticed one thing was amiss.

“What about Telfar?” people asked.

They were talking, of course, about Telfar Clemens, 35, a Black designer upending old ideas about gender, identity and community, who had been announced, to almost as much fanfare, as a Gap collaborator in January.

That same month there had even been a lavish party thrown by the Gap during Paris men’s fashion week in its store on rue Tronchet, attended by Kate Moss, Violet Chachki and Dev Hynes and covered in Vogue, W, Essence and Complex (among other publications) to herald the Gap x Telfar collection.

Now it looked as though the Gap, deep in financial trouble after the pandemic caused the closing of its stores and the furloughing of most of the North American retail staff; already suffering reputational damage after canceling many of its orders from factories in Bangladesh and elsewhere; being attacked on Instagram by disgruntled customers; and being sued for $66 million in nonpayment of rent by its landlord, Simon Property Group, had dropped one Black creative for a more famous one.

Given the current uproar about racial justice, the timing could not have been worse.

For Mr. Clemens, speaking for the first time since the brouhaha began, to think that this is about Kanye vs. Telfar is to draw the wrong conclusion.

This is about how collaborations between emerging designers, especially emerging designers of color, and giant establishment corporations, traditionally framed by fashion as key to a new designer’s success, may actually be about something else entirely.

To be specific, he said by phone from Maryland, it is about “a vast power imbalance, perpetuated by the narrative of ‘inclusivity,’” or “being allowed to appear in territory owned by white people.”

His creative director, Babak Radboy, 37, also on the phone, characterized the experience as “a wake-up call.”

It is also the story of a large company in disarray and what seems like an almost complete failure in basic systems and communication. When asked about what happened, a spokeswoman for the Gap emailed, “The Yeezy Gap partnership and the Telfar collab were handled by wholly separate teams and the workstreams didn’t intersect, given organizational and leadership shifts between the timing of both.”

Which is business speak for: Telfar fell through the cracks during a time of corporate upheaval. That is a mistake that is telling in itself.

(Mr. West was not available for comment.)

Mr. Clemens and Mr. Radboy had initially avoided talking about the debacle because, Mr. Clemens said, he was happy for Mr. West, who had been involved in conversations with the Gap for more than a decade and Mowalola Ogunlesi, the Nigerian-British designer, who has been named design director for Yeezy Gap project. Mr. Clemens said he loved both their work.

But he and Mr. Radboy had become increasingly uncomfortable with the story line, popular on social media, that painted the Telfar group as victims — or that “played fame and skin color against each other,” as Mr. Clemens said.

They were more concerned about that misperception than the mechanics of what exactly happened, though the mechanics themselves are important.

It began about a year ago, when the Gap reached out to Mr. Clemens to talk about working together. The buzz around him and his unisex designs — which ignore old orthodoxies about “female” and “male” and crop and chop and twist mythologies of sexuality, uniforms and utility into clothes — was building. He had won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award, held a rave/show during New York Fashion Week complete with a mosh pit, attended the Met Gala and created an It bag for a new generation so ubiquitous it was christened “the Bushwick Birkin.” His creative fan club included the playwright Jeremy O. Harris, the rapper Butch Dawson, Solange and Kelela.


Vanessa Friedman

2020-07-02 00:51:20

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