Babak Radboy (b. Tehran, Iran 1983) is an artist based in NYC. He is Artistic Director of the unisex media and fashion brand TELFAR and works on a range of projects at the intersection of communications and social practice.
Telfar Clemens, born in Queens New York, is a Liberian American fashion designer. Self trained, he began making clothes as a teenager, frustrated by the starkly gendered and normative nature of commercially available clothes. He sold his own designs first to middle school classmates, then in downtown boutiques before launching his eponymous line in 2004 at the age of 18. His design DNA has been consistent from his first collection — applying methodologies of formal deconstruction to the social meaning of clothes; collapsing signifiers of gender, class, taste and race from a perspective distinctly removed from European luxury. Telfar would be concertedly marginalized by the fashion industry for his first ten years of operation. The constant innovations Telfar employed in the face of this marginalization, and later his tokenization — have formed around him a community a set of practices and a business incomparable to anything in the industry.
Season 2 of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations.
Produced by BlackStar Projects, in partnership with RowHome Productions.
Host and Executive Producer: Maori Karmael Holmes
Producer: Dallas Taylor
Associate Producers: Irit Reinheimer, Farrah Rahaman, and Katy Bagli
Managing Producer: Alex Lewis
Executive Editor: John Myers
Music supervisor: David ‘DJ Lil Dave’ Adams, BlackStar’s Music in Cinema Fellow supported by the Pop Culture Collaborative
- Theme song composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by David ‘DJ Lil Dave’ Adams.
- BusCrates – 10-Pin
[00:00:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: As part of their enduring commitment to justice, equity, and expression, the Open Society Foundations are proud to sponsor Many Lumens. You’re listening to Many Lumens, where we talk about and find meaning in the intersections of art, social change, and popular culture.
I’m your host, Maori Karmael Holmes. This episode, I’m speaking with Telfar Clemens and Babak Radboy, the principle forces behind the iconic TELFAR fashion label. Clemens, raised between Queens, Liberia, and PG County, Maryland, started the label in the early aughts while he studied accounting during the day. Radboy, raised between Tehran and Seattle, started his career in the first dot com boom and then spent several years in various creative pursuits. The two eventually connected, and Radboy became creative director of TELFAR in 2013.
In our conversation, we speak on the organic nature of their creative partnership and how they’ve been able to navigate the fashion industry together. We touch upon the militarized nature of the field and how they’ve actively worked to build practices of divestment, and finally, we discuss other projects they have in the works, namely that of building out TELFAR TV and potentially a TELFAR physical space that, quote, “might not be what you think,” unquote. Now for my conversation with Telfar Clemens and Babak Radboy.
[00:01:31] Maori Karmael Holmes: So Babak, I think I remember correctly that you’re an Aquarius.
[00:01:39] Babak Radboy: That’s true.
[00:01:41] Maori Karmael Holmes: Telfar, what’s your sign? I’m just curious about your dynamic together.
[00:01:49] Telfar Clemens: I’m the last day of Capricorn, first day of Aquarius, so I’m on the cusp.
[00:01:54] Maori Karmael Holmes: Oh, interesting.
[00:01:55] Telfar Clemens: I consider myself an Aquarius more than a Capricorn, but I’m not as wild as I wish I was.
[00:02:03] Babak Radboy: We are lousy with Aquarians. Everyone’s an Aquarius.
[00:02:09] Maori Karmael Holmes: Really?
[00:02:10] Babak Radboy: Basically.
[00:02:12] Telfar Clemens: A lot of people on our team are the same kind of between January, February, but then a lot of people are also July.
[00:02:21] Babak Radboy: Leos.
[00:02:21] Maori Karmael Holmes: That’s fascinating, which, isn’t Leo the opposite of Aquarius? It’s the direct counter, I think.
[00:02:27] Telfar Clemens: I don’t know. I have hot Leo friends that I’ve had, and it’s a really good pairing––supposedly.
[00:02:42] Maori Karmael Holmes: You’re both sort of so-called third culture kids growing up in between and not quite of world, I imagine, and I was wondering if you bond because of this.
[00:02:55] Telfar Clemens: Yes! Totally. First generation, we’re definitely similar a lot in how we grew up.
[00:03:03] Babak Radboy: It gives you a certain relationship to your environment because you’re just not from there and also not from-
[00:03:09] Telfar Clemens: And also not from here, so it’s a little bit of an other and a third and a bit of an outsider’s view, but also, too, really inside because I could kind of go anywhere and still feel equally as–
[00:03:33] Babak Radboy: ––out of place?
[00:00:00] Telfar Clemens: It adds to your character.
[00:03:35] Maori Karmael Holmes: Well, I imagine it also gives you particular superpowers in observation and maybe even at some point mimicry, if you were interested in that. I’m curious how it’s impacted your approach toward work.
[00:03:50] Telfar Clemens: You mean not wanting to work ever again? Yeah.
[00:03:54] Maori Karmael Holmes: Okay, Beyonce.
[00:03:59] Telfar Clemens: No. I mean, your work ethic, you have a different kind of meaning behind the things that you do and getting the chance to do exactly what you want to do instead of what was imposed on you by you coming to this country and your family having to start over or restart. I didn’t think whatever I’m doing in my life with whatever was supposed to be for me, or that’s what I’m going to do. I’m doing what I like to do, and it turned into my career. Before, I went to school for accounting. I was going to be an accountant with a really cool wardrobe that lives in New York, and I would manage people’s books and go shopping. That’s what I thought was going to be my life because I just didn’t know that what I’m doing was going to be… In my mind, that’s like, “Oh, no, you can’t make money like that,” and it was figuring that out. I didn’t have any formal training. And I didn’t want to go to fashion school because anything that I went to school for, I hated.
[00:05:15] Babak Radboy: And I think we have that in common because when I look back over my life, I worked too hard, but at the same time, what I was doing was trying to avoid being put to work. From the very beginning, I was trying to avoid being put to work, and maybe the immigrant thing just makes you-
[00:05:36] Telfar Clemens: Even more––
[00:05:36] Babak Radboy: ––harder at not working.
[00:05:39] Telfar Clemens: Because you can’t go back. You’re not allowed to make a mistake. You’re not allowed to explore your own joy in life because you need to make it in this country, because you need to make it, and you didn’t come here for that. And it was like, “I have to go to college,” because that was unheard of, to not go to college. As an African person from Maryland, you can’t not go to college. Your parents aren’t going to let you not go to college. I’m spending most of my time unlearning the shit that I had to go to college for. I’m paying with my life to unlearn the shit that I’m paying for or supposed to have paid for. I still will not pay for school, refuse, refuse. I didn’t learn shit. If anything, I learned how to tolerate people. I learned different types of personalities. I learned how to fend for my own self in a verbal kind of way, and that’s about it. And I learned how to hang out and manage while being fucked up and did really well.
[00:07:01] Maori Karmael Holmes: How about you, Babak? Did you go to college, and how do you feel about your experience?
[00:07:08] Babak Radboy: I started working really young, mostly just because of the timing. I started making these artistic websites in 1998, 1999. I was 14-years-old. And at that time, that type of activity was kind of more closely associated with graffiti writing than it was with business. When the internet started kicking off, people literally had to hire a 14-year-old. I started working really young. I moved out really young, 14, 15. I moved out of the house, and then the dot com bubble burst. I actually had a full scholarship to go to school. I hated school. I hated school so much growing up, and I was bused to this kind of golf course gated community, and I went to school there. That probably added to me hating school, but I had this image in my mind that college was going to be something different, and I really believed that it would be. And when I got there, it was the same thing. So I had a job offer from Fox, and I went and worked there and quit school.
[00:08:17] Maori Karmael Holmes: Something else I actually wanted to ask you a little bit later, but because you both just brought it up, it’s something I’ve been meditating on for a long time and I feel like I will for a while is trying to figure out how to balance working very hard because you feel passionate about something, but not doing that because of a white supremacist ideal or imposter syndrome or proving in some way. But it’s really challenging to find the balance between giving your all or looking for excellence, and I’ve been reading about both of your backgrounds and know that you both worked incredibly hard for a really long time, particularly as young people, doing multiple jobs, partying hard, just sort of firing on all cylinders. And there’s been such a conversation around rest, and everybody of color take a nap, just sort of thinking about these ways in which we’re trying to right the ship in that way. And there’s that quote from Kim Kardashian from a couple months ago that was going around on Instagram where she said in her mind, people don’t want to work anymore, and she got a lot of flack for that, but I relate to what she was saying. And I was just curious for y’all, you’re running a company, so you obviously have deadlines that are real. You have production deadlines for shipping and all those kinds of things. Where are you finding the balance of taking care of yourselves and not working as hard as you used to, but also having some rigor with the approach to how you work?
[00:09:52] Babak Radboy: I mean, I think that the way that we’re put to work alienates us from how we can even discern what is work. I think that it becomes difficult to even talk about work because our material condition is so exploited, and we’re being put to work to reproduce those conditions. So a lot of these discourses around therapy, trauma, and rest, they have a side of them that is, it itself reproduces our conditions. So resting and taking care of yourself, well, it’s like the captive maternal. Well, that care is what reproduces the conditions just as much as that work does. What we’ve been trying to do, especially now…Because we launched TELFAR TV. We did a seven month experiment, and now we’re kind of in the second version of that. We’re moving to a new space, and one of the things that we did was get rid of all the production apparatus. It really took a minute for us to even understand how we got to where we are because so many things have changed so quickly. Because TELFAR is three friends. We weren’t getting paid for the majority of the time that we did this, so to think about it as a business is incorrect. It wasn’t a business. It was the three of us being able to create time to spend together and to spend with other people. And when it came to all that, “Well, this has to happen on time, and we have to file for TPA and all this kind of stuff,” we would hire outside producers. And I feel like on this last leg, we just realized we can’t do that anymore because they’re bringing in whatever their intentions are, this thing from the world that isn’t from us, this really militarized and hierarchical thing, even if everybody’s cool. And then we found that people were becoming exhausted. People were being abused, not in some kind of unique way, but in an absolutely normal way. And so the question is really, how do you do it socially? How do you do it in community?
[00:12:10] Telfar Clemens: I mean, for me, also, too, I wanted to do most of the things that I was doing because I saw that that was missing. That didn’t happen. I wanted that to be the thing that I did in the world, the first person to do it, and that was the thing that kept driving a lot of the different goals that I had as a person, as a designer, as a company. And I think that that’s still the thing, because it was like, I’m going to be making some stuff that I want. And usually, the stuff that I want isn’t around. That’s why I want it, and just making those things and actually seeing those things now on a specific person that wasn’t around before, because that person didn’t exist, because you can be a designer and make some really cool clothes, and they existed. I didn’t want to do that at all. And if anything, that’s my thing. If it’s around, I have no business being around it, and that was really the main goal of doing this, and then when fashion comes into it and needing money to achieve those things and having to achieve them on a seasonal level of trying to almost please someone else, that’s when it started to get out of whack because the thing that you have to make to be able to be in a showroom and the thing that you have to make to be able to be in a store is not the thing that I wanted to make or the thing that I was excited about. A silk screen T-shirt was the last thing I thought about, and people would tell me, “That’s the first thing you should think about,” and I’m like, “I don’t know. Is it?”
[00:14:03] Babak Radboy: And I want to kind of put a fine point on it because there’s a whole theory here that is under theorized, because the people who theorize are not usually part of mass material flows, how you, on a mass scale, circulate an idea that is totemized in an object, right? What you’re doing when you make clothes, and they’re not clothes that go in a gallery, they’re purporting to have a people attached to them. They’re purporting to be the evidence of a material culture of a people, even though that people doesn’t preexist. You build a capacity for a certain type of people to come into being, and that’s the very weird thing about what gets called fashion.
[00:14:55] Maori Karmael Holmes: It’s interesting. I know we’re not going to talk too much about the bag because you’ve talked about that a lot, but something that-
[00:15:03] Telfar Clemens: Why not? Wait, why not? I’m so glad. I mean, [inaudible 00:15:09] I love that fucking bag. I love that bag so fucking much. But it is really funny because people are like, “Wow, I really love your bags.” I’m like, “We made one style of a really cool bag.” I mean, I guess I’m a bag designer, but clothes, I just started making them, basically. This year, I just started making clothes.
[00:15:44] Maori Karmael Holmes: Well, something that occurred to me with the bag that I wanted to just bring up, and Telfar, I know you spent some time in the suburbs. Babak, I don’t know if you were in the Seattle suburbs or if you were in an urban environment. But when I was younger, I hung out at the mall, and it was the place. I went to high school in Atlanta, and people from all over the city would kind of meet up at the mall. That was where youth culture was. And I think about being 13 or 14, not really having any money, and trying to get the biggest shopping bag I could from J. Crew or Gap or the Polo store. And I would walk around with that bag and be so excited. And it kind of occurred to me that that sense of belonging, of having that shopping bag, is what your bag has done. When I have my TELFAR bag, I feel similarly. It’s inclusion by way of possession, in some ways. And so I was just curious if that had any relationship to-
[00:16:39] Telfar Clemens: When I think of fashion, I come from mall culture. If anything, I know a bit too much about it. I mean, the touch and the feel of certain things that are mid-level, to achieve that on a small level is the hardest, because that’s made in a mass kind of way. And for you to make one of that, it’s almost so backwards. And actually, a weird version of it or an irregular version of it is crazy, and it’s also just that attainability. I use leggings as the perfect example, leggings and heels, actually, the height of when you think of heels that people wear that are six inches. You can’t find a pant that’s not a legging, actually, in the mall, and you can’t find a shoe that’s lower than six inches in the mall. You don’t have a choice but to look like that, and that’s just what people look like, so if it’s around, you’re going to look like that.
[00:18:04] Maori Karmael Holmes: There’s also this other thing though, when you talk about this kind of mid-level achievability, because I think about one of your partners, Converse. You think about a Chuck Taylor for the last 50 years being both affordable but also super iconic and mark of cool, even though everybody can own them. But there’s something still so cool about having that, and you have achieved something similarly, and it’s really incredible.
[00:18:35] Babak Radboy: I feel like that was the vibe from the very beginning, and that is what inspired the infrastructure of fashion to conspire against TELFAR. The message was not niche. The message was hegemonic, but that has always been this play on hegemony, which is a play on power. Even if it was incredibly niche and totally irregular, the base material was always about mass, always about that mall where something becomes part of the environment.
[00:19:13] Telfar Clemens: Also, too, I would see things in a certain way. And I noticed that after I would make a thing, things started looking like the thing, and it kept happening for years and years and years and years until I’m like, “That means that’s my thing.” It’s like, “Nobody looked like that before I looked like that.” So it was really constantly trying to keep up with a thing and having your name on it before someone else. And showing this thing to a store for them to buy it, they saw it 10 times and then go to Europe two years later and buy the same thing, would drive me nuts. So it was this thing of, it had to happen.
[00:20:04] Maori Karmael Holmes: Can we talk a little bit about your political formation? Sort of what has shaped your understanding of power in the world?
[00:20:13] Babak Radboy: Well, just to maybe introduce the question, I think that the thing that Telfar and I have in common might actually be a certain type of resistance to politics, as a frame for what we’re even talking about. We don’t talk directly about a lot of certain types of things. And maybe we increasingly have tried to discern where it’s necessary to talk about something and to turn something into speech, but let’s say the question is very different for each of us, because these things, I have a different engagement with them, even if we both end up always moving in the same direction.
[00:20:55] Telfar Clemens: I’m increasingly distrusting about everything political, and I try to really make my mind up for myself by my experience of the thing, whether it’s little or a lot, is how I’m kind of navigating things.
[00:21:18] Maori Karmael Holmes: One of the things that I feel like I’m always investigating working in film space is how we undo––how militarized that space is. And I imagine that fashion is a similarly militarized space. And you work to undo that or sort of to say decolonize. I know we’re trying to find a different way to say that. But how do you sort of undo that training and that assembly line and still accomplish your goals within it, but also at the same time creating something new? It’s a double project or even more than double.
[00:21:57] Telfar Clemens: I don’t know. I think it’s really about living it right now and figuring it out as you do it, and also, too, not putting that mission statement on myself period to even try to undo anything, but just knowing what you feel about how you perceive stuff.
[00:22:16] Babak Radboy: I mean, the thing is, if you were to apply a political analysis to what we do, it’s extremely political, because the types of practices that we are developing are forms of resistance to how we’re being put to work, how we’re being mobilized, but a practice, you could have a political statement in a discursive sense and still repeat the exact same practices that kind of portraying, so whether or not you formulate it as language is not the most important thing.
[00:22:51] Telfar Clemens: I think it’s more the effect of the thing in the world that you’re trying to build.
[00:23:03] Maori Karmael Holmes: Do either of you look at this work that you’re doing together with the brand or the label, I’m not sure how you prefer to refer to it, but do you see that as activism?
[00:23:14] Telfar Clemens: I hate that word. I’m actively against maybe that, but it’s up to people to view and say whatever they want to say. But I don’t think––
[00:23:27] Babak Radboy: I would put it this way. When you say activism, are we talking about an extracurricular or a career? And that’s the problem, because what we’re trying to do is establish a different way of life in our actual practices. And to share that, if we can’t share, we can’t have anything alone. There isn’t really much for you to buy. What are you going to buy? They got cars, so if this is going to be worth anything, it’s about how you actually live. And you can’t live without being able to share it, so you have a type of social practice that becomes absolutely necessary to your survival.
[00:24:16] Telfar Clemens: And also, too, there’s things bigger than things that we sell that I think people are getting from us. If you acted a certain way or know a certain type of person that now that wears this thing, that looks like that, that speaks like that like, that’s a bigger fucking thing. That’s huge, and I want to keep exchanging different things like that, like hairstyles. When you look like me, and we’re saying the same thing, that’s bigger, and if that’s the activism, then cool.
[00:25:00] Babak Radboy: I would interject also to say that there’s TELFAR with the capital letters. There’s Telfar as the individual. I’m not really interested in individuating myself, but the way that I’ve engaged in our collective has different forces that kind of push it that come from my own kind of family, my own need to have some kind of space to live in in the world. I would say that what drives me… My father was a guerilla. I was born underground in Iran, and I was kind of raised in that reality. We didn’t have furniture in our house because we might leave. And the way that the environment was presented to me as a child was like being behind enemy lines, and so I always had this relationship to the environment as something that’s kind of predatory. And as I grew, I realized that predation can’t be exteriorized into something that you can call capitalism and separate from all the rest of life. The people are maintaining their own captivity, let’s say, and you have a certain history of struggle, a history with movements and battles and politics and parties. And it’s also a history of consciousness. I feel like that is what we are kind of contributing to in how we try to practice within the confines that kind of are presented to us.
[00:26:54] Maori Karmael Holmes: I want to ask you both about your motto for the label, that “TELFAR is not for you, for everyone.” How does that exhibit the ethos of what TELFAR is?
[00:27:09] Telfar Clemens: Contradictory. I think it’s exactly that, and it’s also just, I love that it’s not for you.
[00:27:25] Babak Radboy: He loves the first part, but first of all, we wouldn’t have made a motto to begin with unless we had to. So we were already in a state where we couldn’t leave well enough alone. Our survival was at stake, and there were certain forces that were kind creating that work, at the end of the day, some of them were discursive forces [inaudible 00:27:55]. And so that’s why we had a motto to begin with, but the type of motto that we made is, that’s a question. It can’t really be answered, and it’s not supposed to be answered. It’s supposed to be generative. When you have an aesthetic proposition that fucks with a Gemini the way that TELFAR does, and you have the idea of, let’s say, something like the Benetton, Gap, neoliberal world that becomes flattened and globalized around the kind of cult of the individual, and then you have that statement, you have to question both who you is supposed to be––
[00:28:38] Telfar Clemens: It’s the most ambiguous statement that you don’t know where you’re standing at, and I love that place. This is not for you, it’s for everyone.
[00:28:50] Maori Karmael Holmes: Babak, in some of the research that we were doing, you previously described the TELFAR customer as a, quote, Black adjacent, queer adjacent person who wasn’t typically found in fashion advertising. And of course, this was a couple years ago, and the landscape for fashion and culture has changed quite a bit, and I’m curious if the TELFAR customer or audience in your opinion has also shifted.
[00:29:15] Babak Radboy: Well, I would repeat that if I was in an interview, it was under duress. I think that I would qualify that because in that interview format, you can’t really say what you mean. And I think what Telfar said earlier is really instructive. I would just say in general, when we talk about a people, there’s a tendency to think of that as a still life or a stilled life where you get into this idea of demographics. People just exist. If you’re a politician, you formulate your policy to appeal to these different demographics that already exist. I think in actual fact, people are being created by the way that they’re being spoken to so that the TELFAR customer did not preexist. The TELFAR customer came into existence with the space that was created for this person.
[00:30:10] Telfar Clemens: Because I honestly don’t see a person that I can’t dress. I don’t know, and I ask a question, and then also, too, I don’t think about it too much. When people are like, “Oh, that’s not for me,” it’s like, “Well, you have two arms and two legs and a waist and a neck, and you have a ear, right? You have some ears. I could dress you.” It’s more intimidating than it actually is, and it’s not up for me to make you feel comfortable because I’m not catering anymore.
[00:30:52] Maori Karmael Holmes: I want to shift just slightly and talk about, you both have this ongoing encounter with the capital “a” Art world. So many of your friends are working artists. You’ve been engaged in experimental film and video. I know some of my favorites, Tayarisha Poe; Leilah Weinraub; Terence Nance, of course. You’ve collaborated with them. How is TELFAR, capital letters, the company, engaged with contemporary art?
[00:31:22] Babak Radboy: Through friendship. Just that part of it.
[00:31:26] Telfar Clemens: I think mostly through friendship these days and through support of those friends, that’s where it’s mostly lied because that’s what’s pushed certain things that we’re involved with in a certain direction, because we’re in that space because we that person, not necessarily because we want to be in that space.
[00:31:48] Babak Radboy: There’s a lot of people who’s potentials, they’re already crushed, and the art world is a space where, there’s a certain economic relationship that crushes social potential, and then there’s an absolute top tier of the richest people on earth that appropriate that potential so that it doesn’t turn into revolutionary discontent. There’s a type of ransom that’s being paid to artists because of the fact that they cannot already, before they begin, have a social effect on their world. And I’m not trying to put them down. People have to survive, and also, there is communications that come through. But the material conditions have become so stark, and the discourse has not caught up.
[00:32:51] Midroll: Seen as a journal of film and visual culture focused on Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities globally, subscribe today and receive two beautifully designed issues a year, featuring essays, reviews, interviews, and more from critics, artists, and other luminaries of color. Learn more at seen.blackstarfest.org.
[00:33:13] Maori Karmael Holmes: You’re listening to Many Lumens. And now, back to my conversation with Telfar Clemens and Babak Radboy.
I would be remiss not to ask you all about our missing crucial element to the kind of Voltron force that is TELFAR, and that is Avena Gallagher. Could you both talk about what she brings to TELFAR and how you each met her?
[00:33:36] Telfar Clemens: I met Avena when I just on the street. We used to hang out in the same park. I didn’t know what a stylist was before I met her, really, or what they did. After just hanging out and kind of seeing each other just as friends… Literally, we’ll see each other every day. People would run into each other every single day, and that’s how we became friends. And I think professionally, I guess the first time I did a show, she and Lauren Boyle helped me put it together. We put on this show, and since then, that’s the person I trust. So I show her sketches before a thing happens and talk about what it’s supposed to be. As much as what TELFAR is is me is so much her too, because she’s this thing. That’s the thing that we were meant to do, and we’ve done so much together that we have a language that we speak.
[00:34:47] Babak Radboy: I mean, I think it comes down to the question of what you can legitimately even speak about if you speak about fashion or style, and I think that so far, Avena has a much more expansive view of what that is, who on the street actually looks good and what constitutes this, what is even legible within the field. So it’s this old Filipino grandpa that has a bundle of napkins safety pinned to the front of his wife-beater, that fashion.
[00:35:25] Telfar Clemens: I mean also, too, it’s a set of experiences. Again, she’s similar background in growing up and experiences with being here, experiences of knowing your culture and how your people and your family dresses and their family dressed. And it’s the same person. When we boil it down, it’s really like, “Your grandma has that thing too, and you guys have that kind of blanket?” And it’s a set of experience that create what the fashion is that we… Even when we travel, the same person that we see, we won’t even be together, and we’ll show each other a picture of someone that we saw, and it’s a connection. I don’t think I could work with anyone. That’s literally how I feel about it. Really, I don’t really know how to do that thing if that person’s not around to actually understand. I’m not working with another stylist because they don’t get it.
[00:36:34] Maori Karmael Holmes: There seems to be a great deal of intimacy and care in your partnership. And I wanted to know, how do you strike the balance of doing things in an unconventional manner and in a collaborative manner, but also still leading and being clear about vision?
[00:36:54] Babak Radboy: As I came into the company in 2013, a lot of my focus has been on you could say the shows, but then you have to broaden what that means now because we don’t do that anymore. We have a TV channel, but it was kind of, how do you take that non-coercive, non-extractive, that real open, creating a space for capacity to form, and sometimes you have to do it fast, so how do you start turning it into a set of practices that can be scaled to some degree? And that’s a lot of what has gotten us to where we are at this point, because those things are not stagecraft. They end up being really how you have to be all the time. Leadership is a weird word for it because it’s like how Gaddafi never actually had a position in the Libyan government. There’s something about legitimacy that itself is problematic, and you start to realize first because you were forced into it, because nobody took you seriously or listened to you. You realize that, “Oh, wait, there’s a certain advantage to this. I can use this.” It’s kind of the science of illegitimate power, which is always going to be revolutionary power. But it’s like, “Oh, who’s in charge here?”
[00:38:30] Telfar Clemens: It’s like, “You don’t have to go to the office? You can just go in?” It’s like, “Yeah, you can just go in.”
[00:38:31] Babak Radboy: You can do anything you want, and what I want is for you to do anything you want.
[00:38:42] Telfar Clemens: Yes, exactly.
[00:38:44] Babak Radboy: And so you better do it.
[00:38:46] Telfar Clemens: I hate that whole thing of just respect and boss. It just makes for–– you know, I love designing clothes. I do the clothes. I wouldn’t want someone else to do them because it just wouldn’t make sense. But at the same time, I’m open to knowing about and working with people. But I never had a job, really, and usually, if I have a job, it’s supposed to end at a certain point in time. I don’t want to be there 10 years, and I want other people to feel like that, whereas it’s your thing. That’s your life’s work. That’s what you do, and it’s enjoyable. It’s not like you’re beholden to a certain thing or career, or you retire. I feel like I’m retired already.
[00:39:51] Babak Radboy: And so this goes back to the question of just how we’re trying to work and not work in general, which is that if you think about extractive practices and coercive practices, they have a kind of history where they have to start after you take everything away from someone, so that they need to work to have anything, including to have time, which is something that people are supposed to have. So the extractive practices are seen as profitable practices, but they’re actually completely based on scarcity, and they suffer from a total poverty of means because you’re just tiring people out. So a lot of the question becomes, how do you tap into the actually existing abundance? There’s a complete abundance that is already there before it’s disciplined and extracted.
[00:40:52] Telfar Clemens: Also, too, the reward of what you get from a thing. I think about that. It’s like, okay, you do a fashion show, and you’re staying up for a month straight and do all this stuff for 10 minutes. And what the fuck did you get after that? What did you get after that? What was the effect of that experience? And really, a question I constantly am just like, what happened? And usually, I feel really good. I’m like, “Damn, we just did something that went around the world, changed a certain mood of what is going to happen later.” But fashion isn’t deeply rewarding in that sense. It’s––
[00:41:45] Babak Radboy: ––the system that we were in was-
[00:41:48] Telfar Clemens: ––You need to have a lot of fucking fun. You better run up that hotel bill to the top of the top, because this shit is not fun. And that was the thing I learned from Italy. No, you need to actually be in the best place, feel the best. That changes the whole mood of why you’re even doing it. And literally, just thinking like that, literally, if you made the best shirt in the world, you’d need a house in return for that best shirt in the world. Otherwise, why did you do it?
[00:42:24] Maori Karmael Holmes: Right.
[00:42:26] Telfar Clemens: Unless you really wanted to wear that shirt.
[00:42:29] Maori Karmael Holmes: A question for you in this approach. Just curious if you had any kind of guiding lights or examples that maybe they weren’t exactly what you’ve created, but how did you even get to this different way of being?
[00:42:48] Telfar Clemens: I mean, living it and going through that process and constantly kind of perfecting and growing from the work that you created is… Again, the bag, in improving this one thing that actually has gone everywhere, it is continuing to have this life because we spent the time to do it. It wasn’t overnight, and you just did it, and that’s it. It’s constantly perfecting your craft and what you’re putting out and figuring out why you’re putting it out, so you really, actually have to like what you’re doing.
[00:43:32] Babak Radboy: Especially, you mentioned Italy, and everything was kind of working up towards that in a way. And that is where we met Terence for the first time. I mean, I would answer the question a little differently because I feel like in terms of the practice of making clothing, you can make the best thing in the world, but if your energy is being captured at every single joint, then you’re going to be depleted. So my experience of working together has been a little bit, even though it’s not, but there’s a certain remove from it where I always felt like I was a witness as well as a participant. And what I was witnessing was really violent, and I was, I think, more worried all the time as we were working together and learning from what was happening to us. The first 10 years at TELFAR, there was a type of erasure. I wouldn’t say it’s a lack of recognition. I would say it was an erasure. It was that, “This is not a thing, and it isn’t happening.” That was 10 years of work and 10 years in which the work continuously improved, and not just improved but just went through all kinds of beautiful mutations and pushed itself forward. I think that the thing that just was itself and was the environment around it shifted in really particular ways around the election of Donald Trump and this desire from the kind of vessels of communication to mobilize this narrative of inclusion and diversity as a type of supplication for the violent increase of violence to bodies, and we found things were starting to shift. We went from being marginalized to being kind of tokenized. In that moment, instead of thinking of that as an opportunity, we reacted to it as a kind of existential threat. “Oh, shit, now we’re in trouble because we’re exploitable.” So in the years that followed immediately after our kind of first recognition with the CFDA Awards, we really moved into a different way of doing shows as a type of technology, of being together socially, of improvisation, and of a type of an aesthetic sociality where we would do these shows that were truly improvised, coming together under conditions of extreme freedom for all the artists involved in them. They were really different, and they started getting a lot of attention. But what we were doing was developing an entire way of being together and a type of research almost, because even as we did those shows, and we carried on how we were doing, those shows were being mobilized and interpreted as further evidence of the inclusivity and diversity of the system. So it is a crazy feeling when you do a show, and you love it, and then you get a really good review, and you read the review, and it makes you want to throw up because who’s doing the review? Nothing is changing. You’re just being mobilized so that people can keep their position, because they now have the correct opinion about you. But they have a very clear idea of what they’re going to do with you, which is that they’re going to own you. And for us, the dirtiest word is opportunity, because every opportunity is an opportunity to be exploited. And I feel like Italy was the kind of the end point, the termination point, of a certain way of thinking for us, like the ultimate expression of a certain type of practice. And it coincided with a year-long plan that was not just aesthetic but was material to leave the system. So we moved into a mode of divesting that we needed to decouple our wellbeing from our exploitability. That meant no investors, no licenses, no retailers. We spent the entire budget. We were invited to kind of the longest running fashion invitational in Florence for men’s wear, and they give you a bunch of money. They have you do a show. It’s part of kind of their civic capture of world culture.
[00:48:31] Maori Karmael Holmes: Is that the Pitti Uomo?
[00:48:33] Babak Radboy: Pitti Uomo, yeah. And we essentially used that entire budget for the show and put it into a dinner prior to the show and flew in everybody we wanted to be with. So that’s where we met Terence. That’s where we met a bunch of people and a lot of really close friends as well and people whose work we loved and people whose presence we love. And we all had dinner together and had a party. The table that we ate on was the runway for the next day, so you’re just getting the scraps because I have an abundance of wine stains, and what we really, what was really important already happened and was between us.
[00:49:20] Maori Karmael Holmes: Last year, you were chosen to design uniforms for the Liberian Olympic team, and I really enjoyed seeing those uniforms. Never in my mind, in a wildest time, did I think I would see sort of an athletic version of a boubou. And I’m just sort of curious, how did that collaboration come about, and what did it mean for you, Telfar, to represent your country of origin in this way?
[00:49:48] Telfar Clemens: I was going to Liberia just because I hadn’t been and had no real memories of when I was there last because I left when I was five. So I went back last February, and I took my family with me, just on a trip. And as I was on my way there, we got an email from Kouty [Mawenh] and [Emmanuel] Matadi wanting to talk to me about doing uniforms for the Liberian Olympics. So I had already planned this trip to go, and as I was going, we spoke to them. So when I got on the plane to go on this trip, I was, in my mind, thinking about what we were going to make, and Liberia’s just the best styled country in the west. And, I don’t know, just being there and constantly being there, because I was just there, I’m getting a lot from just being. I don’t know. I hung out and sketched some stuff and came out with that.
[00:51:04] Maori Karmael Holmes: I believe I saw this in the research that your grandmother had a sewing school, and I know that your aunt taught you how to sew. And I was wondering, for me, my paternal grandmother was a seamstress in the garment district in LA, and my paternal grandfather had run a haberdashery in South Central. And I know that I have a kind of, I would say, kind of an ancestral connection to fabric and to construction, even though I don’t practice it. And I was wondering if you also have that.
[00:51:38] Telfar Clemens: I mean, I think so, even though when my grandma was alive, she was like, “I would sew all of your clothes,” and we were like, “No, we want to buy clothes at the Gap. We want to buy clothes from the mall.” And as soon as she passed away, I ended up starting to sew, and I learned most of my sewing from just deconstructing stuff. I have an aunt that worked in the fashion industry that would give me fabrics and all these different things. And I would actually cut and sew a lot of the things that I wanted to try, because one, I couldn’t afford to do it, and you can’t really tell someone what you want. You just have to try it on in the mirror and keep trying. That’s all you get the thing that you want, and that’s how I went about making clothes. And my aunt was really like, “You don’t sew really well. Your sewing is awful,” and constantly was trying to get me into going to fashion school. And I was like, “No, I’m good. I’ll learn the wrong way.” And learning the wrong way was actually the most valuable way of learning because that’s where the new thing came from.
[00:52:47] Maori Karmael Holmes: You all mentioned earlier, and I want to bring it back, you’ve launched a television network in collaboration with The Ummah Chroma called TELFAR TV, and I wanted to talk about that. What inspired TELFAR TV?
[00:53:04] Telfar Clemens: If was going to say, any kind of artist, I’ve made a video for every collection that I’ve made, and I’m obsessed with TV. But I didn’t know that the TV network started to develop itself because I was talking about really wanting to make movies, video, all different things of that sort. And the more we kept talking about it, the more it became apparent that this is what we had to do to be able to connect with people on a deeper level, get out of the social media trap that is the internet, being able to think freely, and communicate that to people that are like-minded. Everything just keeps pointing towards it, and looking back backwards just seems old.
[00:54:04] Maori Karmael Holmes: How did you all come to work with The Ummah Chroma?
[00:54:11] Babak Radboy: The idea of TV was happening for a long time before it was even an idea of TV. It was just a kind of… You could understand two things. One is that position I described of reading a good review and wanting to throw up. No matter what we do, we’re going to be mobilized, as long as we don’t own or disown the narrative and also the infrastructure behind it, the means of production and distribution, which is what we were doing with our clothes. But then we would still be used as a kind of icon of supplication. And so being able to distribute the message through cinema was already on the radar, and I remember watching Random Acts of Flyness, thinking about, “Okay, what would a transmission from a different world look like?” Then I watch Random Acts of Flyness, and I’m like, “All right, this is pretty close.” This is not just a show. It feels like it’s coming from a completely different place and that that place has the possibility of existing because the capacity for it is being built. And then also, looking at the credits of the show and looking at the names of who’s working on it, I’m like, “All right, this is a whole community.” So that’s why we invited Terence to Florence and how we first met. And I think we just talked for over a year, and Terence talked about how the real dream behind Random Acts was a TV network just at the same time as I was saying, “Hey, we want to make a TV network.”
[00:55:54] Telfar Clemens: And I think it started too because also, too, people have been following our story for probably the last five years, and we’ve been planning a movie, and I was going to different things, and more and more, we wanted to take that into our own hands and not actually sell it to someone, so it just kept developing and still. It’s like, again, with the shows too. You didn’t see that show if you didn’t go to the show. We haven’t posted a show that we’ve done since 2018. So all of this stuff, it has been documented in the form of a film, specifically from that time before the world. And still, right now, I’m still documenting it.
[00:56:53] Babak Radboy: This is an important point, and this is really far out.
[00:56:56] Telfar Clemens: Right now, I’m recording this.
[00:57:00] Babak Radboy: This is the thing that’s really far out. So basically as soon as we realized that we needed to get out of the system, we also got this request from a producer to make a documentary about us. And as we entered into those and people started following us around with cameras, then we started entering into confronting the problematics of what was being done to us in trying to narrativize us, even with the best intentions. So it’s like, “Oh, you’re going to make a movie about us, and all we have to do is be ourselves? “Okay, who are we? What is in this movie? “What’s the script? Let’s sit down and write the script for this movie. What’s going to be in this movie about us?” And it opened up these questions around the kind of authority of a documentary and what it says when, in fact, every way that this world fucks us up is a form of fiction. It’s a fiction that people have the luxury to just create, to turn into reality. So how do you create your own fiction? This kind of policese. So then we start talking to Terence about directing the film about us, and the question, well then, what is in this film? Eventually, it’s like, “You know what? The film is going to be live.” So the TV channel is the film as it’s happening, and I don’t even know if it’ll ever coalesce into the type of thing, because a film in general is hard to separate what is a film from a form of property, because this world can only deal with film as a form of property. So what’s a dispersed film? So it’s like us getting out of the fashion system was a first step of divestment from becoming the managers of our own captivity. We took to heart the type of support that reverberated from that divestment and the type of people that materialized in the space that it made, and we have to use that money to divest further, and that’s what the TV channel is: a divestment opportunity. How do you get even further out? How do you create relations that will prefigure and prepare for radical discontinuity?
[00:59:40] Maori Karmael Holmes: I just have two more questions, and one is, is there a brick and mortar TELFAR store in the future?
[00:59:51] Telfar Clemens: Brick and mortar or screen and visual. We’re going to be all over. There’s going to be places for you to buy some shit, but also, too, I’m not putting that pressure on.
[01:00:09] Babak Radboy: We’re working on it right now, but it might not be what you think.
[01:00:14] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah ––
[01:00:14] Babak Radboy: Shop telfar.net.
[01:00:18] Maori Karmael Holmes: We just opened an office space, obviously, with COVID still going on, but there’s something delicious about physical space and seeing people in person, and I know you have that, to some extent.
[01:00:39] Telfar Clemens: Yes. Loitering, hanging out, not buying anything, all of that, I’m so obsessed with, and I keep talking about it, and I want it to be the right thing. I think that also, too, our store will be a cultural practice if it could be like the East Village Market on a Saturday in 2007, that’s what I want, so until that happens…
[01:01:07] Maori Karmael Holmes: My last question for you both is, where do you find refuge?
[01:01:14] Telfar Clemens: What does that mean, even? Refuge. Friends and family, interaction and conversation, and hot guys.
[01:01:29] Maori Karmael Holmes: Ase!
[01:01:28] Babak Radboy: I feel good when we’re just messing things up, when we’re really moving. We’re doing a thing we’re not supposed to do and going a place that we don’t even know where it is and just moving.
[01:01:51] Maori Karmael Holmes: Thank you both so, so much. This was incredible. I’m really happy to have this conversation.
[01:01:58] Babak Radboy: Thank you.
[01:02:01] Telfar Clemens: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, and I hope we get to see you.
[01:02:03] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yes. Same.
[01:02:03] Telfar Clemens: … on this side sometime.
[01:02:03] Babak Radboy: Soon.
[01:02:09] Maori Karmael Holmes: Okay, take care.
[01:02:14] Telfar Clemens: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
[01:02:14] Maori Karmael Holmes: Thank you.
[01:02:29] Maori Karmael Holmes:To find out more about Telfar and Babak’s work, you can check them out on Instagram or Twitter @TELFARGlobal. You can also shop for your new TELFAR bag or apparel at shop.telfar.net, and check out TELFAR TV at telfar.tv.
This season of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations. It is produced by BlackStar Projects in partnership with Rowhome Productions, the host and executive producer of Many Lumens is me, Maori Karmael Holmes. This episode was produced by Dallas Taylor. Associate producers are Irit Reinheimer and Farrah Rahaman. Guest associate producer for this episode is Katie Bagli. Managing producer is Alex Lewis. Executive editor is John Myers. Our music supervisor is David “Lil’ Dave” Adams, BlackStar’s Music and Cinema Fellow supported by the Pop Culture Collaborative. Our theme song was composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by Lil’ Dave. This episode features music by Buscrates.
If you liked what you’ve heard this season, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, and let us know what you think of the show.
Sending you light, and see you next season.