Behind Reviews of Telfar and Other Black-Owned Brands

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Retailer

In 2018, Telfar changed the fashion industry by creating its now flagship “Shopping Bag”. The popular vegan leather accessory was originally offered in three sizes in a range of understated and vibrant colorways, while its democratic prices – $150 for a small, $202 for a medium and $257 for a large – made it an accessible introduction to a luxury brand without asking consumers to pay conventional luxury prices. The bag’s cult status quickly earned it the nickname “Bushwick Birkin”.

A big part of Telfar’s appeal is that designer Telfar Clemens treats his customers like his community. As the slogan says, Telfar is “Not for you – for everyone”, a rather democratic position in the luxury market. Demand for the shopping bag has become so intense that bots have been created to secure the bags (mostly bots are created by resellers), forcing the brand to temporarily shut down its site to recalibrate it so that buyers have a fair chance to score. a bag. The idea and the realization of creating a luxury product “for everyone” and maintaining it at accessible prices, according to haute couture standards, is radical.

In February, the brand added a new “It” item to its accessories range: the Circle Bag, which generated significant buzz online when it premiered a month prior. Unlike its predecessor, the Circle Bag’s shape and structure made the production process more rigorous, and it became the focus of mass criticism from people who felt its $567 price tag was too expensive. (For comparison, the cheapest handbag on Prada’s official website starts at $995.)

Shelton Boyd-Griffith, Contributing Editor of Gasoline, recently wrote an op-ed explaining why Circle’s pricing shouldn’t be controversial, making a well-supported argument that compares Telfar to white-owned luxury brands that don’t get the same kind of criticism. “We’ve seen it time and time again — Sean Jean, Off-White, Pyer Moss, etc. — where black-owned brands should stay on some scale,” Boyd-Griffith says. “I understand the concerns about the feelings of not being able to afford or buy a brand that makes you feel seen.”

Her argument is that there are levels of commerce – in this case, a luxury bag – among white and European designers, from Tanya Taylor to Armani Privé. Recently, handbag prices at Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Hermès have risen dramatically to boost profits in the face of supply chain issues and higher raw material costs. But the conversation around such legendary entities is never so speculative, or criticism is short-lived. Last year, Bloomberg reported that Chanel had raised the prices of some of its classic handbag silhouettes by nearly two-thirds since 2019.

“Luxury brands try to sell a sense of exclusivity for the masses,” says Lauren Sherman, chief correspondent for The Business of Fashion. “Chanel created this model with Karl Lagerfeld in the early 80s: the runway is the dream, the handbags and shoes are the goal, and the makeup and perfume are the reality. they can. So why shouldn’t black-owned brands and black designers enjoy the same luxury?

It’s not because they use different materials. Boyd-Griffith pointed out that Stella McCartney makes bags exclusively from vegan leather, a material very similar to Telfar’s, and that these sell for between $700 and $2,000. “I don’t hear the same arguments correlating to McCartney’s vegan leather bags that we see around Telfar,” he says, pointing out that Telfar’s shopping bags are on par with or less than most. vegan leather bags. “Then you have the infamous Prada nylon bag, which is basically made of synthetic plastic, which retails from $900. There’s no talking about the cost of this bag.

Sherman says Telfar’s criticism could have been more intense because one of the premises of the brand’s bag business is that it’s meant to be “affordable” or “for everyone,” which which is not the case with white-owned luxury brands: “Consumers expect mega-labels to raise prices; it’s part of their shtick. But when marketing a brand is all about not being too expensive, it can strike a chord, even if it’s still not that expensive compared to competitors.

The reasons for the price increase – supply chain problems and lack of raw materials – are the same for everyone. Sherman even argues they could be worse for a small brand like Telfar, which doesn’t have its own factories and independent production.

Yet Telfar isn’t the only black-owned brand to have felt the scorn of its fans. Rihanna’s LVMH-backed clothing company Fenty faced similar criticism over its pricing, while its previous collaborations, such as those with Puma and River Island, were set at more accessible prices. Handbag designer Brandon Blackwood has come under fire for the quality and production of his bags, and while there have been instances of mainstream luxury brands sending faulty products to their customers, the difference is that Blackwood’s hiccups were amplified with the help of social media. Race is at stake by default in such situations given the history of marginalization that black-owned fashion brands have suffered over the years.

There seems to be a disconnect between luxury and affordability in how people perceive not just Telfar, but black-owned luxury brands in general. In today’s era of consumerism, especially when it comes to high fashion, the idea of ​​luxury is slowly moving away from the old guard statement of the past and becoming more fluid in its definitions. Luxury is relative, and luxury is arbitrary, leaving it up to the individual to define it.

“I think there is this misconception around Telfar and some of his contemporaries, for example, Luar and Brandon Blackwood, that luxury and affordability are in opposition, but I disagree,” says Boyd-Griffith. “Especially when it comes to black people, we have consistently found luxury in everything from decorating dinnerware to home on Sunday lunchtimes. Through the brand’s slogan, “Not for you – for everyone”, it affirms accessibility. Thus, luxury and accessibility can coexist within the Telfar universe.

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