Designer of The Year: Telfar Clemens
Telfar Clemens, the 35-year-old Liberian American designer, has a simple tagline for his eponymous New York-based fashion brand: “Not for you—for everyone.” The slogan is purposely vague—Clemens is drawn to the evocative rather than the telegraphic—but “I’m not trying to impose anything on anyone,” he tells me when we meet one fall afternoon in his bright white studio on an industrial block in Bushwick, Brooklyn. His brand is about whatever customers want to do with his graphic T-shirts, oversized wool-cashmere sleeveless pullovers, sexy-ass knit tank tops, and smash-hit Shopping bags. “I love people that have a brain and choose what they wear based on what they like,” he says. “That’s how I operate.”
It’s not how the industry operates, but Clemens is immune to the fashion world’s bullshit, from pronouncements about the end of handbags to the small promotional humiliations, like the prevailing belief that every collection needs to tell a story. He took aim at this particular notion and broke down the straightforward story of his collections for me. “The story is, you went to the store, and then you came home, and then you went with your friend to eat something, and then you went to a club, and then you had sex,” he says. “That’s the story.”
Fashion has long been about big brands with crazy money promoting luxurious, exclusionary whiteness—all while relying on Black and brown creative talent and consumers to prop up that dream, to make it interesting, to keep it hot. Telfar is the rare brand that designs not for the spectators but for those who star in the fantasy.
Telfar has always been about it: the brand for those who grew up worshipping fashion but rarely saw themselves in the magazine imagery they pored over. When the world erupted in protests this summer after police murdered George Floyd, most brands took to Instagram to perform the awkward task of pretending they’d always cared about Black lives. Clemens, meanwhile, posted a video of James Baldwin speaking about the inefficacy of historical precedents as a guide for the oppression of Black people and wrote, “America is not our country, Instagram is not our platform.” Soon after, he posted an infographic with his biographical data points and wrote, “THIS IS NOT A CORPORATE ANNOUNCEMENT OF VALUES—THIS IS AN ANNOUNCEMENT THAT: THE BAG IS BACK.”
He found brands’ business-oriented responses to Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests unnerving. “I live this, you know?” he says. “Like, I need to list my business values and where I stand? You see me, you see what I do and what I’ve done.” His customers have always known that his products stand for style, individuality, and nonconformity. “Everything in my actions, how I live, is to actually be free and do what I like,” he says.
Long before this summer, Clemens was the most talked-about designer in America, and for good reason. Having presented his collections in New York since 2004—where he was beloved by the downtown scene but overlooked by the fashion establishment—he took his show to Paris last fall and was then Pitti Uomo’s guest designer in January, showing a collection of “romanticized” baggy jeans and armor-like puffers. Later that month, he announced a major collaboration with the Gap—a surprise given Clemens’s penchant for unorthodox partnerships with brands like White Castle and Budweiser. (“The further away it was from fashion, the more successful it was for us,” he says.) Then the pandemic hit and the collab was canceled. “Old worlds,” he says, waving a hand. Will he ever share the scrapped designs? “People have the sweatshirt. I want one. I don’t have one, so somebody Grail me one.”
The affront only fueled consumer lust for the Telfar brand—particularly the Shopping bag, the cult item he debuted in 2014 that’s been dubbed the Bushwick Birkin for its delicious collision of status and affordability (it runs from $150 to $257). That a bag at that cost became a status symbol is a testament to Clemens’s masterful grasp of fashion seduction, an act most designers can pull off only with the help of thousand-dollar price tags. It became the summer’s must-have accessory and a social media phenomenon, trending on Twitter and spawning countless memes during its semiweekly restock. The internet practically imploded in August when a preorder sale was announced, allowing anyone and everyone to “secure the bag.” It didn’t hurt that Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents Clemens’s district in Queens, rolled up to the Capitol carrying an oxblood Telfar tote. “She sent me the cutest note,” he says. Seeing one of the most visible politicians in the country support his work makes him feel hopeful. “It’s adding a lot more meaning to what I do.”
Bags were selling out rapidly, Clemens says. “Stores will order like 200 bags, and that’s supposed to be a big thing. We were selling more than that in seconds.” The craze sparked the idea for the presale. “I’m not the type of person that’s about scarcity and you waking up at six in the morning and you’re not getting it.” If you want to try to get a bag in the drop, go for it, he says, but “it’s like, I’m hungover at that time, you know?” He wouldn’t disclose how many bags he sold, but then he says slowly, methodically, “We sold thousands of bags.”
Clemens rounded out the summer with a suite of new drops, including do-rags as well as belts and hats in new colorways—capping it off with a collaboration with Ugg. “I love this bag and what it’s done for us, what it means to people,” he says, “but I’m really looking forward to expanding.” For the past few years, as Clemens’s star rose, Telfar’s products (aside from the bags, ironically) remained hard to find. This year Clemens decided to change that. He’s doubled down on direct-to-consumer, though he also says he had “the best retail season, kind of ever.”
In addition to a strong sales year, Clemens is enjoying his new position of influence. Still, he points out one of the contradictions in supporting Black designers only when there is more incentive to do so. “People should be really sensitive about what’s going on right now,” he says. The spotlight is “a double-edged sword. It’s still just as exploitative. It’s exploiting your Blackness, exploiting your worth. Exploiting how people see you. Even us having this conversation—you know what the deal is.”
Clemens says he just feels accomplished after the year he’s had—Paris, Pitti, the bags, the web store. “Fashion is so fast that nothing ever gets started before it happens,” he says. “Everybody’s in a rush. I’m not in a fucking rush. I want to make some really good things and grow my business. What I’ve been asking the universe for is, like, can I just make clothes? Like, do I have to fucking be an artist to make clothes? Do I have to be like an influencer, or have a boyfriend? No. I can make fucking clothes and make them for myself and then give them to someone else. That’s what I want to do.” —Rachel Tashjian
Accessory Of The Year: The Mask
Nothing in 2020 America has been as fraught and ubiquitous as the mask. Our new mask-clad way of life began slowly at first and then all at once. In the early days of the pandemic, amid conflicting messages from the CDC, we watched as everyone from emerging fashion designers to billionaires with private jets leapt into action to fill a mask shortage—a tricky proposition in the U.S., where most manufacturing has been outsourced overseas. Then, when it became all too clear that the best defense against the virus was a good, sturdy face covering, the humble bandana and the home-sewn mask became essential, even lifesaving, accessories—and, somehow, the most highly politicized thing you could wear in 2020.
Yet in spite of that polarization, it has become an accepted and mandatory piece of apparel. No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service. And where there was once a mask shortage, there’s now a surplus of choices. Runners can get performance masks from Asics or Adidas to match their shoes, and Uniqlo carries them in three-packs, like socks or underwear. Those who can’t bear the mask-ness of masks can opt for a bandana or a scarf—Hermès being the status option. It isn’t fashion, per se, but it could be. For every aesthete in Eckhaus Latta or Bode, there are a few in disposable surgical masks—not ideal for the environment, but better than no mask at all. Mask shopping is a whole new form of consumerism in which to indulge, and our faces are now subject to the kind of shape and size dysmorphia once reserved only for our bodies. My largish jaw keeps pulling my mask off my smallish nose—who knew?
Yes, it’s political, and in more ways than one. When the 23-year-old tennis (and fashion) phenom Naomi Osaka won the U.S. Open in an empty Arthur Ashe Stadium this year, she wore a different mask every time she took to the court over the course of the tournament, each one bearing the name of one of the many Black American victims of police brutality, starting with Breonna Taylor in round one and ending with Tamir Rice for the finals. It was a powerful gesture, meant to raise awareness, Osaka said. It was also an indelible and redeeming moment for the mask, which by now—it’s worth acknowledging—we are all totally sick of wearing. —Noah Johnson
Most Stylish Person of The Year: Marc Jacobs
If every fit pic is an investment in clout, Marc Jacobs is the Warren Buffett of fashion. The designer, whose impact was once felt almost exclusively in womenswear—and who shuttered his own men’s business a few years ago—has used his steady stream of Instagram outfit photos to suddenly become something new: an ambassador for the radical personal-style movement that is currently animating menswear.
Jacobs’s IG posts, which vary from off-the-cuff mirror selfies to ad-campaign-level productions, are the work of a hard-core fashion fan. Unlike designers who favor toned-down uniform dressing, Jacobs emulates the unhinged maximalism of a Dover Street Market employee with infinite store credit, championing the designers and brands that are capturing the moment. Before the fashion establishment knew quite what to make of Demna Gvasalia’s extreme vision at Balenciaga, Jacobs was flexing Triple S sneakers in every color. But Jacobs is not so much an influencer as he is fashion’s most prominent and aspirational enthusiast.
“I got into doing this because I love fashion,” the 57-year-old designer says via Zoom from his home in Rye, New York. It’s a feeling he has had his whole life. “As a kid, going shopping for back-to-school clothes was the best day of the year, because I got to choose a new sweater and a T-shirt and a couple of pairs of pants. And I cared about those things.”
Now Jacobs boldly combines colossal Rick Owens boots with sumptuous Prada coats and razor-sharp Celine tailoring, and glittery Comme des Garçons blazers with bulbous Loewe sunglasses and groovy flared corduroys of his own design. And by fearlessly clashing texture and color, embracing unusual silhouettes, fanning out on the flyest designer garments as soon as they hit the racks, and uploading it all to Instagram, he has made us reconsider how much fun getting dressed can be.
Jacobs approaches his closet each morning with the same intuition he brings to designing a collection. “I think of life as starring in my own movie, and depending on where that movie is going and what story’s unraveling, I reflect that character,” he says.
Recently, Jacobs’s movie has brought our hero to the front line of fashion’s genderfluid revolution. After getting married and moving to the suburbs, he adopted the studied elegance of a glamorous ’60s housewife: knife-pleated skirts, prim blazers, and arched high heels. “I’ve always found it really weird to gender clothes,” says Jacobs, who, though once “very affected” by other people’s opinions, now transcends those concerns. “What happened with certain right-wing thinking is that men have to look a certain way, they have to act a certain way. And I don’t subscribe to any of those rules. I never have. I mean, I didn’t write them. I didn’t write that story. I didn’t fight that war. I’m not for it.”
He has other aspirations, he says, such as “a life without shame,” an aim that evolved into a mantra when he got the word “shameless” tattooed in cursive script on his left pec.
So take notes on Jacobs’s ludicrously advanced fits, but more importantly, let his shamelessness be your guide through the wide-open plains of personal expression. He serves as a potent reminder that individual style is not something that can be bought. It isn’t investment banking, after all. It’s more like a movie—and you’re the star. —Samuel Hine
Sneakers of The Year: Nike Dunks
In case you somehow needed more proof that 2020 has been the weirdest year ever, look no further than the world of sneakers. The hottest kicks of the summer? The Ben & Jerry’s x Nike SB Dunk Low—affectionately dubbed the Chunky Dunky—an unhinged brew of hairy cow print, tie-dye, and a painterly hillside diorama complete with stitched-on clouds. Lacing two cartons of ice cream to your feet may sound ridiculous, but something just felt right about shoes so deliciously bonkers at a time like this, and the overwhelming demand spoke volumes: At its peak, the Friends & Family edition of the sneaker—which came packaged in an oversized Ben & Jerry’s tub—was selling for upwards of $4,000 on StockX.
Everything under the Dunk umbrella at Nike has been buzzy all year, especially the more subtle colorways, like the orange-and-navy “Virginia” makeup that was released this summer. But nothing has been more central to sneaker culture—argued over, Instagrammed relentlessly, resold for jaw-dropping markups—than the freaky concoctions cooked up by Nike SB, the Swoosh’s madcap skateboarding wing. “The Dunk is the most perfect blank canvas,” says Nike SB global product lead Kevin Imamura. “You can plug whatever ideas you want into it and they’ll come to life, because the panels, the stitching, the overlays—they’re all perfectly placed for artistic expression.”
Since 2002, when SB debuted its extra-cushy, skate-ified version of what is otherwise an ’80s-era hoops model that shares DNA with the Jordan 1, the scrappy sub-label has taken full advantage of that chameleonic quality, churning out hallucinatory, pop-culture-fueled designs that broaden Nike’s aesthetic horizons. It’s been nearly two decades since SB launched, but delirium for the shoes has had a banner year in 2020. The manic energy kicked off in February with a plaid-and-paisley Travis Scott collaboration, ran through spring and summer with the Chunky Dunky and a fuzzy Grateful Dead “Jerry Bear” version, and even seeped into the Swoosh mainline through a crystal-covered, disco-ready Dunk from Cactus Plant Flea Market in November. Strange times call for strange sneakers, and in these absolutely strangest of times, the Nike Dunk has been a welcome, kooky beacon of light in the darkness. —Yang-Yi Goh
Store of The Year: UNION
This was always meant to be a year of refocusing for Union. Starting in 2009, owner Chris Gibbs had built the store in Los Angeles into a place where you could find delicate shirts from Bode hanging next to aggro tees from Brain Dead. But as the 2010s drew to a close, things were a little off. Finances were tight, and the brand mix was out of whack. “We had kind of fallen in love with the bright shiny new toy, which was high fashion,” Gibbs explains. “We hadn’t visited a room in our house in a while, which is this place for up-and-coming designers, particularly Black and brown designers.” The dials needed adjusting.
So when the pandemic hit in March and the protest movement rolled down Union’s block of La Brea in late May, Gibbs and his wife, Beth, saw their opening. They scaled back on mainstream fashion labels while stocking up on upstarts like Brownstone and Nicholas Daley. And then they turned the release of their sure-to-be-a-hit Air Jordan 4 collaboration into a testing ground, booting up an initiative—called Spread Love—that included local Black-owned businesses in the marketing and cut them in on the sales for the sneaker. The program isn’t a half-hearted Band-Aid—it’s meant to be a rethinking of the relationship between store, customer, and community.
In a year when shopping was both imperative (support small businesses!) and more than a little futile (do I really need new clothes?), Union stood tall. All of the things a store needs to do in 2020—balance mainstay brands with new discoveries, foster a community, push out the occasional white-hot sneaker collab—are things Union’s been doing for years.
Business hasn’t been easy, but it just might wind up being the way forward. Gibbs says that “2020 forced us to do things that we were already trying to do. It got uncomfortable, but change is uncomfortable. In a weird way 2020 has given us a lot of opportunity for growth. And not just growth financially. I mean that more, I don’t know, metaphysically.” —Sam Schube
Biggest Fit Of The Year: Jay-Z On Vacay
The Covid-19 pandemic nearly brought the celebrity-fit-pic-industrial complex to a halt until about mid-August. Then, as a sign that nature was healing, Jay-Z re-emerged wearing a full kit by Bode, the N.Y.C.-based brand that ushered in an artisanal revival in menswear. Holding his son, Sir, after a yacht trip in the Hamptons, Hov was the flyest version of a dad on vacation, in his plaid bowling shirt, inspired by a midcentury tablecloth, and beefy burgundy shorts—evoking the joys of familial togetherness while wearing a brand that’s all about the beauty of domestic textiles and heirlooms. At a time when many of us had been both away from our families and stuck at home, it was a soothing balm.
The fit of the year wasn’t chosen by a stylist—rumor has it that Hov himself has been placing orders with the brand, but founder Emily Adams Bode was as surprised as anyone when the photo surfaced. “We had no idea,” she says. “I was so honored to see how natural a moment it is.” In our new world, these instances of celebrities dressing like nobody’s watching are deeply refreshing, tender snapshots of unbridled style enthusiasm. Says Bode: “It just happened because he likes the clothes.” —S.H.
Big Heart of The Year: A-Cold-Wall
In 2020, the most game-changing idea throughout fashion—and the world, really—was caring for others. The notion has clear business implications. “You can’t grow a market if you’re talking to yourself,” explains Samuel Ross, founder and creative director of the London-based label A-Cold-Wall. “You need to have a model that is scalable, and empathy and good intention are definitely a scalable model.” He laughs at the obviousness of it all, but in 2020 he put his money where his mouth is by contributing directly to Black-owned businesses in the form of 10 grants worth 2,500 British pounds (roughly $3,200) each. “Helping people and lifting up your brother as a guide is super important,” Ross says. It was a prompt and unprecedented response from a small, independent designer in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and new civil rights movement. Within just 72 hours of announcing his program in June, he reviewed 2,000-plus submissions and selected recipients. The relatively small size of his company makes this kind of swift action possible—it’s also what makes Ross’s initiative even more remarkable, especially in the middle of a global health crisis that has ravaged many fashion businesses just like his. For too long fashion thrived on exclusivity. Now, with leaders like Ross, is a time to focus on community. —Cam Wolf
Change Agent Of The Year: Aurora James
No doubt 2020 has been a banner year for good intentions and charitable donations from the fashion world—and for posturing and virtue signaling too. But while a passive act like writing a check to help the industry recover from the wreckage of COVID-19 or to fight systemic racism has been one popular strategy, designer Aurora James came forward with a framework for action on how to implement lasting change.
To compel companies and decision makers toward the sorts of commitments that lead to real progress, she created the nonprofit organization the 15 Percent Pledge, which has already sparked big companies like Sephora, West Elm, and Yelp to forge deeper relationships with Black-owned businesses.
The idea to launch such an organization came to James in the days after George Floyd’s killing by the Minneapolis Police Department—though James has been doing things differently and empowering the Black community since day one. When she started Brother Vellies, her ultra-cool shoe-and-accessory brand that collaborates with artisans across Africa to preserve traditional craft techniques, in 2013, she not only put artisans at the forefront but also redistributed wealth to underrepresented communities. “I still am a big supporter and believer of expanding and preserving skill sets and allowing people to provide an income for themselves based on what’s traditional to them,” she says, “instead of being an image on people’s mood boards.”
She says that when it came to the Pledge, she wanted to give businesses a straightforward way to help. “For me, I needed it to be clear,” James says. “I needed a clear ask of what I wanted these companies to do for me as a Black woman and as an entrepreneur.” Since her call to action, James has become a de facto diversity-and-inclusion consultant to businesses across the country, as well as a public face of corporate change. “I think that oftentimes there isn’t a clear metric for how people can actually change the work that they’re doing to be anti-racist,” she says. As powerful companies start to weed out the systemically racist practices they’ve grown accustomed to, the Pledge offers a gloriously simple path forward—one that can be interpreted in many different ways for all types of businesses.
For Sephora and West Elm, the Pledge ensures that at least 15 percent of the brands stocked are Black-owned. For publications like Vogue, the Pledge will guarantee that at least 15 percent of freelance commissions are made to Black creatives. And with Yelp, James is helping to amass a database of Black-owned businesses and is working with the platform’s marketing team to create tools to increase visibility.
She says she intends for the nonprofit that she’s created to act as a long-term collaborator, assisting the businesses that commit to the Pledge. “We actually work with every single company that takes the Pledge,” James stresses, noting that many of the entities that sign up are on a five-year contract. “We make recommendations of Black-owned businesses that we’ve been in contact with that we think might be a really good fit. We talk to them about best-practices onboarding. In some cases we work on marketing strategies with these companies so that they can understand how they can let their existing customer base know about a new Black brand, but also connect companies to consumers that maybe they haven’t had access to traditionally.”
For the businesses committed to transforming noble intention into actual change, James wants to be a lasting partner. Some companies, she explains, “just want to make a donation and move on. The reality is, we need a lot more than a one-time donation. Black people in this country are worth ongoing, meaningful, large-scale impact and support.”
As James moves into 2021, she is writing a memoir, continuing to develop the Pledge, and designing at Brother Vellies. With so much ahead of her, her most radical act of change might be to stay small, humble, and independent. “Success to me has nothing to do with what Brother Vellies’s gross revenue is, and truly it never has been,” James says. “I could live in a bigger house, but am I going to be more free?” —Steff Yotka
Comeback Brand Of The Year: STÜSSY
Stüssy has had a banger 2020: The California skate brand dropped its second collection with Givenchy creative director Matthew Williams (using Loro Piana fabrics), a sellout collab of upcycled deadstock with the Our Legacy Work Shop, and one of the year’s coolest suits, made with No Vacancy Inn. In between came partnerships with Gramicci, Birkenstock, and Nike—an unbelievable range that speaks to Stüssy’s far-reaching appeal. (It didn’t hurt the brand’s buzz that Shawn Stüssy, who left the company in 1996, created a collection with Dior late last year too.) Oh, and 2020 marks its 40th year in business.
None of those projects are intended as part of an anniversary celebration, per se; they’re the fruits of an effort to redirect Stüssy that dates back to 2015. Creative branding director Fraser Avey and CEO David Sinatra realized that while there was so much love for Stüssy, the people who loved it didn’t actually dig the clothes. “We wanted to make good clothing for our friends that they appreciated,” Avey says.
Avey, who began as a manager in the Vancouver store 15 years ago, started the Stüssy reinvention by rebooting the Tribe—Stüssy parlance for the crew of people who are both ambassadors and creative collaborators. He brought on No Vacancy Inn’s Tremaine Emory to handle the marketing and art direction (which is now funkier than that of most high-end fashion brands that peddle clothes for 10 times the price) and put Israel Gonzalez and Jayne Goheen in charge of design, making the overall aesthetic crisper and more elevated. The Tribe is now an alchemy of luxury-fashion taste and renegade spirit, counting DJs Benji B and Hank Korsan, Bone Soda cofounder Skinny Macho, and Our Legacy’s Jockum Hallin as members. Suddenly the label we all grew up wearing looks better than ever. The collaborations and marketing concepts are fantastic—but more importantly, the products themselves are once again instant streetwear classics. —R.T.
Breakthrough Designer Of The Year: Evan Kinori
Evan Kinori was slumped on the porch behind his studio in San Francisco, taking in the air “between ash falls.” The sky behind him itself was an Evan Kinori color: gray-brown, powerful-looking. In a few hours he would release his newest collection of clothing—two-pocket shirts and wide elastic-waist pants in elusive shades of orange and gray and green; lambswool sweaters; dark, solidly constructed jackets and anoraks—which is something he does only a few times a year, with some guilt and a great amount of effort.
But for now he was simply sitting and patiently listening to me as I told him an anticlimactic story of briefly losing, and then finding again, a T-shirt he’d made. I’d lost sleep over something he’d created. Not because it was expensive, or rare, though Kinori’s clothing is fabricated in small enough quantities that it usually does become rare, after a while. I’d lost sleep because I’d developed a deep emotional connection to a piece of fabric stitched together just so, and now that I was talking to the guy who’d made it, I wanted to know: How? Why?
Kinori, who is 32, with a chaotic wave of brown hair, creates objects that are “ripe for connectivity,” as he put it. “That idea of a connection between the human, like their spirit, and the garment—that’s kind of the pinnacle to me,” he said. He has been making clothing—more or less the same cut of shirt, jacket, and pants in different fabrics—for five years now, but always with great ambivalence. “Making product is an absurd thing to do,” he said. “The world is well beyond the point of needing products.” Both times, Kinori pronounced the word “product” like it was an ancient curse.
But the world has decided it needs Evan Kinori. Even as he’s done everything possible to keep his brand small and outside the greater fashion establishment, his clothes sell swiftly, in carefully selected stores all over the world. Very few young American designers have had his kind of success; even fewer have been able to succeed while keeping their operations as intimate and human as Kinori does. It is exactly what we might want from our clothes, and the people who make them, in this cursed year of 2020: something that builds an actual connection between one person and another. To wear Evan Kinori is less to consume than to participate. He hand-numbers his clothing, which is partially meant as a “fuck-you to big companies that can’t do it,” he explained, and partially because doing so “speaks to the humanity, speaks to the scale, speaks to the specialness, speaks to the provenance” of the clothes. “The point is to say: Slow the fuck down,” Kinori explained. “Look at this number. What does it tell you about your other clothes?”
He wants you to think enough about what he makes, he said, that you might care enough not to replace it every six months—or worse, to lose it, as I almost did. The idea is: A human made this. There are not infinite versions of it. Be mindful of the thing, and the thing will be mindful of you. It is product, if we must use that word, to be bought like you might buy a couch, or a table, or even a house—something you intend to have around for a while. Choose wisely and you might never have to choose again.
“And people constantly ask,” Kinori said, “ ‘Any new shapes?’ ‘Any new styles?’ ‘When’s the new stuff?’ It makes me want to just make the same white shirt for the next 20 years.”
He laughed. “Just cool out, you know? Everybody’s gotta fucking chill out.” —Zach Baron
A version of this story originally appears in the December/January 2021 issue with the title “The 2020 GQ Fashion Awards.”
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Union recently contracted with a Black-owned screen-printing business.
Megan Thee Stallion is GQ’s Rapper of the Year