On Monday, September 23rd, designer Telfar Clemens showed in Paris for the first time. Clemens's raucous, inventive shows always depart from basic runway presentations. For at least the last three seasons, he's incorporated a musical performance: in February, fashion editors moshed to Ho99o9 amid crowdsurfing models at Irving Plaza; last September, Moses Sumney and Ian Isiah sang on a helicopter launch pad; the February before, Isiah harmonized with Dev Hynes at an unforgettable show-concert hybrid at Spring Studios.
And so for Spring 2020, the Telfar show, held at La Cigale concert hall, featured a live set from Parisian DJ Crystallmess and a performance by Lancey Foux. Models gathered together and danced joyously for the finale. Playwright Jeremy O. Harris, a frequent collaborator, got up to twerk with them. His seatmate Cathy Horyn reportedly looked pretty surprised.
The show focused on themes surrounding migration — Clemens is a first generation Liberian-American, and the show also did move from New York to Paris. Show notes said that the collection took inspiration from "the customs/security lines at any airport at any given time, anywhere in the world." While the models walked, Clemens screened his film, "The World Isn't Everything" — as models appeared onscreen, they popped up on the runway for a cool effect.
The clothes were classic Telfar, utilitarian reimaginings of American sportswear. Clemens showed his new backwards uniform shirts alongside high-waisted khakis, and pants with boxers sewn at the top to look like they were sagging. The collection included his classic asymmetrical tank tops, and a number of hybrid garments, a signature: jean shorts were mixed with cargos, t-shirts, knits, and polos were collaged together, and track pants featured air vents with fishnets sewn in.
The Paris show also marked the release of a Converse collaboration; Clemens drew inspiration from the company's heritage styles, making sneaker-sandal hybrids.
"The World Isn't Everything," directed by Petra Collins and filmmaker Clayton Vomero, has writing credits from Harris and Juliana Huxtable, and seems to comment on (fucked) immigration policies. It features otherworldly visuals of Black men floating on rafts out to sea (portions were filmed off of Staten Island) cut with imagery of Telfar bags and friends of the brand going through TSA, a dangerous proposition for migrants. Huxtable, New York's preeminent genius, looked exasperated and glamorous. But the film really belongs to Ashton Sanders, who delivers a monologue — set in what appears to be an airport interrogation room — that plays with Walt Whitman's "The Untold Want," and references the classic Bette Davis film Now, Voyager, named for a line in the poem.
A few weeks ago in Brooklyn, at a screening of the film that served as a preview (or, as Clemens called it, "a sizzle") for the Paris show, Clemens told PAPER that after attending Paris Fashion Week twice a year for about seven years, he was just ready to show in the city. "I've always wanted to show in Paris," he said. "Paris is definitely the fashion capital right now. Fashion week in America is getting shorter and shorter and shorter, celebrities run fashion, and I really want to have an experience that is European. And they're so graciously inviting me to have a show."
It was gracious of Clemens to give New Yorkers the sizzle at all. The designer seemed conscious that his glorious shows would be missed during New York's increasingly sanitized fashion schedule. He spent fashion week giving us little gifts, a generous goodbye. There were multiple Telfar events held throughout NYFW: a bag launch at Opening Ceremony, the screening, a party for the brand's new mint green "uniform" shirts at the Swiss Institute, and a party at the Times Square Edition to celebrate Harris's widely-acclaimed Slave Play, an event that drew the likes of Timothée Chalamet and Lily-Rose Depp.
Clemens isn't the only beloved New York-based designer to decamp for Paris in recent years; there's Thom Browne, Joseph Altuzarra, Proenza Schouler (though Proenza came back after just two seasons). During our interview, Clemens, who was raised in Queens, bristled at being classified as a New York designer — "it's Telfar Global" — but asserted that NYC is still very much present in his work. "I'm from New York, and a lot of the spirit that's here is so much apart of the brand, and that's why I wanted you guys to see some of it," he said, explaining the choice to screen his film in Brooklyn.
Telfar was still missed. He's a singular figure in American fashion. In his show notes, Clemens described his brand as "a Black-owned, nongendered fashion project established in 2005 in NYC, a long time before such a thing was possible." He made it so.