From Telfar to Thom Browne, Is Fashion Finally Populist?

Let’s start with perhaps the craziest news out of New York Fashion Week: the brand…

Let’s start with perhaps the craziest news out of New York Fashion Week: the brand Telfar is launching a TV channel. Designer Telfar Clemens staged a press-conference-cum fashion show on Sunday morning, with Clemens and his creative director Babak Radboy, along with musician Ian Isiah, filmmaker Leilah Weinraub, director Terence Nance, A$AP Ferg, musician Teezo Touchdown, and others answering questions from the audience about what this wild new venture would entail. The short answer: there will be two channels, TELFAR.TV, and FTV, created in partnership with Nance, which you can tune into on AppleTV or Roku. And viewers can submit their own content, which the brand will air—“providing it is a vibe,” said artist Kandis Williams.

Clemens and his crew are funny—I’ve been wondering when a fashion brand would bring breakout Teezo into the fold—and the high-energy presser suggested his team could really make must-see television. Isaiah strolled up and down the aisles as a whammy-barred guitar wailed, singing a song—“a drip is not a drop”—revealing details about the show and future bag drops. (He sang, for example, that there are usually about 10,000 bags in each drop, but over 100,000 people and bots trying to get one).

Kamau Patton, Ian Isiah and Teezo Touchdown speak during a presentation for Telfar.Photo by John Lamparski for Getty Images.

The TV channel is an ambitious act of possible genius, and a savvy retail innovation. The panelists spoke about no longer wanting to be another person or business’s “content,” about wanting to reject the corporations and platforms that exploit their talents for money and entertainment. In that way, it’s a challenge to OnlyFans, to Instagram and Instagram Live, maybe even to Substack and TikTok and especially to the Real Housewives empire and the Kardashian industrial complex—giving the direction and control back to creators themselves. It’s also a very forward-thinking idea: livestream shopping has been the nut that many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and social media platforms have been trying to crack for a few years now. Towards the end of the presentation, the team wheeled on a cart draped with a black sheet and pulled it off to reveal a new bag, in a duffel shape; you’ll only be able to buy it on Telfar’s channel, which is also a way, the team explained, for them to avoid the bots that have frustrated those logging on for the regular drops. The Isiah song wasn’t a joke: the TV channel marks the end of “drops” and the beginning of “drips.”

A lot of fashion heads inside and outside the industry—particularly on social media—dream about populism in fashion. Frankly, it’s hard to square that with the very idea of fashion, which, in its quest for constant novelty, premium on fantasy, and adoration of exclusivity, is impossible to disentangle from capitalism. But the idea that anyone who wants a Telfar bag can get one seems like a populist fashion utopia. And while Clemens and Radboy have moved further and further away from the industry’s mainstream over time, that shift—has also made them a lot more populist—much more than other New York-based designers who talk about dressing “real people,” whoever they are.

Thom Browne.Courtesy of Thom Browne.
Thom Browne.Courtesy of Thom Browne.

Thom Browne is another designer who, against the odds, has created a utopia of populist fashion. Of course, his suits are much pricier than a Telfar bag, but what launched as a startling disruption of the American menswear uniform has become something inclusive and joyous. A Thom Browne show is like a Rick Owens show, where many of the attendees are fans and clients, dressed in his mad variety of tweaked-out prep. While most designers use tailoring to establish rules, Browne uses it to abolish them, so his “uniform” in fact becomes a costume for liberation. The middle section of his three-part show really sang: suiting fabrics, including a soft gray wool seersucker, wool twill, and pinstripes, were cut into monastic sheaths layered over long pencil skirts.

Jordan Clarkson.Courtesy of Thom Browne.
Russell Westbrook.Courtesy of Thom Browne.

The whole thing was pared back for Browne, who can also be chaotically camp. He dressed a number of star attendees, including Russell Westbrook and Jordan Clarkson, in skirts, which underscored how he has become a leader in American gender fluid fashion. Earlier this week, a buyer told me that “Americans don’t care about craftsmanship—they care about mass media.” That might sound a little depressing, until you realize just how powerful—not to mention elegant—the image of Westbrook in a knife-pleat pencil skirt is. Browne loves a wacky fashion show, and I guess he is basically the David Mamet of the runway, favoring floweriness over logic. But without any cynicism, he has embraced celebrity as a way to change everyone’s mind about what’s masculine, what’s pretty, and what’s courageous. And what could be more mass than that?