Late last week, when the embattled Gap brand announced, with great fanfare, that it was embarking on a 10-year partnership with Kanye West to create a new brand, Yeezy Gap, in an all-in bid for relevance and revitalization, a corner of the panting internet noticed one thing was amiss.
“What about Telfar?” people asked.
They were talking, of course, about Telfar Clemens, 35, a Black designer upending old ideas about gender, identity and community, who had been announced, to almost as much fanfare, as a Gap collaborator in January.
That same month there had even been a lavish party thrown by the Gap during Paris men’s fashion week in its store on rue Tronchet, attended by Kate Moss, Violet Chachki and Dev Hynes and covered in Vogue, W, Essence and Complex (among other publications) to herald the Gap x Telfar collection.
Now it looked as though the Gap, deep in financial trouble after the pandemic caused the closing of its stores and the furloughing of most of the North American retail staff; already suffering reputational damage after canceling many of its orders from factories in Bangladesh and elsewhere; being attacked on Instagram by disgruntled customers; and being sued for $66 million in nonpayment of rent by its landlord, Simon Property Group, had dropped one Black creative for a more famous one.
Given the current uproar about racial justice, the timing could not have been worse.
‘A Vast Power Imbalance’
For Mr. Clemens, speaking for the first time since the brouhaha began, to think that this is about Kanye vs. Telfar is to draw the wrong conclusion.
This is about how collaborations between emerging designers, especially emerging designers of color, and giant establishment corporations, traditionally framed by fashion as key to a new designer’s success, may actually be about something else entirely.
To be specific, he said by phone from Maryland, it is about “a vast power imbalance, perpetuated by the narrative of ‘inclusivity,’” or “being allowed to appear in territory owned by white people
His creative director, Babak Radboy, 37, also on the phone, characterized the experience as “a wake-up call.”
It is also the story of a large company in disarray and what seems like an almost complete failure in basic systems and communication. When asked about what happened, a spokeswoman for the Gap emailed, “The Yeezy Gap partnership and the Telfar collab were handled by wholly separate teams and the workstreams didn’t intersect, given organizational and leadership shifts between the timing of both.”
Which is business speak for: Telfar fell through the cracks during a time of corporate upheaval. That is a mistake that is telling in itself.
(Mr. West was not available for comment.)
Mr. Clemens and Mr. Radboy had initially avoided talking about the debacle because, Mr. Clemens said, he was happy for Mr. West, who had been involved in conversations with the Gap for more than a decade and Mowalola Ogunlesi, the Nigerian-British designer, who has been named design director for Yeezy Gap project. Mr. Clemens said he loved both their work.
But he and Mr. Radboy had become increasingly uncomfortable with the story line, popular on social media, that painted the Telfar group as victims — or that “played fame and skin color against each other,” as Mr. Clemens said.
They were more concerned about that misperception than the mechanics of what exactly happened, though the mechanics themselves are important.
How the Telfar/Gap collaboration came to be
It began about a year ago, when the Gap reached out to Mr. Clemens to talk about working together. The buzz around him and his unisex designs — which ignore old orthodoxies about “female” and “male” and crop and chop and twist mythologies of sexuality, uniforms and utility into clothes — was building. He had won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award, held a rave/show during New York Fashion Week complete with a mosh pit, attended the Met Gala and created an It bag for a new generation so ubiquitous it was christened “the Bushwick Birkin.” His creative fan club included the playwright Jeremy O. Harris, the rapper Butch Dawson, Solange and Kelela.
Mr. Clemens had that alchemy that transforms fashion into community. Little wonder the Gap, which was in the midst of a long-term identity crisis, saw potential. Over time, they hashed out an agreement, which was for two seasons, with unlimited options to renew, and involved a design fee and royalties.
“I’m a big fan of the Gap — it’s so much in our DNA,” Mr. Clemens said. “The potential of what this could be seemed so big — walking into a Gap store and being able to get a unisex piece of clothing in every size and color. It would have been groundbreaking, a cultural shift in what was expected from the Gap.”
A logo was created. A contract for the introductory party was signed. The windows of the Gap store in Paris were papered with photographs from the most recent Telfar show.
At the event, John Caruso, then the head of Gap Adult Design, told Vogue the collaboration “represents all the momentum and the future vision of the brand.”
“It’s a completely new chapter, so it’s important that we do things like this to stand proud, be bold and cut through all the noise,” he said.
That is why, when the news about the Yeezy deal broke, the Telfar crew, Mr. Radboy said, felt “déjà vu.”
Mr. Clemens said: “It seemed so similar to the story we had to tell” — albeit at an even bigger scale. To outsiders, even the logo looked awfully similar, though to be fair, there’s only so much any designer can do with three letters and a blue square.
By then, however, the Gap leadership had changed. Art Peck, the chief executive, had been abruptly fired in November, 2019. Alegra O’Hare, the chief marketing officer, stepped down at the end of January. Then Mr. Caruso left.
The Telfar Gap collection contract was still in draft form, unsigned by either party, though a Telfar spokeswoman said a deal memo had been agreed upon and the contract promised by March 25. (Deal memos, while they outline the terms of an agreement, are not legally binding).
Then the pandemic happened. And then Mr. Clemens, who had already delivered 30 designs, which would form the basis of a collection despite not having a finalized contract, was told that production had been postponed indefinitely.
In late March, his company sent the Gap an invoice asking to be paid for its work. The Gap offered to pay 25 percent of the design fee as a postponement fee (they have done this). Mr. Clemens asked to be paid in full.
And that, Mr. Radboy said, is when all communication ceased. He sent email after email. He heard nothing. The Gap spokeswoman attributed this to “an organizational shift in the brand during an unprecedented period.”
It was not until the weekend after the Kanye deal was announced and social media began to raise the Telfar issue that the Gap said it would pay the full invoice.
“We took immediate steps to resolve this matter after we were made aware of a delay in payment,” the spokeswoman emailed. “While we’d chosen not to move forward with the Gap x Telfar partnership at this time, we’re making whole on the full payment regardless and have only respect and appreciation for Telfar’s time and vision.”
“Simply put this is not at all how we would expect a partnership to be handled and apologize for how this panned out,” the statement continued.
At this point, Mr. Clemens said, “I am really glad to be free of it.” Especially so given the way the Gap has let down its supplier factories, he said.
“We grew up looking at the edifice of the mall and wanting to be part of it, to have power there,” Mr. Radboy said. “Now we have realized we shouldn’t. It has been part of our survival to become content for a bigger brand so they can make a statement about their racial solidarity. But the real problem is the initial situation that blocks a designer’s progress so they need to say ‘yes’ to such a thing.”
Besides, both he and Mr. Clemens said, their digital business, which they own and control entirely themselves, is going very well.
“If anything, we’ve learned a lot more about ourselves and how we want to position ourselves in the new industry,” Mr. Clemens said. He noted that since his factory reopened and he was able to restock his bags, they have been selling out on his own platforms within an hour.
“Transformation,” he said, is not working with an establishment brand. Transformation “is what we are doing independently and directly.”