Liberian-American designer Telfar Clemens’s approach to fashion is summarized in his current collection’s tagline: “Not for you—for everyone.” Inclusivity has been the organizing principle of his runway collections since he began in 2006, but the social and political landscape is helping make his defiance of gender, race, and class resonate widely. Last year, Clemens won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund—and was also tasked with creating the uniforms for White Castle’s 15,000 employees.
Fast Company: What attracted you to fashion?
Telfar Clemens: [I wanted] to make the clothes that basically didn’t exist for me when I was a child. I was always attracted to women’s wear, but I was never allowed to wear it, so I made sure there were no gender assignments. You get to wear exactly what you want.
FC: Your work is hard to categorize, by design. What kind of customer responds to the Telfar brand?
TC: I think our relationship with our customers is different from other brands because it is not based on the psychology of scarcity and inadequacy, which is basically what drives the fashion industry. [With Telfar,] there’s a community of people who, for the first time, feel like a brand represents them. Last season, we let people on Instagram vote on which clothes we would make, then followed up with them when that thing was released. It’s not the customer who just wants to buy a Vuitton handbag.
FC: How did your partnership with White Castle come about?
TC: A 1-800 call to White Castle. Just kidding. It started when they wanted to sponsor our runway show at New York Fashion Week last year. [Several mass-market brands, such as McDonald’s and Tupperware, have recently sponsored fashion shows.] We had an idea at the last minute to do our after-party at their Times Square location—it’s the most fun I’ve ever had at a party—and photos of that event went viral. They asked us if [designing uniforms] was something we were interested in, and we definitely were. We adapted one of our signature, unisex styles and will make a new version every season. It has become a really beautiful thing. We went to their headquarters, in Columbus, Ohio, and met tons of employees. For the first time, they didn’t feel like their bodies were just billboards for whatever the new marketing slogan was. These uniforms are pretty coveted now. Opening Ceremony wants to carry them and sell them for $200. That makes the workers behind the counter feel very cool.
Telfar Clemens is No. 60 on the 2018 Most Creative People in Business list. Check out all 100 people here.