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The real lessons from Telfar, Kanye and the Gap

At the end of last week, when the besieged Gap brand announced, with great fanfare, that it was entering into a 10-year partnership with Kanye West to create a new brand, Yeezy Gap, in a global offer of relevance. and revitalizing, a panting corner of the internet noticed something wrong.

And Telfar? people asked.

They were talking, of course, about Telfar Clemens, 35, a black designer overturning old ideas about gender, identity and community, who had been announced, in almost as much fanfare, as a Gap collaborator in January .

That same month, there was even a sumptuous party launched by Gap during men’s fashion week in Paris in its store on rue Tronchet, in the presence of Kate Moss, Violet Chachki and Dev Hynes and covered with Vogue, W, Essence and Complex (among other publications) to announce the Gap x Telfar collection .

Now it seemed that GAP, which was in serious financial difficulty after the pandemic, had caused its stores to close and most North American retailers to retire; already suffers from damage to reputation after cancellation many of his orders factories in Bangladesh and elsewhere; be attacked on Instagram by dissatisfied customers; and to be sued for $ 66 million in non-payment of rent by its owner, Simon Property Group, had abandoned a black creation for a more famous one.

Given the current turmoil over racial justice, the timing couldn’t have been worse.

For Mr. Clemens, speaking for the first time since the start of the hubbub, to think that this is Kanye vs Telfar is to draw the wrong conclusion.

It is a question of knowing how the collaborations between the emerging designers, in particular the emerging designers of color, and the giant companies of establishment, traditionally framed by the fashion like the key of the success of the new designers, can in reality be entirely different .

To be precise, he said by phone from Maryland, it is a vast power imbalance, perpetuated by the narrative of inclusiveness, or being allowed to appear in territory owned by white

Its creative director, Babak Radboy, 37, also on the phone, called the experience a wake-up call.

It is also the story of a large company in disarray and what seems to be an almost complete failure of basic systems and communication. Asked about what happened, a Gap spokesperson sent an email, the Yeezy Gap partnership and the Telfar collaboration were managed by entirely separate teams and the workflows did not overlap, being given organizational and leadership changes between the time of the two.

What companies are talking about: Telfar fell through the cracks during a period of business upheaval. It is an error that is said in itself.

(Mr. West was not available to comment.)

Mr. Clemens and Mr. Radboy had initially avoided talking about the debacle because, said Mr. Clemens, he was happy for Mr. West, who had been involved in conversations with the Gap for over a decade and Mowalola Ogunlesi, the Nigerian. British designer, appointed design director of the Yeezy Gap project. Mr. Clemens said he both enjoyed their work.

But he and Mr. Radboy had become increasingly uncomfortable with the script, popular on social media, which portrayed the Telfar group as victims or who played fame and skin color against each other. the other, as Mr. Clemens said.

They were more concerned with this misperception than with the mechanics of what exactly happened, although the mechanics themselves are important.

It started about a year ago, when GAP contacted Mr. Clemens to talk about working together. The buzz around him and his unisex designs that ignore the old orthodoxies about women and men and the mythologies of culture and the cut and twist of sexuality, uniforms and usefulness in clothing was growing . He won the CFDA / Vogue Fashion Fund award, organized a rave / show during New York Fashion Week with a mosh pit, attended the Met Gala and created an It bag for a new generation so ubiquitous that he was baptized Bushwick Birkin. His creative fan club included playwright Jeremy O. Harris, rapper Butch Dawson, Solange and Kelela.

Mr. Clemens had this chemistry that turns fashion into a community. No wonder the Gap, which was in the midst of a long-term identity crisis, saw potential. Over time, they developed an agreement, which was for two seasons, with unlimited renewal options, and involved design costs and royalties.

I’m a big fan of the spread, it’s so much in our DNA, said Clemens. The potential for what it could be seemed so great when entering a Gap store and being able to get a unisex garment of all sizes and colors. It would have been revolutionary, a cultural change in what was expected of Gap.

A logo has been created. A contract for the introductory evening has been signed. The windows of the Gap store in Paris were lined with photographs of the most recent Telfar salon.

At the event, John Caruso, then head of Gap Adult Design, said Fashionable the collaboration represents all the momentum and the future vision of the brand.

It’s a whole new chapter, so it’s important that we do things like that to be proud, to be bold, and to cut out all the noise, he said.

This is why, when the news of the agreement with Yeezy broke, the crew of Telfar, said Mr. Radboy, felt already seen.

Mr. Clemens said: It seemed so similar to the story we had to tell, albeit on an even larger scale. To outsiders, even the logo looked awfully similar, but to be fair, there are only a few things any designer can do with three letters and a blue square.

By that time, however, Gap’s management had changed. Art Peck, the CEO, was brutally dismissed in November 2019. Alegra OHare, the marketing director, resigned at the end of January. Then Mr. Caruso left.

The Telfar Gap collection contract was still in the form of a project, not signed by either party, although a Telfar spokesperson said that a memorandum of understanding had been agreed and that the contract had been promised before March 25. (The transaction notes, while describing the terms of an agreement, are not legally binding).

Then the pandemic happened. And then, Mr. Clemens, who had already delivered 30 models, which would constitute the basis of a collection despite the absence of a finalized contract, was informed that production had been postponed indefinitely.

In late March, his company sent Gap an invoice asking to be paid for his work. Le Gap offered to pay 25% of the design costs as deferral costs (they did). Mr. Clemens asked to be paid in full.

And that, said Mr. Radboy, is when all communication has ceased. He sent email after email. He heard nothing. The Gap spokesperson attributed this to an organizational change in the brand over an unprecedented period.

It wasn’t until the weekend after the announcement of the Kanye deal and social media started raising Telfar’s question that the Gap said it would pay the full bill.

We have taken immediate steps to resolve this issue after being notified of a late payment, the spokesperson said by email. Although we chose not to go ahead with the Gap x Telfar partnership at that time, we looked at full payment anyway and only have respect and appreciation for the time and the vision of Telfars.

In other words, this is not at all how we would expect a partnership to be managed and we apologize for the way it went, the statement said.

At this point, said Mr. Clemens, I am really happy to be released. Especially considering the way Gap has abandoned its supplier factories, he said.

We grew up looking at the mall building and wanting to be part of it, to be empowered, said Radboy. Now we have realized that we should not. It is part of our survival to become the content of a larger brand so that it can make a statement about its racial solidarity. But the real problem is the initial situation that blocks the progress of the designers, so they have to say yes to such a thing.

In addition, he and Mr. Clemens said their digital business, which they own and fully control, is doing very well.

If anything, we have learned a lot more about ourselves and how we want to position ourselves in the new industry, said Mr. Clemens. He noted that since his factory reopened and he was able to restock his bags, they have sold on his own platforms in less than an hour.

Transformation, he said, does not work with a brand of establishment. Transformation is what we do independently and directly.

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