What’s Behind the Criticism of Telfar?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Retailer

In 2018, Telfar changed the fashion industry by creating its now flagship “Shopping Bag.” The popular vegan-leather accessory was originally offered in three sizes across an array of muted and vibrant colorways, while its democratic price points — $150 for a small, $202 for a medium, and $257 for a large — made it an accessible introduction to a luxury brand without asking consumers to pay conventional luxury prices. The bag’s cult status soon earned it the nickname the “Bushwick Birkin.”

Much of Telfar’s appeal lies in the fact that designer Telfar Clemens treats his customers like his community. As the slogan says, Telfar is “Not for you — for everyone,” a rather democratic stance in the luxury market. The demand for the Shopping Bag became so intense that bots were created to ensure bag security (for the most part, bots are created by resellers), causing the brand to temporarily shut down its site to recalibrate so shoppers would have a fair chance at scoring a bag. The idea and carryout of creating a luxury product “for everyone” and keeping it at accessible price points, by high-fashion standards, is radical.

In February, the brand added a new “It” item to its accessory lineup: the Circle Bag, which had generated significant buzz online when it was previewed a month before. Unlike its predecessor, the Circle Bag’s shape and structure make the production process more rigorous, and it became the center of a mass critique from folks who felt its $567 price tag was too expensive. (For comparison, the least expensive handbag on Prada’s official website starts at $995.)

Shelton Boyd-Griffith, a contributing editor at Essence, recently wrote an op-ed on why the price of the Circle shouldn’t be controversial, presenting a well-backed argument that compares Telfar with white-owned luxury brands that don’t receive the same type of criticism. “We’ve seen it time and time again — Sean Jean, Off-White, Pyer Moss, etc. — where Black-owned brands are expected to remain at a certain scale,” Boyd-Griffith says. “I understand the concerns with sentiments around not being able to afford or buy into a brand that makes you feel seen.”

His argument is that there are tiers of commerce — in this case, a luxury bag — among white and European designers. Recently, handbag prices at Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Hermès have increased significantly to boost profits in the face of supply-chain issues and the higher cost of raw materials. But the conversation around such storied entities is never as speculative, or the criticism is short-lived. Last year, Bloomberg reported that Chanel had raised prices on some of its classic handbag silhouettes by almost two-thirds since 2019.

“Luxury brands attempt to sell a feeling of exclusivity to the masses,” says Lauren Sherman, chief correspondent at The Business of Fashion. “Chanel created this model with Karl Lagerfeld in the early ’80s: The runway is the dream, handbags and shoes are the goal, and makeup and fragrance are the reality. They are raising prices simply because they can.” So why shouldn’t Black-owned brands and Black designers be afforded the same luxury?

It’s not because they use different materials. Boyd-Griffith pointed out that Stella McCartney makes bags exclusively from vegan leather, a very similar material to Telfar’s, and that those retail from $700 to $2,000. “I don’t hear the same arguments made in correlation to McCartney’s vegan-leather bags as we see around Telfar,” he says, pointing out that Telfar’s Shopping Bags are on par with or priced lower than most vegan-leather bags. “Then you have the infamous Prada nylon bag, which is essentially made of synthetic plastic, that retails starting at $900. There isn’t a discourse around the cost of that bag.”

Sherman says the criticism of Telfar might have been more intense because one of the premises of the brand’s bag business is that it’s supposed to be “accessibly priced,” or “for everyone,” which is not the case with luxury white-owned brands: “Consumers expect the megalabels to raise prices; it’s part of their shtick. But when a brand’s marketing is about not being too expensive, that can hit a nerve, even if it’s still not that expensive relative to its competitors.”

The reasons for the price increase — supply-chain issues and a lack of raw materials — are the same for everyone. Sherman even argues that they may be worse for a small brand like Telfar, which doesn’t have its own factories and independent production.

Yet Telfar isn’t the only Black-owned brand to have felt the disdain of its fans. Rihanna’s LVMH-backed apparel venture, Fenty, saw similar criticism over its prices, while her previous collaborations, like those with Puma and River Island, were set at more accessible price points. Handbag designer Brandon Blackwood has faced criticism over the quality and production of his bags, and though there have been instances of mainstream luxury brands sending customers faulty products, the difference is that Blackwood’s hiccup was magnified with the help of social media. Race is at play by default in such situations considering the history of marginalization that Black-owned fashion brands have endured over the years.

There seems to be a disconnect between luxury and accessibility in the way people view not only Telfar but Black-owned luxury brands in general. In the current era of consumption, especially as it pertains to high fashion, the idea of luxury is slowly drifting from the old-guard declaration of the past and becoming more fluid in its definitions. Luxury is relative, and luxury is arbitrary, leaving it to the individual to define.

“I think there’s this misconception around Telfar and some of his contemporaries, e.g., Luar and Brandon Blackwood, that luxury and accessibility counter each other, but I beg to differ,” Boyd-Griffith says. “Especially as it pertains to Black people, systematically we’ve found luxury in everything from home-décor tableware to high noon on Sunday. Through the brand’s own tagline, ‘Not for you — for everyone,’ it’s asserting accessibility. So both luxury and accessibility can coexist within the Telfar universe.”

What’s Behind the Criticism of Telfar?