When a Bag Becomes a Community

How the ‘Bushwick Birkin’ became a fashion status symbol

Top row: Nick Hadad, Cheyenne Beam, Alvin Walker, Parker Kit Hill, Banna Nega, Samirah, Michael Lew, Isioma Iyamah, Gobi-Kla Vonan, Kiara Ventura. Bottom row: Isa’ah, Candice Saint Williams, Kala McFarlane, Courtney Yates, Raven Baker, Oyinda, Alexis Ruby, Marcelo Gutierrez, Daria Harper, Marcos Bonilla, Chucky. Photo: Justin French

“I have always felt super-black, like black as fuck, but I feel extra black as fuck when I wear this bag,” says Raven Baker, age 24, a video producer and social-media editor living in Brooklyn. She’s talking about Telfar’s Shopping Bag, of which she owns four. A simple, boxy carryall with double shoulder straps and top handles, it comes in three sizes, costs between $150 and $257, and has become a symbol of group identity for young, creative New Yorkers, especially queer people and people of color. There’s never been an It Bag like this before.

The Telfar bag has been spotted on artists like Solange, Selena Gomez, A$AP Ferg, Kelsey Lu, and BbyMutha. Sonja Morgan from Real Housewives of New York modeled the bag for a Paper magazine editorial back in September, and it appeared at the Met Gala last May on Moonlight actor Ashton Sanders, who was accompanying Telfar Clemens, the bag’s designer. But the bag’s real power comes from its many young, artistic noncelebrity fans, who jokingly call it “the Bushwick Birkin.”

Makeup artist Xya Rachel coined the phrase in September when they tweeted, “sorry the bushwick birkin (telfar bag) stays ON during sex.” The bag is “a status symbol for people into fashion, especially in Brooklyn,” they told the Cut — like a Birkin “but for those who don’t have Hermès kinda coins. Hence, Bushwick Birkin. It’s not that serious; it’s mostly just funny as hell.”

Left: Chucky, modern dancer, and Gobi-Kla Vonan, visual merchandising and production. Right: Alexis Ruby, IMG model. Photo: Justin French
Nick Hadad, model and DJ. Photo: Justin French

Designer Clemens launched the bag during Telfar’s Autumn/Winter 2014 collection, but it wasn’t until 2017 that it started to gain real momentum. That year, Clemens won the top prize of $400,000 at the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Awards — a belated sign of mainstream recognition for the young Liberian-American and Queens native, who’d been making clothes for over a decade by that point. He invested his winnings into revamping the bag, adding additional sizing and color options.

Clemens describes his brand as ”genderless, democratic, and transformative.” The clothes are deliberately utilitarian, an aesthetic choice that’s meant to challenge the idea that high fashion has to be inaccessible to most people. The goal is to create clothing that anyone can wear, regardless of gender or budget. In 2005, when he started the line at age 19, “someone like me wasn’t thought of as a fashion customer,” Clemens told the Cut. So he set out to reverse that.

Parker Kit Hill, IMG model and social-media influencer. Photo: Justin French
Left: Michael Lew. Right: Marcos Bonilla, student, and Alvin Walker, model and creative. Photo: Justin French

The Shopping Bag has taken off because it treats people like Clemens was at 19 — people who love fashion but feel shut out of an industry that’s often reserved for the white and the rich — as the target customer. That’s why the pricing is so affordable, but it’s about more than that: The brand makes a point of reposting customer selfies on its Instagram stories to bring visibility to its community of fans. “There has never been a bag that I’ve wanted to take a picture with and post on my IG without feeling like I was doing too much,” says Raven. “Then when you post it and get reposted by them, it’s like, Oh, so you’re happy I gave you my money, and I’m happy I gave you my money.” Few fashion brands can claim that kind of two-way relationship with their customers.

Kiara Ventura, a 23-year-old curator from the Bronx, says she’s proud to be carrying a bag by a black designer. “Time and time again, luxury brands have failed at their advertising and marketing because there’s obviously few to no black or brown people on their team. When I look at ads for Telfar, I see black and brown people, I see queer people, I see how it’s a genderless brand. I think it’s about time the world supports a genuinely inclusive brand.”

Kiara Ventura, independent curator. Photo: Justin French
Left: Oyinda, singer. Right: Isa’ah, model. Photo: Justin French

Creating a scene around his label is part of Clemens’s project; his runway shows are highly collaborative. In the notes for a preview screening of his Spring/Summer 2020 show in September, he wrote, “[W]e want our work to feel like a world — because we need a world that feels like us. Marketers and journalists call this community — we like to call it conspiracy.”

And because he has built a welcoming, clubby space within the often closed world of fashion, people who own the bag feel connected to one another. When I wear mine, it feels like a badge of honor or a shield. “It definitely makes me feel more confident,” says Marcos Bonilla, 20, a student from the South Bronx. “You don’t really see guys walking around with mini-bags in the Bronx. When I wear it, it makes me feel like the ultimate girl, like I’m in charge of the spaces that I’m in, whether I’m walking in my neighborhood, at school, or at my internships.” Telfar bag owners will stop each other on the street to strike up conversations. It’s like being part of a secret society.

Candice Saint Williams, nightlife and programming director. Photo: Justin French

When the Cut gathered a group of 20 people who own the bag for a photo shoot in Greenpoint, many recognized each other from NYU, the downtown party scene, or social media. When asked how the bag made them feel, they used phrases like “recognized,” “high-fashion,” “official and commanding.” Michael Lew, a 22-year-old scene kid from Bushwick, simply replied, “I feel cunt.”

“At the end of the day, it’s about more than fashion. It’s about visibility and power,” says Clemens. “It’s something very different from the trend for diversity without change that we see elsewhere in the industry, and people recognize that.”

Banna Nega, co-founder of Glazed NYC, and Samirah, IMG model. Photo: Justin French

*A version of this article appears in the January 20, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!