WHY FASHION? THE GOOD NEWS OF TELFAR COUNTRY
images courtesy of: WWD
TELFAR’s Fall 2019 presentation was nothing like I’d ever seen in over a decade of being an international fashion journalist. There was no runway. Rather, the models would saunter somberly to the end of a stage and then surrender to the crowd, who would then carry them across forcing the crowd to part. The show incorporated a powerful live reading of poetry– a soliloquy by a young playwright from Yale named Jeremy O. Harris— alongside multiple live music performances. Harris would declare a manifesto, “THIS IS TELFAR COUNTRY” over the course of 15 minutes with complex poetic prose, while models donning clearly country western inspired looks would present themselves in what almost felt like a borderline politicized religious ceremony in the South. The models themselves were diverse, but predominantly black. The clothing was classic cowboy (leather, corduroy, fringes, blue denim, statement belt buckles bearing the Telfar logo) meets “post-normcore” basics (hoodies, jeans, cropped solid cotton tees) all very wearable and accessible. There were jeans with cleverly placed black and brown leather panels, which made them resemble chaps.
The crowd cheered fervently as each model was delivered to them. Some models deliberately posing dramatically and remaining upright in the style of martyr, while others appeared to collapse backwards in the style of a trust fall. As Harris’ remarkable “sermon” came to a close, I realized I would need time to process what I had just seen. Next the captivating hardcore punk rappers Ho99o9 [pronounced “horror”] who incidentally also used to be my upstairs neighbors in Echo Park, LA (shout out Jean and Eaddy!) began performing their cult classics like “Street Power” on the remains of a tattered american flag framing the stage. I knew it was all incredible, but even a week later I still found myself at a loss– what did it all mean?
I knew I wanted to do this Telfar show justice and that it deserved more than your typical cursory fashion week write up, but I wasn’t going to be able to do it alone. On my own I could vaguely grasp hints of punk/anarchy and nods to the queer community communicated both with subtly and at other times abrasively (e.g. hats and scarves wrapped to resemble balaclavas one might see at a riot). But the use of country-inspired clothing, especially cowboy boots, vexed me as it could have represented anything from American pride to the horrors of U.S. history including imperialism, colonist genocide, to the racially divided South. As the Guardian noted recently “[Cowboy boots] are a potent – and complicated – emblem of America, resonating just as the meaning of ‘the United States’ is more complex than ever.”
This is when I reached out to my friend Bree Jo’ann, an exceptionally gifted poet and author of Black Glitter, who I knew would be able to offer a different perspective and contribute to a meaningful analysis of whatever the f*ck was going on. As you will see in the conversation below, Bree skillfully discusses the Telfar show’s use of poetry and points out a number of questions the Telfar show raises about the role of fashion in creating space and possibilities, and what delineates fashion as an artistic medium.
Stephanie: After describing the Telfar show to you, what did you think?
Bree: I was immediately impressed that despite fashion’s cringeworthy history with the misuse of cultural symbolism, this show successfully used symbolism to evoke a living, breathing idea, much like poetry does. I loved reading Harris’ piece and I think it would be so powerful to see live. It made me think a lot about what fashion and fashion shows can achieve as media. The mechanism of fashion has so many moving parts and potential for expression. It can draw inspiration from every aspect of the human experience. From the picture that you’ve helped me piece together of this show, Telfar Clemens has an amazing grip on and command of fashion’s complex building blocks. He shares both his garments and his ideas with aplomb.
S: What kind of symbolism did you think was at play here? What themes did the presentation raise?
B: Telfar’s idea of the reborn cowboy speaks to freedom and expansiveness, ideas also often associated with that of the old West. It takes black people out of the cramped urban slums that so many believe are our only domain and places us in the wide open country where we can breathe and walk freely. It seems like the show also strove to illustrate a broader picture of the black experience in general through the idea of the cowboy. The musical performances demonstrated everything from rapture to rage. The procession of the models evoked at times the surrender of a baptism as well as the rebellion of crowd surfing.
S: What do you think the Telfar show was saying about race in relationship to fashion or the experience of being a minority in America?
B: Fashion has a bad rep of implying itself into cultural territory where it hasn’t been invited. Symbols are stripped of meaning when they’re taken only for their visual appeal. This history is especially heinous with regard to black culture. It’s so refreshing to see a black designer claim the imagery of the cowboy and the idea of country living and use it to actually make a statement instead of just reducing that idea to an image.
S: What do you think the Harris’s poetic monologue added to the show? It was definitely read with the striking intonation akin to a sermon being preached like gospel.
B: Jeremy O. Harris’ stunning poem enriches and deepens the vision of the cowboy by breaking down and freeing its language, which has suffocated under convention. He speaks of how he and his countrymxn [sic]:
“throw our bodies back
That the land
That we yearned for our
Throughout American history, people of color have endured so much violence of both body and spirit. We’ve had so much culture commandeered and stripped of our image, but artists like Harris and the other artists that participated in the Telfar show continue to push themselves toward the light and take up space. The poem describes the artists’ effort to reshape their history and narrative.
S: Do you think Telfar was using poetry in their show to make a space of inclusivity within fashion? For example, when Harris declares:
This is a manifesto
On the state of
Ya ain’t ‘gainst much when youse a Telfar Countrymxn.
But you is contrary…
Youse contrary to me
And I’s contrary to you.
That’s what’s always
It’s just theirstory, herstory, history”
Here Harris’ language seems to move beyond a racial sense of contrary, and into the realm of non-gendered pronouns, thus Telfar country being inclusionary in yet another way. It might also be relevant to note here that Telfar Clemens himself identifies as black, queer, and is something of an outsider being a self-taught designer.
Do you think this kind of meaningful connection can realistically be forged between poetry and fashion in the way Harris and Telfar have attempted to do here? It’s no secret that fashion is typically highly elitist and exclusive.
B: Poetry has plenty of its own issues with elitism and exclusivity, so it makes sense to fuse the two media to crush limiting views from both worlds. The Telfar show made me realize that fashion and poetry move in very similar ways. Poet and editor Matthew Zapruder says in his book, Why Poetry, “Poems exist to create space for the possibilities of language as material.” Fashion does the same thing in its realm. Its material is more than just fabric, it is form, function and statements that work together to create a fluid feeling.
S: Exactly! This goes right to the heart of what I think drove myself, and I’m sure many others, to fashion in the first place: it is an art form that creates meaning and evokes ideas by synthesizing societal norms with abstract ideas, all while drawing from a cultural context and sometimes even challenging the pragmatic framework of it as an object solely for practical use. When fashion is at its best as art form, in my opinion, it moves beyond the limiting functional definitions of it as merely clothing to cover the body and really flourishes as something one incorporates into their identity. I mean how many forms of art do we integrate into our lives as deeply as we do literally the clothing on our backs? An individual’s clothing is a direct visual expression of that person’s internal world, and then gains further meaning from its external context, often directly from its perception by others as it is invariably tied to that person’s identity. What’s your personal relationship to fashion?
B: My interest in fashion was piqued by a manga called Paradise Kiss, in which a ragtag fashion collective convince the normie main character to model for them. Each member of the fashion collective had their own unique style, from kawaii to punk, that embodied their personality. As a teenage rebel, these characters inspired me so much in my own efforts to self actualize. Fashion became a fortress for me to live and breathe in my fantasies of magic and art.
I wanted to be a fashion designer for a long time, but eventually felt alienated by the message of body exclusivity and consumerism. I also realized that writing, which I’d enjoyed since a really young age, was more to taste. I still check in on fashion from time to time, like a messy old friend.
S: So in the end, what do you think is the “good news” of Telfar Country?
B: I think the good news of Telfar Country goes hand in hand with what Zapruder says in a passage about poetry. The good news of Telfar Country is not that everything is going to be okay, or that we don’t have to worry, or that we can retreat to our imaginations while the world burns. “On the contrary. The news is that there is always a place where, for a few moments at least, we can feel protected against the constant superficial, distracting noise that is the pressure of the real, where we can feel renewed, so that something else can begin to happen.”
***Special thanks to Jeremy O. Harris & the Telfar team for their assistance with this piece.