Discover

Simplexity™: Utopia and Dystopia in the world of Telfar

In a time which has been referred to as postmodern, the grand ideological narratives of the past cease to exist, or are at least reshaped or replaced by meta-narratives1. Idealism and the modernist idea of ‘constant progression’ dominated the 19th and 20th century, nourishing the fabrication of countless Utopias in culture – that is, fantastical ‘nowheres’ of the mind, ‘ideal, imaginary societies.’2 However, in the self-referencing, ironic, cynical, pastiche-ridden climate of contemporary art and fashion, imagined Utopias are rarely conceived. Still, their resonance, impulses of Utopia, remains.

Idealism and ‘images of perfection’ have to a large extent been occupied by the world of advertising, constantly generating, and by that, exhausting the idea of a Utopia3. Advertising transforms the avant-garde, the projected dream of Utopia, into a late-capitalist commodity fetishism widely available for mass-consumption.

The term ‘avant-garde’ has in art as well as in fashion been ephemeral, frivolously applied to many different artists, designers and artistic collectives, connected only through their position as ‘ahead of (their) times’. Now, the ‘avant-garde’ term is arguably mainly associated with the historical avant-garde of the 20th century; the impressionists, the cubists and the surrealists were all considered avant-garde in their formal and aesthetic experimentation, culminating with the Dadaists.

Extending its art-historical definition, ‘avant-garde fashion’ has usually been characterised by having either an association to artistic practice (dating back to Emilie Flöege of the Wiener 1903 Werkstätte) or a particularly conceptual approach to the design process, comparable to that of an artist (the deconstructionism of Maison Martin Margiela and the Antwerp Six4 , or the genderless conceptuality of Comme des Garçons, for example).

In that sense, menswear designer Telfar Clemens, who was born in 1985 in Queens, NY and grew up in Liberia5, and his eponymous label Telfar, is perfectly avant-garde; situated within a particular artistic or creative community in New York, he works and collaborates extensively with prominent artists (video artists Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch, for example), and presents his collections at gallery and museum spaces (including MoMA PS1 in 2010, and recently at the New Museum in collaboration with the art collective Shanzhai Biennial). Telfar designs and performs conceptually through what he describes as his “design philosophy of simplexity™”5 in which he explores the fashion system’s dichotomic understanding of a brand being either simple (i.e. commercial) or complex (i.e. avant-garde). Through what is perhaps better described as ‘practice’ rather than ‘design process,’ Telfar proposes a kind of Utopia in the perhaps most avant-garde theme of all: the normal.

For several seasons, and particularly embodied in his A/W 2014 lookbook, which took shape as a highly-produced TV commercial entitled TCTV, Telfar has utilised the concept of ‘basic’ or mainstream clothing as a source for his conceptual design practice. Entitling it Extremely Normal™, with the added trademark symbol simulating a corporate or mass-cultured branding-strategy, he fetishises not only accessible or ‘easy’ fashion styles (earth- and pastel-coloured, basic lounge- and sportswear), but the brightly-lit commercialism that surrounds that particular market. “I want to take American basics to the next level, and show people what they can be,” he stated half a year later in an interview at the showcase of his S/S 15 collection. Here, the normal is idealised, reimagined and ‘made-avant-garde’, transforming it into a subject of aesthetic and philosophical contemplation – exemplified, coincidentally, by the performative trend-forecasting agency K-Hole with their articulation of normcore as concept or trend6.

It is exactly through the celebration of the hyper-normal that Telfar exhibits Utopian impulses – that is, imagining an ideal world, or glimpses of it.

In her analysis of Utopian dress as depicted primarily in literature, scholar Aileen Ribeiro distinguishes between imagining Utopian dress as being either luxurious and meant for self-adornment and splendour (as seen early on in Samuel Gott’s Nova Solyma of 1648 and Francis Bacon’s orientalist New Atlantis) or conversely as utilitarian and cleansed from the ‘reckless extravagance’ and materialism of consumer-driven fashion7. Seen in a contemporary context, particularly the latter is applicable to Telfar. By idealising the mainstream, the most accessible and hence democratic kind of fashion, he legitimates normality and uniformity as culturally desirable. He has called his work ‘utilitarian’ and expressed how he wants to ‘dress the American masses.’8 In fact, the idea of ‘dressing the masses’ in comfortable lounge- and sportswear bears an interesting resemblance to the uniformity of the very first Utopia, Thomas Moore’s Utopia of 1516, in which ‘everyone wears roughly the same sort of clothes… [Clothes that are] pleasant on the eye, and allow free movement of the limbs.’9 Telfar’s emphasis on gender-neutral, unisex clothing (using always a few female models in his menswear runway show10) aligns him with the Utopian tradition of uniformity of clothing across genders, as seen for example in Tommaso Camapnella’s City of the Sun (1602) or more recently, the Dystopian-Utopian city of Zion in The Wachowskis’s sci-fi franchise The Matrix (1999-2003). Through the Utopian dream of utilitarian uniformity, Telfar rejects the conspicuous consumption and perceived elitism of the fashion world, providing what Style.com phrased as ‘a necessary cleansing of sorts… inviting the models and showgoers alike to just be.’11

Even the cultural-historical utilitarian dream is echoed in his collection, all the way through to the choice of materials – exemplified in his latest F/W 15 collection, where the designer reflects back on his long-standing devotion to the most utilitarian of materials: denim. As an homage to his own aesthetic, his 10th year anniversary show featured a range of amalgamated deconstructed ‘worker-silhouettes’, referencing simultaneously the utilitarianism of 20th century industrial America and 21st century high-school sportswear, a post-gender binary contemporariness he describes as ‘the 20-teens, our actual reality.’12

Yet, behind the glossy veneer of Telfar’s utilitarian commercialism lays a satirical or subversive discourse, a characteristic that, to many, define his actual design concept. In much of his visual identity and marketing (partly conceived by his creative director, artist Babak Radboy), there is something quite overtly uncanny and disturbing about what appears to be a complete devotion to the aggressive hypercapitalist language of advertising; ‘highly polished, eminently accessible, yet stranger than any underground production,’13 as he explains it himself. It is an almost surreal image of what Frederic Jameson would call ‘the triumph of capitalism.’14 In TCTV, the viewer is presented with an empty, highly glossed, white-washed, semi-virtual location reminiscent of an online shop or a sci-fi movie. A series of models appear: bizarrely smiling, resting in a variety of positions – rotating and on display; clean, commodified and available for purchase, in a whirlwind of luxury logos and trademark symbols. Telfar’s own grinning face emblazoned on virtual credit cards, hovering silently, but in the background, the tune of distorted, commercial elevator-Muzak, interrupted only by the models’ repeated hollow, almost ritualistic echoing of one single word: Telfar. In Baudrillardan terms, a simulacral world15, copying nothing original but everything commercial, an amalgamation of late-capitalist rhetorics and imagery. Suddenly, the film’s dirt- and care-free imagery is interrupted half-way by an intermezzo of paranoid surveillance footage and a sudden anxiety in the Telfar-chanting voiceover; Telfar’s Utopian fantasy of a low-brow, democratic commercial consumerism reveals itself as a dystopia of hypercapitalism.

Through his clothing and his campaign, Telfar and his art director Babak Radboy, appropriate, reinterpret and subvert the aesthetic iconography as well as the methodology of fashion communication. As journalist Jean Kay argues, Radboy, described as a ‘fake capitalist,’16 ”critiques and subverts the capitalist system through his apparent collusion but actual subversion of it.”17 Yet Telfar never admits to a serious condemnation of this system, on the contrary he is inspired and is even celebratory in his understanding. “To me, Macy’s commercials are crazy – we were totally inspired by retail for A/W 1418,” he stated in an interview with Dazed &; Confused, explaining elsewhere:

‘I’m about levelling the playing field between what’s fashion and what’s normal, what’s taste and what’s classic. I like mixing high-end and lowbrow and equalising them. Not that one is good and one is bad. It just is what it is.’19

From this perspective, the utopian impulses in Telfar and postmodern fashion generally are limited, if they are not in fact dystopian – what Wilson refers to as ‘the aestheticisation of dystopia.’20

Telfar is inherently dystopian, triggering the question of whether the idea of Utopia is a modernist construct of the past, a wholly impossible concept in a postmodern context. But as fashion theorist Elizabeth Wilson emphasises, the main (or only) characteristic of postmodernism (and ‘postmodernist fashion’) is a mood of ambivalence21; Postmodernism at once celebrates and criticises commercial culture; it glamorises it and aestheticizes it, yet never makes it respectable; it appropriates political standpoints without ever being politicised. Telfar’s design philosophy is unmistakably utopian, or at least, houses a series of utopian impulses – despite his critique of capitalist utopian iconography, he is never cynical. Telfar’s Utopia is remarkable in that it appears through an image of a capitalist dystopia – rising from the ashes of an imagined total collapse of capitalist signifiers, coexisting with capitalism’s mutated, aestheticised descendant.

Writing about Dior’s ‘New Look’ in the 1950’s, scholar Angela Partington argues that newly available commodities contributed to ‘the development of a more complex “language” of clothes which could be used by consumers in the articulation of class identity.’22 In light of postmodernism’s destruction of class and late-capitalism’s continued fabrication of commodities (now including bodies, visions, dreams), this idea can be used to explain the complex ambivalence manifested in the world of Telfar, which we in search of an accurate term can call ‘mainstream surrealism’, meta-fashion, or simply, simplexity™. The constant self-mutations of capitalist iconography, including the neuroticism and surrealism of the mainstream, enables the postmodern or avant-garde designer to develop an increasingly complex, ever-mutating ‘language of clothing,’23 and enables the consumer to ‘read’ or decode it.


1In his The Postmodern Condition, Jean-François Lyotard summarises the concept of postmodernism as ”incredulity toward metanarratives.” Lyotard, J. (1979) The Postmodern Condition. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. xxiv

2Eliav-Feldon, M. (1982). Realistic Utopias. The Ideal Imaginary Societies of the Renaissance 1516-1630. Oxford: Oxford Press. P. 4

3magining the ideal involves both an abandoning or ‘leaving behind’ of the world, and imagining oneself ahead of it – in that sense, avant-garde (etymologically French meaning being “front-line, ahead of the rest. “Avant-garde” 1993, in Bloomsbury guide to human thought , Bloomsbury, London, United Kingdom.

4The city of Antwerp and particularly its Royal Academy have consciously branded themselves through ’the avant-garde approach’. See Martinez, J.G. (2007) ”Selling Avant-garde: How Antwerp Became a Fashion Capital (1990–2002)” in Urban Studies Vol. 44, No. 12, 2449–2464, November 2007, Glasgow: Sage Publications

5According to his autobiography: http://www.telfar.net/about

6http://telfar.net/

7Zarrella, K. (2014) “Telfar Spring 2015 Ready-to-Wear,” September 8, 2014 accessed on http://www.style.com/fashion-shows/spring-2015-ready-to-wear/telfar November 2014

8Telfar’s fetishisation of the normal is undeniably interrelated to the emergence of the idea of normcore as presented by New York trend-forecasting bureau K-Hole in their issue Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom. In it, they describe how the vast accessibility provided by the Internet makes impossible to be ’special’ as an assertation of individuality – Indie as subculture is now Mass-Indie, for example. Responding to this, they propose two notions: ’acting basic,’ in which we return to extreme normalcy and expose ourselves as unexceptional, and ‘normcore’ in which replicated differentiation of the individual through an adaptability to one’s environment. ”Normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity coolness that opts in to sameness”. See: Fong, G., Monahan, S., Segal, E., Sherron, C., Yago, D. and BOX 1824, eds. (2013). Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom. New York: K-Hole. Retrieved from http://khole.net/issues/youth-mode/

9Ribeiro, A. (1992), p. 225.

10Widdicombe, B. (2010) “The Originals | Telfar Clemens,” T Magazine, March 15th 2010, accessed on http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/15/the-originals-telfar-clemens/?_r=1

11Ribeiro, A. (1992), p. 226

12Style.com writes in a review of his show that ”Often, a female model would follow one of the guys in an almost identical look.; ‘I did that because it’s just about what fits and what looks good,’ Clemens said when asked about his gender-neutral wares.” See http://www.style.com/fashion-shows/spring-2015-ready-to-wear/telfar

13Ibid

14http://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/23639/1/telfar-aw15

15AQNB (2013) “Telfar x Future Brown,” Aqbn.com, 12/09/2013, accessed on http://www.aqnb.com/2013/09/12/telfar-x-future-brown/ November 2014

16Jameson, F. (1990) ”In Conversation with Stuart Hall”, Marxism Today, August.

17The terms “simulation” and “simulacra” refer to Jean Baudrillard’s theory of postmodern simulation as the representation of a representation, rather than of reality; a copy without an original.” see Baudrillard, J. (1983). Simulations, trans. P. Foss; P. Patton; P. Beitchman. Semiotext(e): New York. Definition from GÓMEZ, R. (2011). Simulation/simulacra. In The encyclopedia of literary and cultural theory. Retrieved from http://arts.idm.oclc.org/login?qurl=http%3A%2F%2Fsearch.credoreference.com.arts.idm.oclc.org%2Fcontent%2Fentry%2Fwileylitcul%2Fsimulation_simulacra%2F0 in December 3th, 2014

18AQNB (2013) “Telfar x Future Brown,” Aqbn.com, 12/09/2013, accessed on http://www.aqnb.com/2013/09/12/telfar-x-future-brown/ November 2014

19Kay, J. (2013) “An interview with Babak Radboy,” Aqbn.com 18/07/2013, accessed on http://www.aqnb.com/2013/07/18/an-interview-with-babak-radboy/, November 2014

20Allwood, E. (2014) “Telfar takes on the TV commercial with TCTV,” Dazed Digital, accessed on http://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/21400/1/telfar-takes-on-the-tv-commercial-with-tctv

21https://sg.entertainment.yahoo.com/news/telfar-clemens-perfects-patent-nyfw-010000075.html

22In her essay The Postmodern Body, she writes: “above all, postmodernism expresses a mood of ambivalence… Postmodernism expresses at one level a horror at the destructive excess of Western consumerist society, yet, in aestheticising this horror, we somehow convert it into a pleasurable object of consumption”

23Partington, A. (1992)

24Scholar Joanna Finkelstein not only sees fashion as ”performing like a language,” but to be ever-mutating, ”with fluctuations and anomalies”. See Finkelstein, J. (1996) After A Fashion. Victoria: Melbourne University Press, p. 32

Recent Posts

NHU DUONG SS17 WORK COLLECTION FT. KARL HOLMQVIST

What is a piece of clothing that “works”? Who is working whom? Is the one who poses the one who actually “works” hardest? The S/S 2017 collection of Berlin-based, Swedish- Vietnamese designer NHU DUONG entitled ‘WORK COLLECTION’ plays with the ideas of professionalism, leisure and appropriateness through a range of garments that are inspired by work outfits and hobby uniforms. Overalls, raw denim outfits, kung-fu pyjamas, biker pants, baggy tights and gloves, bomber-jackets, bomber suits,… [read more »]

Preparing to Welcome the Chthulucene | Agustina Zegers

Preparing to Welcome the Chthulucene is a text made up of living exercises to accompany Haraway’s theorization of the Chthulucene and her upcoming book Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Haraway posits that not only should we name the Anthropocene carefully (including the terms Capitalocene and Plantationocene within its narrative) but that we should also be using this crucial ecological timeframe to move towards a dynamically multi-species, “sym-chtonic“, sym-poietic future: the Chthulucene.… [read more »]

Laboria Cuboniks in Conversation

Laboria Cuboniks is currently a group of 6 women working together online to redefine a feminism adequate to the twenty-first century. They collectively wrote Xenofeminsim: A Politics for Alienation in 2014. Here, in conversation with Postcontemporary Issue guest editors Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik they discuss the dissatisfactions and limitations of historical feminism and the importance of theorizing “the future” as a feminist project. Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik: The initial formulation of your political… [read more »]

Situating Global Forms: An Anthropology of Cosmopolitan Science

Aihwa Ong, interviewed by Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik Constructing Globality Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik: Your anthropological research pays close attention to specific emerging and inventive configurations of globally-constituted modernization, particularly in East Asia and its diaspora. Throughout this work you identity many ways in which ‘things that used to be fused together — identity, entitlement, territoriality, and nationality — are being taken apart and realigned in innovative relationships and spaces by neoliberal technologies… [read more »]

Ways Of Living ⎮ Arcadia Missa

Ways of Living, curated by the team behind Arcadia Missa, moves beyond the home as a site of political contestation and into the working place, the artist studio, the public sphere, and nature. While so-called ‘social practice’ taught us that any attempt of art to engage with issues outside its own institutional reality are easily coopted into the mythologizing machinery of individualism and patriarchy, art still possesses an ability to address issues far beyond the… [read more »]

What is at Stake in the Future? | Alex Williams & Nick Srnicek

Every ‘future’ inscribes a demand upon the present. This is so whether at the level of human imagination, or within the sphere of political or aesthetic action necessary to reach towards their realisation. Futures make explicit the implicit contents of our own times, crystallising trajectories, tendencies, projects, theories and contingencies. Moreover, futures map the absent within the present, the presents which could never come into actuality, the wreckage of dreams past and desires vanquished. Futures… [read more »]

Dog Plays | Hayley Silverman

Hayley Silverman’s “Dog Plays,” an ongoing series in which a cast of untrained dogs take on the role of characters from a range of pop-culture texts, disrupt the canon of identities traditionally represented in Hollywood as they are re-inhabited by animals. Calling on artifacts ranging from Richard Linklater films, to science-fiction thrillers, to Depression-era musicals that rhapsodize class difference, these performances investigate how our understanding of narrative, authority and identity transforms when we project stories,… [read more »]

A poem by Ser Serpas

ripped apart you rip me apart collage million dead collage donde queda mi cuerpo el temporal como dios en mil partes clothing as point of impact a totem is a wrap around a city as it is engagement with one’s surroundings and engagement with that which has been worn out discarded and filtered into alms buckets and newly tagged i wear my surroundings on my feet when it wears out i see only my vantage… [read more »]

DISCREET Call for Participants

DISCREET – An Intelligence Agency for the People The 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art invites you to apply for one of fifteen spaces open to individuals interested in taking an active part in a three-week-long public workshop conceived of by Armen Avanessian and Alexander Martos for the formation and development of a civil secret service organization. Held from June 22 to July 11, 2016, the workshop brings together renegade experts from art, theory, technology,… [read more »]

Parent and Parroting | Nancy Lupo

Each year retail displays are readied in preparation for the gestation and labor of the catch-all holiday season before floating into a colorless postnatal celebration of mundane plenty. Capitalism’s sympathetic pregnancy makes for a cold and lifeless pas de deux, at times humorously inseparable from the vitality of social milestones. In Parent and Parroting, Nancy Lupo continues with a series of interventions into commercial products and industrialized food. Her interferences often reveal or reconfigure the… [read more »]