Telfar Clemens might not be the only fashion designer at this year’s Berlin Biennale – Hood by Air and Susan Cianciolo are also showing – but he’s certainly the most present. No less than 20 Telfars have taken up residence in the Akademie der Künst until September: the fiberglass, industrial mannequins in a range of sizes all eerily share the same visage as their creator, thanks to a 3-D print by the artist Frank Benson and an enthusiastic manufacturer in Düsseldorf, Penther Formes. And they’re hardly alone: photos of Clemens’s family plaster the surrounding walls, too, their faces digitally manipulated to bear even more of a resemblance to the designer, which was “kind of trippy,” he admitted.
“It’s a really unique experience, to say the least, standing there and interacting with them,” Clemens said. Being at the center of things, though, is something the Liberian-born, Queens-based designer has grown used to over the last 10 years – which is as long as he’s run his namesake label, Telfar. That decade is represented across the mannequins in 13 different “Telfar staples,” mostly reinterpretations of basics like the t-shirt, which mark the brand’s first foray into creating stores that can live in galleries, museums, and even universities.
That’s the aim, anyway, of Babak Radboy, the creative director of both Telfar and the Berlin Biennale. He's responsible for putting Clemens even more in the spotlight of his brand since joining it in 2014. “When I met Telfar, he was actually showing in galleries and selling entire collections as a single work of art. I remember going to one of his shows and really like feeling like, 'Okay, there’s not one press person here, there’s not one buyer here, there’s no articles about this – and it’s the most amazing show in fashion,'” Radboy recalled. “I really wanted to take that from the gallery to the runway and make sure there was proper press and marketing behind it.”
He started with giving the brand a logo, plus a QVC-like promotional video rendered in 3D with the help of trippy artist partners-in-crime Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch. This spring’s campaign video featured 45 Telfars, a precursor of sorts to the real-life Berlin installation. So while Telfar’s definitely going commercial, it just takes one look at the bizarre mannequins to see that the brand is doing so on its own terms.
Besides, the label has always been about the mainstream, just in its own way: Clemens’s references include everything from Martha Stewart paint samples to stacks of early-2000s Talbots catalogs, and the last few years have even seen him partner with corporations like White Castle and Kmart. Designing based on whatever he’d like to wear himself, his approach is decidedly non-luxury – and one that’s landed him a much better reception in the art world than fashion.
“My medium as an artist is directly related to clothing, and that is what I would call my art,” he said. “It’s a lot to do with reshaping clothes and the person wearing them at the time, how people feel like their community represents them. The art world seems to understand that a lot more.”
Those at the Berlin Biennale definitely do, anyway: Clemens has run in the same circles as the DIS collective, who curated this year’s fair, and New York artists like Trecartin, since before he even started designing. Not far from his “store,” Telfar’s designs show up again in Josh Kline's video in the basement at the KW Institute, as well as Trecartin’s playing upstairs. “His are probably the de facto designs for artists making videos," Radboy said.
That's hardly the end of Telfar's takeover: Clemens designed the biennial's official uniform, so all the staff and curators are outfitted in Telfar mock polos, made out of t-shirts. Visitors are even joining the flock, too, with the fair's Telfar-designed tote bag. And soon, his pervasiveness will be spreading across borders: more Telfars are supposedly making their way to the windows of the Bowery for an installation at New Inc, the New Museum incubator, as well as Dover Street Market and Berlin's Soho House.
For now, though, they're quite at home at the Biennale's Akademie der Künst, where the main theme is the “post-contemporary,” or as Radboy explained, the idea that the present is weirder than our predictions for the future. It's a concept that, after a decade of being trend-averse, Clemens is quite familiar with, though he's much more reluctant to define it.
"Everything feels like it's definitely new, you know?" he said. "But at the same time I pretty much feel like everyone thinks like this now. It's almost like, 'Oh yeah, duh.'"