Over the past few years, an accessory introduced in 2014 by the New York City fashion line Telfar has cemented itself as a staple of the New York City uniform.
The Telfar Shopping Bag, which is now as synonymous with New York City fashion as Timberland boots and black puffer jackets, has been an “it” accessory since 2020 — an affordable fashion statement so highly coveted that new drops sell out quickly.
The creator behind the accessory is Telfar Clemens, a queer Liberian-American designer raised in Queens. (The company did not respond to requests for comment.) The bag is made of vegan leather, a material derived from plastic, and branded with a signature T-shaped logo. It comes in three sizes and a plethora of colors, with creative names like highlighter yellow, corned beef and oxblood.
The desirable bags have sparked plenty of high-profile attention. “I'm in my bag, I'm in my Telfy/Dripped down in Prada, shoes is Giuseppe,” Brooklyn drill rapper Maiya The Don raps ferociously in her song “Telfy.” She’s just one local obsessed with the bags, which have been nicknamed “Telfeezy” and the “Bushwick Birkin” online.
“This purple was one of my favorites,” said Damien Daniel, a New Yorker who stopped to talk while walking around SoHo sporting a medium grape-colored Telfar. “I really wanted him to make a purple that's like this color, because he has had eggplant for years. And purple is like my favorite color. It makes me feel very royal and beautiful.”
Desirability can also mean scarcity: Weekly drops on the brand’s website sell out quickly, so it can be tough to get hold of a Telfar. Sometimes people have to turn to resale websites or even settle for a color they weren’t eyeing just to have one.
“I missed so many bags – I kept messing up the puzzle part,” said Brooklynite Daizah Mailay, who was leaving Target with her medium forest green shopping bag in hand. She was referring to the Captcha security challenge on the Telfar website. “But I love the bags. I always love them. I want to get more!”
Clemens introduced the shopping bag as an accessory in the unisex clothing line he started in 2005. Ruth Samuel, who writes a weekly culture column for HuffPost, says Clemens was finding success in fashion, and in 2017 received the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, which included a $400,000 prize and mentorship. But it was in the summer of 2020 that Clemens leapt into the mainstream, after George Floyd’s murder sparked nationwide protests against police brutality, and organizations and consumers began amplifying Black-owned businesses.
“People say the Telfar has kind of been one of the bright spots of the pandemic,” Samuel said. “The way that this bag has kind of fostered community and allowed people to see each other.” She told a story about how a TSA worker complimented her bag during a recent trip.
“He was like ‘Oh my God, that bag, my daughter's always wanted that bag!’” Samuel said. “And we’re just striking up a conversation. You see someone walking, and you're like, ‘I see you, girl!’ You see each other and you recognize one another. It's really like a kind of collective experience.”
Mailay has seen that experience in action. She bought all three of her bags during one of the brand’s most visible drops: a collaboration with Rainbow that drew hundreds of hopeful shoppers to that New York company's Downtown Brooklyn storefront. Mailay says she saw men, women and nonbinary people show up in support.
“I feel like Telfar is very inclusive,” Mailay said. “It’s for the girls, for the gays, for the guys, it's for everybody. Certain brands you feel like, as a Black woman, you really shouldn't get it because it's not for you. But Telfar, it's like it's really for everybody – like anybody can rock the bag.”
Samuel says Telfar has used its popularity shrewdly, taking organic user-generated content from social media to feature fans of the brand. “Taking TikToks from people who are excited to get their Telfar bags, and using tweets, and using all that buzz and featuring New York staple influencers.”
Telfar also set out to change the way people think about what luxury fashion is and whom it should serve. Where other designer bags can cost thousands of dollars, standard Telfar shopping bags come at a more accessible price: around $150 to $250.
“Fashion has long been regarded as this sort of realm that only the white and the rich have access to and can take part in, when in reality fashion should be quite democratic,” Samuel said. “We all have to put on clothes, we all try and get dressed every day. It's emblematic of who we are, and how we present ourselves.”
Now, the tote can be seen all over the city. People use it for groceries, as a work bag, or just as a cute accessory to complete an outfit. “Not for you – for everyone” is the brand’s ethos. That message resonates with New Yorkers, who say other designer brands can be performative about diversity.
“The bag is universal, so it's not just for one particular person,” Shantell Harris said while carrying her medium grey bag. “I think it's a good idea, especially for New York, because there's so many different walks of life here that it's like something that everybody can have and not be called out for it.”