In fashion label Telfar’s current ad campaign, a collaboration with shearling boot juggernaut Ugg, -photographer Roe Ethridge snaps an ensemble cast in his signature dreamscape style. Rapper Lil’ Kim, actor and enduring heartthrob Morris Chestnut, emerging hip-hop star Teezo Touchdown, Caresha Brownlee (aka Yung Miami) and actor Mickey Rourke find themselves nestled next to Telfar -Clemens himself, the label’s namesake—with boots on their hands, in vignettes that read part posture and part parody. Ethridge, whose work can be found in the world’s most prestigious collections, is a fitting choice for the high-concept campaign—proof that Clemens and his creative director, Babak Radboy, have always understood the fine art of advertising. “It always starts with a conversation,” says Clemens, as he doodles future designs on his notepad from his hideaway in Fire Island, New York. “We ask, What is this meant to do in the world?”
“When we first started the brand, we didn’t have resources—so we used to ask ourselves, ‘Well, what do we have that someone else doesn’t have?’” adds Radboy, who is sitting on the floor of the label’s cavernous headquarters in Queens. “We would ask why is it that other people didn’t make that image. It’s usually because they’re scared—and because they have to answer to somebody. But we were and are independent. It just doesn’t feel like there’s any point in doing something unless it’s going to be really fun and it’s going to be something that someone else couldn’t do.”
Ever since the brand’s 2005 inception, this approach by Clemens and Radboy has been instinctual. The two have always operated from the fringes, championing the obscure sort of imagery that has some people scratching their heads and others running to retail stores. Die-hard fans and longtime observers will remember a maniacal Clemens clapping and smiling on a loop, on a previous iteration of his brand’s website. As the company’s profits grew, thanks in part to its iconic shopping bag, so did the budget to tell the Telfar story. Clemens and Radboy didn’t rely on mainstream media, which has never quite celebrated or understood their message. Instead, their most recent live pricing model took a sideswipe at standard capitalism by giving customers the chance to buy their most popular items at the wholesale price, simply by buying the product first.
The move is novel, and an obvious middle finger to the usual price inflation used by luxury brands. The accompanying campaign needed an idea just as unorthodox, to drive this message home. In scenes that are reminiscent of the Home Shopping Network and church on a Sunday, Telfar devotees sing about prices going up, in a hymn-like fashion. The brand has even ventured into songs and music videos celebrating individual colorways and items. In one video, a longtime face of the brand and a close friend of Clemens, singer Ian Isiah, luxuriates in a bubble bath with an army of identically styled models around him. The original short is called UGGbelievable and was produced for the recent Ugg x Telfar drop.
The brand exclusively releases its campaigns on Instagram, so that the largest number of people can see them, while tracking the haste with which Telfar’s products move. Case in point? The items in UGGbelievable sold out in a matter of minutes. “Community and personality is everything to us, so the goal is always to give life to whatever is going on,” Isiah says. “Whether it be a bag drop or a simple announcement, what’s memorable to us [is] conceiving and birthing bright ideas together.”
The ad campaign with Ugg was eye-opening for -Clemens, who says he usually eschews using celebrities and instead features his friends, like artist Aya Brown, Jorge “Gitoo” Wright, and the aforementioned Isiah, even as the brand continues to grow at an incredible scale. “It definitely changed my perspective on stuff that we do,” he says, “and how what we do starts to relate to a bigger world and a bigger audience—and we don’t even have to change ourselves to do that, which is really important to me. We’re at a very cool place with the brand. Personally, I understand what I would want out of an interaction with someone. Back in the day, you were usually assigned a celebrity to deal with. But I chose everyone in this Ugg campaign, and together we put out our own message, on our own terms.”
This autonomy has allowed Telfar to enjoy the ubiquity that much older brands can only hope for. From his bag-security program to his platforming of fan content by customers on his social media sites, Clemens represented community and inclusion long before they were pop-culture buzzwords. His cutting-edge campaigns are an extension of this—always fun, but always with a thoughtful message, and signifying to all that Telfar does things differently.