In the midst of New York Fashion Week, thousands of shoppers descended on Fulton Street in New York City last Sunday, vying for a chance to take home one of the most sought-after accessories of the decade: a Telfar bag. It wasn’t Manhattan’s bastion of privilege on Fulton Street, the Financial District, but Fulton Street in the historically black neighborhood of Downtown Brooklyn where Telfar Clemens announced his eponymous brand would debut last week.
Despite the rain, those waiting to enter the two-story Rainbow Shops, Clemens’ retail partner of choice, formed an endless rectangle of umbrellas from Fulton to Willoughby and back. While I visited the pop-up, which lasted just under two hours, I never saw a real start or end of the line: just hundreds of extremely happy people, or occupied by DJs and emcees in place or cheered on those who came up with a colorful array of purchases.
With no official flagship announcement yet, Clemens’ choice to host one of his biggest events yet at Rainbow Shops, a mainstay of grab-and-go fashion since its founding in New York in 1935, goes much deeper than the neighborhood’s easy transit access.
“I shop all the time for my little outfits at Rainbow,” said Selyna Brillare, Telfar’s local emcee. A close collaborator with Clemens in both hosting roles and voiceover work with the brand, Brillare praised the partnership. “As a young black and Latina girl, Rainbow was where I saw people like me. It was for all of us,” she said. Those sentiments were echoed by Christina Cajina, a tax auditor who traveled all the way from Jersey City to attend the pop-up. “The rainbow has always been in my life and my family’s,” she said. “I’m shopping for my daughter, who is in dance class right now!”
The event was a block party, with fogs, guest appearances and live musical performances. Attendees took full advantage of the experience: Chris Alexander traveled from Queens and bought five bags — four for his friends and one for himself. Hairstylist Nijah Torii traveled from East Brooklyn and handed out business cards while in line. Already an owner of Telfar Small and Medium Red Machines, Nijah was multitasking: “Many people here are trying to get bags, but I am trying to get true bag at a time.”
Placing the pop-up in Downtown Brooklyn, at the Rainbow, was a signal to Clemens’ most earnest and blue-collar supporters. It’s a newsletter for shoppers who want to engage with the origins of not only the CFDA-winning designer’s fashion perspective, but also his black and brown forebears. Although his signature accessory quickly became an It bag, holding a fashion week pop-up at Rainbow is a love letter to the customer who first popularized the Bushwick Birkin saying: this is for you. Between the physical resonance of the Rainbow and the virtual scale of the Telfar, Clemens’ famous mission ‘not for you – for everyone’ is fully realized.
What is clear is Rainbow and Telfar’s shared affinity with black and brown consumers: Clemens, who has amassed a loyal community around his work, including Beyoncé, designed ten years before mainstream fashion. to decide to come to attention. With Guess ditching Telfar’s knockoff logo last year for fast-fashion brands like FashionNova that sell items found at Rainbow for a premium, they also share an audience of white shoppers who possess a desire for closeness to ” coolness” as often formed by Black culture, regardless of cost.
For Rainbow, their “everyday low prices” influence predates the industry we know as “fast fashion” today. The brand gained ground within malls and malls, building over 1,000 locations and standing alongside thrift stores such as Forever 21 and Wet Seal in the mid-2000s. However, when their competitors started online shopping early on, Rainbow lagged behind. its transition into the digital age, launching e-commerce only in 2012. At the time, the first online retailers like Shein, Boohoo and ASOS were on their feet, thwarting Rainbow’s target consumer before they even left the house. They’re still a key player, with revenues currently estimated at $1.5 billion, but the distance between their brick-and-mortar locations and their online presence remained apparent.
Which made Clemens, a New York native whose high school is near the Rainbow Shops in Queens’ Rego Center, a perfect conduit. For decades, the fashion industry erected barriers between consumers — especially black and brown consumers — and their definition of “luxury.” By digitally playing the “drop model” and keeping a reasonable price per item, Clemens’ shopping experience has actively worked to dismantle those barriers.
Now that shoppers are returning to IRL stores, online-first retailers are trying to win on both sides of the Add to Cart experience. ASOS made its physical store debut at Nordstrom earlier this year, SHEIN has doubled down on pop-ups in New York, and Garage just opened their first flagship store in SoHo: specifically Rainbow’s NYC home turf , the brand now seems doubly likely to make a mainstream revival.
As for Telfar, Clemens made a separate announcement at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, closing the blast event with the news that All bags, in every color, will be available for purchase online starting September 23rd. By extending Rainbow’s experience into the digital realm, Clemens is ditching the “drop model,” a tactic that certainly created buzz and served to reinforce his hard work. However, with this announcement, it is clear that Clemens always knew that the “points” would be temporary. Soon, Clemens will have fulfilled his dream of breaking the ultimate chain on the fashion fence, not only through Telfar, but hopefully forever ahead.