Telfar bags, vegan leather and an unexpected lesson

Telfar bags, vegan leather and an unexpected lesson

Telfar’s signature “Shopping” tote has become an explosively successful symbol of the cultural changes reshaping fashion.

Gen-Z’s first It bag is affordably priced, genderless, and made from vegan leather. The so-called “Bushwick Birkin” designed by Liberian-American designer Telfar Clemens is positioned as a subversive response to the expensive European leather goods that have dominated the luxury market.

Despite its relatively low price (between $150 and $257), its cultural prestige is such that Beyoncé mentioned the bag on her latest album: “This Telfar bag is imported. Birkins? Them shit’s in storage,” she sings the megastar on the final track.

So when a vegan dancer and choreographer posted a video to Twitter, showing how the faux fur on her beloved Telfar bag had worn out from four years of use, the internet had plenty of opinions.

To some, the video, which has racked up 1.6 million views so far, was proof that leather alternatives are a poor substitute for real leather. Others took the opportunity to point out that vegan leather is just a fancy way of saying plastic. Some saw it as an unfair criticism of a brand that has succeeded against all odds in an industry that for years has ignored and marginalized the community it represents. Many defended the brand, arguing that four years is a respectable lifespan for an everyday bag or sharing that its Telfar bags have lasted for years with careful use.

In essence, the tweet, which was intended to start a conversation about the quality of vegan leather alternatives, captured in a viral moment on social media why navigating sustainability issues can be so complex.

In recent years, “sustainability” has become a highly marketable wild card for any effort to operate more responsibly, from climate to inclusion to worker rights.

That confusing definition has made it a space full of trade-offs and conflicts, enabling greenwashing but also tripping up brands whose genuine efforts aren’t necessarily intended to cover all bases.

Take vegan leather, a popular way to rebrand materials that are essentially just plastic. While that may tick the box for consumers whose primary concern is animal rights, the link to fossil fuels means such materials are not a responsible choice from a climate perspective.

The weight of expectation is especially heavy for a label like Telfar which, for the record, does not promote itself as a sustainable brand. (The brand did not comment for this story.)

“There are so many expectations when it comes to black labels being all or nothing,” said fashion writer Scarlett Newman. “It’s unrealistic.”

However, Telfar is clear about what he stands for and why he does what he does. Its use of faux fur is a choice driven by the material’s price and accessibility, according to the company’s website, in line with the brand’s ethos of designing for a community long ignored by the fashion industry due to to their gender, race or socioeconomic level.

That holds a lesson for any company trying to navigate the current landscape: The key is to clearly define what you stand for and deliver on that consistently.

“The brand is very transparent about who they are, what they stand for and what they’re trying to do,” Newman said. Among the reasons Telfar resonates so strongly is that it represents “the cause, supporting a black designer, representing ‘I’m part of this community, this is where I’m at’.”

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