In March of 2021, Guess Inc. came under fire with accusations of mimicking the design of a small – but highly influential – Black-owned brand. The brand in question was Telfar Global, started in 2005 by Telfar Clemens, and the item in question was a tote bag.

Though Telfar sells different items, their signature item is their shopping bag tote – offered in a variety of colors and sizes. The bags are made with faux leather and feature a double strap, magnetic snap closure, and an embossed Telfar logo. Guess Inc. released a tote with double straps and an embossed “G” logo. Social media users called out these similarities and Guess quickly announced that it halted the sale of the bags, a voluntary decision made by their handbag licensee, Signal Brands. While the incident was over as quickly as it started, and with little input from the team at Telfar, it remains one of many fashion faux pas in which a big brand’s “mistake” comes at the expense of a smaller one and highlights the tensions around race in the industry.

2020 was a groundbreaking year for Telfar Global. In January of that year, the signature shopping tote was profiled in The Cut, who dubbed the bag the “Bushwick Birkin.” Their bag was also featured in an episode of Issa Rae’s “Insecure” on HBO, Oprah Winfrey’s Favorite Things List, and on the shoulders of congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and supermodel Bella Hadid. While there had been highly anticipated plans for a partnership between Telfar and GAP, it was ultimately cancelled, though Telfar quickly rebounded with a collaboration with UGG. Global search platform Lyst named Telfar the second “breakout brand” of 2020, reporting that searches for the brand increased by 270% on a weekly basis since August. Telfar Clemens was also named the 2020 American Accessories Designer of the Year by the CFDA – further cementing his signature shopping bag as the year’s top accessory.

Telfar Clemens photographed seated in a black chair

Telfar Clemens, photographed by CFDA. Image.

While this is impressive and well deserved, it comes after 15 years of the brand being in business. Though they won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund’s top prize of $400,000 in 2017, Telfar Global has been overlooked by many major players within the fashion industry. From the beginning, Telfar’s focus on inclusivity – being a unisex line with the motto “It’s not for you, It’s for everyone,” has made them unique. That, in addition to being a Black designer, marks them as an outcast in an industry that prizes exclusivity and whiteness. Clemens and his team had to persist despite the lack of investments and acknowledgement. For this incident with Guess to occur just as Telfar has reached new heights in his career makes it all the more distasteful. 

Any incident involving design plagiarism is always problematic, but given that 2020 was also a year of racial reckoning and upset in this country adds a different layer to the story. After protests sparked around the country around the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other victims of police brutality, our country once again examined its racist past and present. Solutions looked different across industries. White voice actors quit their roles as Black characters, the Washington D.C. government commissioned the painting of the words “Black Lives Matter” in gigantic yellow letters on the streets leading to the White House, and Quaker Oats retired its Aunt Jemima brand. One centrally used tactic however, was the statement graphic on Instagram. The now infamous Black Out Tuesday started within the music industry as a campaign to pause business on June 2nd, and was soon co-opted by others, resulting in a flood of black squares on apps like Instagram. There was immediate backlash as the hashtags around Black Lives Matter got clogged with empty black squares, preventing important information from being shared.

Guess Inc. also participated in the Black Out Tuesday efforts, posting a black square with some text on their Instagram on both June 2nd and June 5th. The first post reacted to the deaths of Floyd, Arbery, and Taylor, calling out racism, injustice and oppression. In the second post, they announced a $1 million donation to the NAACP and local programs in Los Angeles over the next five years, citing that calling for change was not enough. The brand also posted later in June, in honor of Juneteenth, and more recently, has posted a message of support amidst the increase in Asian hate crimes. These posts signaled Guess’ position as an ally of recent social and political movements, but only a few months later, the brand was at the center of controversy for exploiting a Black brand — sending a mixed message to consumers, and negating any of the intentions that the allyship may have had. 

While Telfar Clemens and his team were made aware of the Guess tote before public outrage ensued, the reaction from their supporters is emblematic of a community feeling wronged. Fashion design is not protected under copyright law, but this awkward moment was a missed opportunity for collaboration; Guess could have put action behind their words and partnered with Telfar Global after the incident. While fashion brands may feel that making statements or donating money is sufficient, they need to reflect deeper on how they participate in the same injustice and oppression that they speak out against. Their anti-racism must also play out internally if they want to be involved in significant change amongst their peers and in this country.