Guess Pulls Telfar Bag Knock-Offs After Social Media Backlash

The fashion retailer quickly pulls a new bag that bears a striking resemblance to the coveted shopping tote, proving that what Telfar truly sells—a sense of community among groups long marginalized by the fashion industry—can’t be copied.

Photography by Daniel Zuchnik

The ethos of Telfar has long been rooted in community: “It’s not for you—it’s for everyone.” Founded by New York City designer Telfar Clemens, the label has become an ascendant force in fashion by fostering a culture that uplifts communities of color that have long been overlooked and marginalized by the industry. As a result, its gender-neutral, vegan leather bags are so in-demand that it’s tough to walk through the city or check your Instagram feed without seeing one. And due to the brand’s hyper-loyal following (recently coined the “Telfar Tribe”), the bags also sell out almost immediately when they drop.

So when it first circulated that the mass retailer Guess was hawking a copycat Telfar tote, social media backlash quickly ensued. Guess’s knock-off duplicated nearly every design element of the original: the embossed initial logo in a circle, a double handle, and availability in three sizes. Detractors also noted how the brand was shamelessly copying the work of a critically acclaimed, independent Black designer during a time when the industry’s history of racism was finally coming to light. “The most annoying and yet interesting part of this is the fact that a company like Guess has the capital and resources to produce this bag in great quantities when the original designer could not,” the Black Fashion Fair founder Antoine Gregory wrote on Twitter. “And it really just speaks to the lack of access granted to Black designers. The lack of capital. The lack of resources the industry provides them.”

Not one day later, Guess withdrew the product from sale after debuting it at various third-party retailers such as Macy’s and Hudson’s Bay. “Signal Brands, the handbag licensee of Guess, Inc., has voluntarily halted the sale of its G-Logo totes,” the brand said in a statement. “Some on social media have compared the totes to Telfar Global’s shopping bags. Signal Brand does not wish to create any impediments to Telfar Global’s success and, as such, has independently decided to stop selling the G-Logo Totes.” 

Clemens and his business partner, Babak Radboy, first became aware of the knockoff in February but chose to keep quiet and avoid legal action. In their eyes, Guess had missed the whole point of the bag, which isn’t about an object or a status symbol. Instead, it’s about “the culture of the bag, the story around the bag, and the phenomenon of the bag,” Radboy told the New York Times. What it symbolizes to buyers  simply can’t be copied. Radboy noted that a lengthy legal battle, however, could financially strain their independent-run business, which has been in operation since 2005.

Speaking of finances, the industry watchdog Diet Prada was quick to point out the price differential between Telfar’s tote and the Guess copycat. “People will say it’s no surprise, that mass brands have been imitating designer goods for decades, but this feels different,” they wrote on Instagram. “There’s a much slimmer price difference between Guess and a Telfar bag, especially compared to the four-figure price point an average Prada or [Louis Vuitton] bag might bear. The appeal of a Telfar bag is not as a status symbol, so for a mass brand to capture that spirit while trying to make a quick buck is impossible.” It goes to show that today’s independent labels do so much more than sell clothes, they capture the zeitgeist— knocking off their work misses the point entirely.

With the brouhaha drawn to a close, Telfar has revived its celebrated Bag Security Program. The initiative allows everyone to secure their own Telfar bag in any size, color, or quantity, reiterating the brand’s message of accessibility. The program runs for only 36 hours on March 30–31, with delivery guaranteed between July 15 and September 15. 

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