Last month, Telfar announced that its first duffle bag would be exclusively available through a QR code on its new 24/7 on-demand television service, Telfar TV. A satellite beaming the product over cellphones across the country—the QR code will flash for 60 seconds—allowed Telfar not only to introduce the new service, but also to reduce an exploitative secondhand market that could bot its way to dozens of bags and thousands of dollars with the tap of a key.
However, the move to 24/7 TV is still a curious one for Telfar Clemens’ Brooklyn-based genderless clothing company. Telfar decided to pave its own brand-building path, eschewing the print route of fashion brands like Net-A-Porter or sponcon podcasts like Victoria’s Secret’s recently announced VS Voices, and instead partnered with distributors like Apple TV+, Roku, and Google Play to find its way into our homes.
But the model, specifically as an app and a TV channel, is one that Black media have increasingly turned to in the 2010s—a period that has been defined by curation and cultivation of digital communities that exist beyond social media. Telfar is the latest in a wave of channels, like Black Network Channel and smaller joints like Epitome Media Group and Black Power Media, leaping out of the abyss of white-owned television and seeking to create a new pantheon of Black independent companies filling the void left by white corporate interests in tech and digital media.
These companies are, in effect, flying in the face of developers stateside who promote the idea that Black brands must choose between an app or a linear TV channel. “Many people are like, why would you get into linear TV, that’s dead,” Jasmine LA Jones, CEO of Epitome Media Group tells The Daily Beast. “I’m like, ‘No, it’s not dead, you just gotta do both. I was talking to a developer not long ago and they were like, you have to have an on-demand or a livestream. And I’m like, ‘But why?’ And it’s usually tied to the technology capabilities that they have… You don’t have to do one or the other because people like to watch TV. They like to sit back and watch if it’s cool. Not if you put on Ridiculousness all day.”
Jones, who’s been in the media game for two decades working with a bevy of networks like BET, Bravo and Oxygen, and brands like Nintendo and JetBlue, founded Epitome in 2017 out of what she saw as a void in media for women with a global perspective. Back then, the topics they covered were “fashion, music, articles and opinions, and aggregate stuff from other sites and blogs we think our audience would really love,” she explains. “But more so now, we’ve grown from covering arts and media to wellness and the whole of a person.”
Fashion and beauty, it seems, have been a springboard for companies like Epitome and Telfar, who’ve both noticed that if a fashion head wants 24-hour access to shows, looks, and products, they have to scroll down social media or YouTube. There’s no one-stop shop.
Telfar, a spokesperson told The Daily Beast, rather quietly “began planning an exit from the fashion system in January 2019.” Before the onset of the pandemic, the fashion label gained a committed audience of hype beasts and hoi polloi who dug the everyday luxury aesthetic of the genderless brand. In collaboration with Ummah Chroma—a collective consisting of prodigious creatives like Terence Nance (creator of HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness), Jenn Nkiru (the Nigerian Brit whose work on The Carters’ Everything Is Love album won her the Voice of A Woman Prize at Cannes 2018), visual artist Marc Thomas, saxophonist Kamasi Washington, and visionary cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma)—Telfar has begun to produce original programming that will soon be featured on the channel. But it’s the addition of user-generated content that serves as a potential game changer for the medium. “For user-generated content we send people bags and coins—but it’s impossible to repay the love because it’s not a debt to begin with,” a spokesperson said.
It’s fair to say, though, that some customers want to be paid for their work—or at the very least be able to use their content in multiple spaces for multiple income streams—which brings up the question of ownership. To fall into the same trap as social media companies like TikTok and Twitter, which claim ownership of the data we post, or traditional media and pay Black creators dust for their work, Telfar would be betraying its customer base. “What we are working toward,” they explain, “are legal terms and conditions that respect the nature of this community because what currently exists is not made for us.”
If they wish to set themselves apart, Black-owned businesses with little experience in media production at scale have to include a structure that either utilizes the already existing scaffolding for syndication or start getting creative about how Black people can own and profit from their work. Telfar TV is a bold move for an altogether rote fashion industry, but if Clemens and crew can utilize the relationships they’ve built with their customer base and help them see the bag, it could prove truly game-changing.
While the 24-hour, on-demand model is certainly a godsend for advertisers and product pushes like the latest Telfar drip, Jones also posits that it can be a space that shares more than sells. “With women in media, it’s so one-dimensional, either it’s just makeup or it’s just travel or it’s just influencer stuff,” she says exasperated. “But our community is different in that instead of just trying to sell you stuff, we’d rather share it with you. So that’s why we’re transitioning to a digital television network so we can cover more ground.”
Epitome accomplishes that by partnering directly with artists across the world—with an increasingly popular viewing audience in Africa—drawing up small licensing agreements, as well as using tech from other nations like Spain’s Viloud which, she says, “are far more advanced in user-friendly technology that’s easier to scale.” The benefits of the tech is that it’s “automated,” which allows her to use “local production houses in Brooklyn and L.A… just friends that I think are doing something great and ask them if I can use their films.”
This collaboration between artists and production companies is at the heart of the model that Telfar is experimenting with and Epitome seeks to build upon. The growth of Black-owned channels in the last decade seems to be a sort of widening of the lens. Consider spots like Black News Channel (BNC) and Black Power Media (BPM)—two companies whose political and cultural allegiances couldn’t be further apart from one another. The former, founded by a former Black Republican congressman and football player, J.C. Watts, and the latter a Black media conglomerate committed to the Black radical tradition of folks like Black Panther Kwame Ture and former President of Ghana, the pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah.
BNC’s programming follows a traditional cable model and centers around its morning show, Start Your Morning with Sharon and Mike, and evening show with Marc Lamont Hill, Black News Tonight. BNC is meant to act as a non-partisan peek into Black life, which means it runs the gamut from progressive politics to platforming very questionable personalities like “Dr.” Umar Johnson and sexual-assault apologists like Judge Joe Brown in the spirit of “good-natured” debate. Watts and BNC (who did not respond to requests for comment) seek to transcend the partisan divide by giving space to “thought leaders” and controversial opinions. On the other hand, Black Power Media has a strong anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist ideological posture that produces constant conversation, with ideas, theories, and practices. And while it hasn’t reached the point of 24/7 broadcasting, its YouTube channel is almost completely livestreamed. It’s very easy to imagine that Black Power Media could make the transition to 24/7 livestreams if the resources and programming allowed for it.
The distinction between BNC and BPM is not only in ideology and intent, but also in resources. BPM makes money from its Patreon, opting out of capitalist business models completely, including no advertisers and no product drops, while BNC—which is carried by Comcast Xfinity, Dish Network and DirecTV—and to a lesser extent Telfar and Epitome, rely on advertising dollars to make money. BNC has to answer to stockholders—primarily Shahid Khan, the billionaire owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars (BNC is based in Tallahassee, Florida) and co-owner of All Elite Wrestling—and struck a new deal with CBS Media Ventures to handle its advertising. Telfar answers to Telfar and its consumers. As Jones tells it, Epitome answers to, largely, its artists and audiences. “I don’t know what it is but we have a huge connection with Africa. There’s so many filmmakers and so much talent… it’s appealing to a younger generation.”
Who these channels and networks answer to is very important in finding where Black audiences might land. But it remains to be seen whether the adoption of the 24/7 model for Black media will steal eyes away from the socialites and grifters. The time for demanding reparations through a historically racist FCC has long passed. Black creators are building their own shit, and placing the blandness of traditional white media in its crosshairs.