For These Designers, Trans Fashion Is More Than Just A Trend
The goal of Brooklyn-based clothier company Bindle & Keep is to make each of its customers feel a way they’ve never felt before. For most clients, this means looking like an entirely different person when stepping in front of a mirror. And somehow, shop partners Daniel Friedman and Rae Tutera manage to do this without fail: their tailored, bespoke suits for bodies of all types have garnered the attention of individuals internationally, ones who are as diverse in age as they are in narrative.
Bindle & Keep is now one of the leading suit shops serving the gender-noncomforming community in the world, but back in 2011, when Friedman first started it, he had no intention of specializing in trans fashion. In fact, Friedman initially ran the company out of his apartment as more of a do-or-die business move than a strike at advocacy. At the time, Friedman, who holds an impressive academic record, was getting a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania when suddenly he found himself no longer able to read or write. The bizarre, unforeseen ailment left him distraught, and deprived of one of his deepest loves: literature. He was later diagnosed with a neurological disorder, which has left his brain permanently impaired.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Friedman told me over the phone one busy morning—it is wedding season, after all—before heading off to the shop. “Opening up [Bindle & Keep] and tailoring seemed like the only way I could still use my love of architecture.” After taking a second to rethink, he added, “It gave my life purpose again.”
It was shortly after its launch that Friedman took on Tutera (who uses gender-neutral pronouns) as an apprentice. Friedman tells me the two clicked almost immediately, and as Tutera started learning the ropes, they began posting about the shop on their popular blog, The Handsome Butch.
“I had this introduction to custom suiting and to the challenges it poses for those who have never had a suit [or] a traditional cisgender, straight identity after getting my own first custom suit,” Tutera said. “I knew Daniel was fitting Murray Hill the drag king for his suits. I [didn’t] know if Murray was an anomaly for [Friedman] or if he was open to fitting more queer people.”
“Those are my people. And I [wanted] to learn how to put them in clothes.”
Tutera continued, “But those are my people. And I [wanted] to learn how to put them in clothes.” That’s exactly what they did, and the queer community started to slowly reach out for consultations with the clothier duo thereafter. Ever since, the shop has been the go-to destination for folks who have a hard (or sometimes, even impossible) time shopping off the rack. As Friedman reminded me, “We didn’t seek out the LGBTQ community—they found us.”
Then, someone over at The New York Times got wind of Bindle & Keep in 2013, published a feature on the shop and its mission, and after that, according to Friedman, “everything changed.” Filmmaker Jason Benjamin read the feature and was intrigued by the pair’s initiative to provide a safer space for those who oftentimes feel uncomfortable when shopping for clothes that align with their gender identity. After reaching out to the shop, he enlisted Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner as producers, and started working on a project that first premiered at Sundance in 2016, and was eventually released on HBO as the feature length documentary, Suited.
The film spotlights an eclectic range of transgender clients who are all at different stages within their transition: an anxious groom getting ready for his big day, an emerging lawyer in a conservative environment, an individual celebrating their 40th birthday, and even a 12-year-old boy preparing for his bar mitzvah. The subjects, like most Bindle & Keep clients, had never had a bespoke suit made for them. Indeed, most of the subjects said that, before being fitted by Friedman and Tutera, they had never felt comfortable in an outfit. The unfortunate reality is that most trans men are often left settling for clothes in the men’s sections of retail stores that don’t fit right or actively affirm their identity.
During initial consultations, Bindle & Keep’s showroom transforms into a makeshift therapy office. Although it’s far from a requirement to discuss any part of one’s life story during these one-on-one, two-hour long meetings, clients invariably start sharing their anxieties and concerns about their body and the fit of clothing, oftentimes making the meetings wildly emotive and unfiltered. “The spectrum ranges from real to really real,” Tutera laughed. “Everyone compromises when putting on an outfit. If they don’t feel comfortable, we’re not doing our job right.”
“You never get used to witnessing that moment—seeing someone see themselves for the first time,” Tutera added.
The release of Suited comes at a pivotal time in the fashion world—something that Friedman and Tutera are abundantly aware of. In 2016 alone, countless fashion houses premiered genderless fashion lines. The notion of gender-blurring designs seems all the rage—it’s even peaked the interests of fast fashion companies like Zara and H&M.
“Subcultures are always being picked up and commodified. I feel like so many people look queer now and aren’t.”
Genderless fashion—also known as agender, unisex, ungendered, or gender neutral—has ignited a necessary dialogue on the importance of working outside of the gender binary. But, the marketing and subsequent commodification of these clothes (and identities) have made members of the queer community question the intent of these designers—namely, whether or not the industry views genderless fashion as nothing more than a trend.
“Subcultures are always being picked up and commodified. I feel like so many people look queer now and aren’t,” Tutera told me. “I think it is ultimately more important that people are introduced to more fluid ways of getting dressed and presenting themselves to the world than it is that we fight this new fashion wave. But, what’s being pushed through these stores is a less potent version of what we’re really doing; it’s not as radical.”
The need for well-fitted garments for all bodies symbolizes a deeper meaning around identity, empowerment, and feeling good. No one is debating the importance of having accessible fashion for those who are gender-noncomforming and on a budget—even Friedman reminds me custom suits aren’t pocket change (if you’re looking to book an appointment with Bindle & Keep, expect to spend upwards of $795). Instead, we must hold fashion houses and brands accountable for their exclusionary tactics and fallacious ideas on masculinity and femininity.
“We’re now brainstorming and trying to figure out how to make Bindle & Keep more inclusive,” Friedman told me moments into our conversation. “We want to branch out and be able to reach not only gender nonconforming folk, but people with autism, down syndrome, and [dwarfism] who have never been able to shop off the rack comfortably before. Why stop here.”
Images via The New Yorker, the Observer, and Suited.
Stay tuned to Milk for more on inclusive fashion brands.