Feature Culture

New HBO Doc About Trans-Friendly Tailors Shows Us That All Bodies Are Worthy Of Great Clothes

by Eric Sasson

June 17, 2016

On Monday, HBO is set to premiere Suited, the Lena Dunham-produced documentary about Bindle & Keep, a first-of-its-kind company dedicated to making bespoke suits for trans and gender non-conforming people. The film highlights the business partnership between Daniel Friedman, founder and head tailor, and clothier Rae Tutera, Bindle & Keep’s public face. Both the documentary and the company itself are committed to the idea that “fashion has no gender”—meaning that all bodies are worthy of well-made, comfortable, expressive clothing. In an era marked by anti-trans legislation and violence targeting LGBT people, it’s refreshing to see a clothing store ignore the gender binary completely in the pursuit of self-acceptance and inclusivity.

GOOD spoke with Tutera and Friedman about the emotional power of clothing, sharing baby pictures as a trans person, and why being open-minded about your customers is just good capitalism.

Rae, you said “you never felt so good about myself” after you tried on your first tailor-made suit. Why do you think it's so important for transgender or gender non-conforming people to have the right clothing?

Rae: I can talk about it from my own perspective, which is that, when I had my first custom suit made, I didn't necessarily expect to have an emotional reaction. It was the first time I ever wore something that really fit my body and it made me very suddenly conscious of the fact that I had been hiding my body both from myself and from others. It's a very powerful experience for people when they first make eye contact with themselves.

Daniel, you said in the documentary you didn’t have an opinion on gay marriage before Rae came along. Can you elaborate?

Daniel: It's sort of two-fold. As a cisgender straight male in the world, I wasn't against gay marriage by any means, but I didn't have many friends who were gender-queer or came from the LGBT community. Some people pick fracking as their thing because they're affected by it, or preserving our mountain air. This just wasn't my fight until it literally landed in my living room, which is [where] we started this company. [Then the gay marriage cause] became part of my every day and my sense of self.

Client Aidan

Approximately what percent of Bindle & Keep's clients are transgender or gender non-conforming?

Daniel: I'd say about 90 percent are not cisgendered men. There's a lot of in-between there. Some people are gender-conforming, but at the same time, are getting married and they want a genderless suit. A lot of companies are afraid to put a genderless suit on curvature. We have a saying in the company: “We can be gender-blind, but we're not gender-stupid.” This is a game of triggers and listening to clients and trying to understand exactly how they want to feel.

Trans people don't necessarily want to ‘pass’ [as cis], they want to be able to exist peacefully.

For example, Mel, the cabdriver in the doc, tries on a suit, and right when she puts [it] on, she says, “Oh wait, it feels a little feminine.” When you see [the suit], there's nothing [about it] that looks feminine, but the way that Mel felt, however nuanced, was feminine. And sometimes we make a little change to it, and it really doesn't change the silhouette of the suit, yet that internal din of gendering clothing becomes much more relaxed.

What is the average price for one of these suits?

Daniel: They start at $795 and range to $1,195. We actually go way north of that, depending on the fabric choice, but it's the same quality of construction throughout. We try to keep our prices on the lower end so the barriers to getting a suit are lower. Which means our margins are tighter. It can be a struggle.

Do you ever have clients contact you who might not be able to afford them?

Rae: So here's the reality: When I toured with the documentary, I got a lot of responses from audience members [who wanted] access to the joy of [clothing] that fits, but [couldn’t] afford a custom suit. [I’d love to see] suits completely subsidized. I'm hoping we can partner with an organization that works with formerly homeless or incarcerated people so that we can get them into suits, too. There are a lot of people for whom $795 is not pocket change.

[When I wanted my] first custom suit—before Bindle & Keep existed—my only option was to get one that was $1,500. And I was 25. I didn't have $1,500 then—I don't have $1,500 now. But I had a credit card with a limit, so it was either that or feeling badly about myself every time I had to go to a wedding or a job interview. So it became, like, you can't really put a price on that. But I know it's not the reality for everyone. 

I'm glad you guys are thinking about that, because one of the issues with Caitlyn Jenner and her Vanity Fair shoot was how she has the means to do things like that but other trans people don't.

Rae: Frankly, the trans community is much more impoverished than any other community. We don't want to be providing a service that only a very specific segment of the community can afford.

Rae Tutera and client Grace. Image by JoJo Whilden.

Rae, you make a point to say in the documentary that for you, this is not about fashion—that for many of your clients, clothes can make or break every day of their lives. Can you expand?

Rae: I think that I was never really into the fashion world or the suit-making world because of the aesthetics alone. I approach clothing from a very emotional place and I got in it to help people feel good about themselves. I think it's an act of solidarity with other people to listen to them. Clothes play a very important role in affirming our sense of self... I want to aid in that process. I don't necessarily care about what's trending. I'm just a gentle hand helping people take pride in their own look.

The documentary shows a lot of the clients' baby and childhood photos, including a client named Derek. Rae, how do you feel when you look at old pictures? Do you think it bothers certain trans people to look at old pictures of themselves?

Rae:  I have to tell you, it's so funny that you ask that. HBO made another film called The Trans List and last night I went to a screening. It told 11 stories of trans folks and, like in our movie, includes childhood photos. In the Q&A afterward, someone [mentioned that] there is a sort of sensationalism to showing “before” or childhood photos… But in both films, all volunteered to show those photos. I think even when you are being dressed up by other people as a kid, you're still always yourself. You can see that.

Especially with Derek, right?

Rae: Yeah, Derek looks exactly the same. I feel the same is true for my own photos, [even when I’m in] velvet Christmas dresses. I make the same expressions [today]. Yeah, I was being swaddled in clothes I didn't really love, but there's something to be said about us all having childhoods. I don't want to forget mine, as much as it was painful and uncomfortable. I think there's a place for making peace with it.

Client Everett with Rae Tutera

Speaking of Derek, he says, “I want a suit that makes my body look as masculine as it can. I don't want to be able to be picked out from a line of guys.” Do you think this is really important for many transgender people, the ability to “pass” as cis and not be found out? Is there something at odds with the idea of “pride” in this concept? By this I mean, do you see a day where people will be “proud” to be transgender?

Rae: So this is a really good question. I think what we have in the documentary at the particular moment of Derek's fitting process… It's a glimpse into the psychology of a person who is just trying to pass as themselves—who lives in a world where people are trying to read you and trying to know more about you than they have the right to know just by looking at you. That just reflects the vulnerability of being a trans person. A lot of trans people don't necessarily want to “pass,” they want to be able to exist peacefully, and we live in a world that really only lets cisgendered people exist peacefully, so those things get conflated with each other.

I know that I’m very proud to be trans. I am gender non-conforming, and I know a lot of people [for whom] being trans is the focal point of their identity. They are out as trans because that's who they are. They may happen to pass as “cis” people, but they are vocal about the reality that they are not “cis.” I think that in Derek's case, he had a lot of noise in his head at that moment from other people, and I think that it's more of a reflection of what it's like to be a trans person in the world than his own reflection of himself.

Daniel Friedman and Rae Tutera. Photo by JoJo Whilden.

Daniel: Sometimes you don't want to wear everything, like right there, [on your sleeve]. For instance, how about the bathroom situation.

I was just going to ask you about that. What do you both make of states like North Carolina passing laws trying to force transgender people to use the bathrooms of the gender assigned to them at birth?

Daniel: Obviously we have strong opinions about it. I am from Columbus, Ohio, [where] it's pretty conservative, and I feel like if I had a four-year-old daughter and I was listening to a lot of the rhetoric that was being put out there, I would be scared [of trans people], because the picture being painted [of them] by a lot of the media [there] is very scary. And it's meant to be.

What we are doing is capitalism at its best—you can make people happy, and you can make money doing it... Being open is so good for business.

This documentary, if you look at the subjects, you see that they are just human, and they are just trying to feel good in their bodies, and I am hoping that the film will help paint a better, more positive picture for those people who otherwise would have no other exposure because they don't live in New York City.

Do you see companies like yours as paving the way of the future? Do you see us moving away from gender binaries, not just in clothing, but maybe in other aspects of our culture?

Daniel: What we are doing is capitalism at its best—you can make people happy, and you can make money doing it. For so long, [trans] people have been asking, “Why don't you treat my money like everyone else's money? Why do you have to look at me and make these assumptions about who I am and not let my money speak for itself?” And we're saying, “Your money's good here.” We're treating everyone like a customer. And that can be rolled out across the country in every single field of business. Being open is so good for business.

Rae: I want to emphasize something else too, which is that we've seen so many instances where companies do not want to hire gender non-conforming or trans people. They don't know how to hire them. Or as Daniel was illustrating, they don't want to serve these folks as their clientele or customer base. We are doing both of those things. Daniel hired me without flinching. I don't think he had any idea what my gender was, but he hired me. I think we're going to see that we don't need to be narrow-minded in business or society. It doesn't serve anyone to do that.

Top image of Bindle & Keep employee Debra Matteson and client Derek by JoJo Whilden. All images courtesy of HBO. 

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New HBO Doc About Trans-Friendly Tailors Shows Us That All Bodies Are Worthy Of Great Clothes