You are what you wear–queer clothing companies reject fast fashion in favor of something more personal

Most women's shirts have floppy collars that don't look good with a bow tie. Kirrin Finch is changing that, one collar at a time. Photo: Bethany Michaela

Most women’s shirts have floppy collars that don’t look good with a bow tie. Kirrin Finch is changing that, one collar at a time. Photo: Bethany Michaela

“It’s really deep,” says Laura Moffat. “We’ve started talking about clothing with friends we’ve known a long time, and who we never talked about clothes with before, and it goes really deep. It’s, ‘When I was five, when I was eight,’ and then someone starts crying.”

If you are a human and you put clothes on your body, then you can probably relate. Whether it was a school uniform, shorts, a dance costume, a bridesmaid dress, a sports uniform, or an outfit for an important interview, chances are that you’ve worn clothing that made you feel uncomfortable, unhappy about your body and, just as importantly, made you feel less like your authentic self.

Kirrin Finch, the company that Moffat and her wife, Kelly Sanders Moffat started together, is part of a growing number of businesses dedicated to helping non-gender-conforming customers feel good in their own skins.

Kirrin Finch shirts aren't just for the dapper set. Photo: Evan Robinson

Kirrin Finch shirts look sharp, even without a bowtie. Photo: Evan Robinson

The community these companies serve exists on a wide spectrum of identity and self expression, including trans men and trans women who absolutely want to look traditionally masculine and feminine, but who need specific types of clothing to help their physical bodies reflect how they feel on the inside; cis women who don’t want to emphasize their hips and breasts, preferring a more typically masculine silhouette; individuals of all sexes for whom androgyny is the most comfortable aesthetic; and many others.

There’s something radical at work here for anyone who wears clothing, no matter your relationship to gender–acceptance that when something doesn’t fit your body, the problem is with the garment, not with you.

Daniel Friedman is the founder of Bindle & Keep, a Brooklyn-based bespoke suiting company that is the subject of a wonderful new documentary called Suited, which premiered at BAMcinemaFest and is now available on HBO. As a former architect, it’s clear that Friedman, who is a straight man, can see other people’s bodies as an interesting set of measurements and challenges in a way that is free from judgement and shame. Over the past five years he has become known for making suits for people who are non-gender-conforming. “Cutting a suit for a 300-pound cis-gendered male is the same challenge as for a 95-pound trans man,” he said in a phone interview. “Their needs are different, but they’re just as human. The best tool I have for both is empathy.” 

While each Bindle & Keep customer attends an extensive fitting, and then a second round of tailoring once the suit is constructed, at Kirrin Finch, Moffat and Sanders Moffat wanted to create an off-the-rack line of shirts, available for instant gratification shopping, rather than the sometimes months-long process involved in custom design.

They were both very familiar with that sensation of going into a store and finding nothing they wanted to wear, “But it wasn’t upsetting at that point,” says Moffat.

Then they started thinking about what they would wear to their wedding.

“Neither one of us wanted to wear dresses, and when we settled on tailored suits we realized, ‘Hey, we can wear this and look good, and feel good,’ and that was the jump where we decided we wanted to make that happen for other people,” says Sanders Moffat. (Their wedding suits were made by Bindle & Keep.)

Kirrin Finch, which is part of the Pratt Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator in the Pfizer building, produces short and long-sleeved button down shirts, which have been designed for a fit that de-emphasizes curves, while still allowing for breasts and hips. In other words, the shirts have a boxy, yet fitted look that women’s shirts, even menswear-inspired versions, typically don’t have, and they fit both at the shoulder and the waist. They added an extra button to the front placket to ameliorate the dreaded boob gap and removed the dart that is typical in women’s shirting, which helps accentuate the bust.

Another way a Kirrin Finch shirt is different from a regular women’s shirt, even a menswear-inspired design, is that the collar and neck are designed to be worn with a bowtie, a nod to the emerging “dapper” aesthetic that gay fashion blogs, like DapperQ, are bringing to the forefront. “The collars on most women’s shirts are just super floppy,” says Sanders Moffat. “They’re not suitable for a bowtie.”

All those adjustments resonate with Tyler El Rayes, a trans man living in New York City who recently starting taking testosterone. He told us in an email how frustrating it is to find clothing that fits his body. “The truth is, it’s hard for me to find something that will fit my small frame well (I am 5.5″ and not very wide in my torso) especially button-downs,” El Rayes wrote. “If I find something that is narrow enough on my shoulders, it will commonly flare out at my hips (accentuating them, which is the opposite of what I want). I think the importance of brands like Kirrin Finch and others is that they cater to what is thought of as more typically ‘menswear’ to the bodies of people who are assigned female at birth. And that’s a huge deal!”

The Matriarch recently ended a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund production of a line of high quality, gender-inclusive shoes. Photo: Maansi Jain (www.maansi-jain.com

Matriarch recently ended a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund production of a line of high quality, gender-inclusive shoes. Photo: Maansi Jain

For Sarah Waxman, a designer who started a shoe company called Matriarch with her sister Rachel, the goal was to create beautiful, gender-inclusive shoes in a wide array of sizes, that are also very high quality. “Lots of menswear-styled footwear feels like an imitation with lots of frivolous detail that I don’t like and that doesn’t work for most people,” Waxman, a Berlin-based Pratt graduate, said in a video chat. “There’s also a quality level to traditional men’s footwear that is much higher. Often what you find, with brands making items for both men and women, the women’s version uses lesser materials, and it’s not just in shoes. With say, a flannel shirt, the women’s flannel is really thin, while the men’s is super beefy and nice. Men’s clothing and accessories use nicer hardware. Maybe it’s to save costs, but if we’re making things for men that way, surely can make them for women that way.”

Martriarch shoes, which were available for pre-order via a successful Kickstarter campaign, (Waxman has also launched an IndieGoGo campaign to accommodate more pre-orders, to get an email when it’s ready, sign up here), come in an unusually wide array of sizes, which as El Rayes can attest, is difficult to find. “I had the recent experience of needing dress shoes for a wedding…and I went looking for a size 6.5,” he wrote. “No one had men’s shoes in 6.5. They said I’d be lucky to find the styles I liked in a size 7. One sales person suggested I just ask for anything they had in a size 7, and then pick from the small handful of shoes they might turn up for me.”

None of these brands are inexpensive, but with good reason. These small companies are all operating very differently than fast fashion brands. “This is not the same as wearing a $4 dress three times and then throwing it out when it gets a hole in it,” says Moffat. As former neuroscientist, she tends to cite studies and statistics with the same casual mastery that most people reserve for recommending new shows to binge watch, and she pointed out that research shows that clothing manufacturing is the second most polluting industry in the world–just after oil.

Visit Kirrin Finch and other brands exploring non-binary personal expression on Wednesday night.

Visit Kirrin Finch and other brands exploring non-binary personal expression at the Pfizer Building on Wednesday night.

Kirrin Finch shirts, which start at $125 for button downs, are made in a factory in midtown Manhattan. Many of their fabrics are organic cotton, and they plan to increase that percentage each year. “Organics just aren’t available in fun patterns, like ginghams,” said Sanders Moffat. “And people have to look at the garment and say, ‘I want to wear that,'” Moffat chimed in.

At Matriach, Waxman uses vegetable tanned leather for her brogues and boots, which were available on Kickstarter for €275 (about $310) and she plans to retail them somewhere below €400 (about $450). “It’s the most sustainable leather available and harder to find than other leathers,” she explained. ” People opt not to use it because it’s about double the price.” She has also visited the Portuguese factory where her shoes will be made multiple times to check on quality, production methods and working conditions.

This emphasis on environmentally conscious sourcing and and fair labor practices fits hand in glove with the larger trend of ethical fashion brands. It makes sense that companies that are founded on the idea serving underserved communities, and addressing the discomfort that many non-gender-conforming people feel when trying on clothing and in retail settings that are not for them have an inherent sense of the big picture, the idea that what we wear is important personally, as well as politically.

“This is capitalism at its best,” says Friedman, whose suits start at around $800. Many of his clients have suffered through extraordinarily awkward fittings at traditional tailors and in mainstream menswear departments. “Treat everyone like an individual, and make money doing it. You don’t need to have a Ph.D in gender studies to make someone feel good. You don’t have to be queer to serve the queer community. You just have to be open.”

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