Leon Wu dressed like the other sorority girls at UCLA, wore a uniform while training to become a Marine, and finally found himself while dressed in drag.
Throughout his early life, he presented as female. "I tried really hard in college to fit in with what was expected as an Asian young lady," Wu said. After graduating in 2000, he almost became an officer candidate in training with the Marines, but something pulled him away from that career path: a Los Angeles drag troupe called The Lost Boys.
"I did a lot of the choreography," said Wu, "and mainly I designed a lot of the costuming." He'd spent his entire life fashioning a feminine appearance to fit in, but the Beauty Kings presented an opportunity for him to design masculine outfits—and a masculine identity to go with them. Eventually, while in the troupe, he began to transition from female to male. And in 2013, he founded his own custom ready-to-wear clothing company called Sharpe Suiting.
For many queer people, clothes are more than just external adornments. They can express an identity waiting to emerge, signal a community where acceptance can be found, and serve as an extension of the bodies upon which they are draped. That's why a growing number of designers, from DIY home crafters to artists to ambitious entrepreneurs, are creating fashions designed to help LGBTQ people feel excited about their appearance in ways they never thought possible.
Designer Sky Cubacub found comfort in their clothing in a more literal sense—starting at age 13, they began making their own chain mail. "It involves opening and closing thousands of little rings," they said. "I had panic attacks and lots of anxiety, so the medium really calmed me and helped me organize my brain. I think of it as emotional armor, but it's also actual armor. It protects me physically, but it also makes me feel emotionally safe, like I can talk to folks. I think that all queer folks need some sort of armor for themselves to live in the world as gender warriors."
After designing chain mail for years, Cubacub is now working on a line of lingerie for non-binary folks called Rebirth Garments, as well as clothing for queer people with disabilities.
"I'll make a chest binder, but I'll make it with seams on the outside for folks with skin sensitivity," they said. "Or I'll make it slightly less tight of a bind for folks whose ribs dislocate. Or I'll have it have clasps in the front, so a person who can't raise their arms can get it on without having to go over their head."
In the past, queer-focused apparel has been largely DIY. If you wanted to dress at the boundaries of the gender binary, the best you could hope for was to browse the "wrong" section of the store for a close-enough fit.
Wu, for his part, had been thinking about starting a company for a while before he did, but the last straw came when a salesman at a suit store told him that none of their clothing could be made to fit women. As he left the store, Leon's mind was made up. "I gotta do this," he said.
"A lot of tomboys gravitate toward menswear clothes, but menswear isn't fit for people who have a bust or hips," said Laura Moffatt. She and her wife, Kelly, started a company called Kirrin Finch for clothes that look traditionally male, but are cut for women's bodies. It's a labor of love for the couple—and it would have to be, given that their backgrounds have little to do with fashion. Laura, who holds a PhD in neuroscience from NYU, worked in the pharmaceutical industry for ten years before starting the company, and Kelly was a teacher and elementary school librarian.
"I think for us the frustration was so high that we felt we had to do something about it," said Laura. That frustration reached a breaking point three years ago when they were shopping for their wedding. "You can find a million dresses, but there's not a lot of options if you're looking for men's style," said Laura. "Not having the ability to portray yourself in a way that gives you internal confidence that you can exude externally is a problem."
"What our customers do today is cobble together outfits from various places," said Kelly Moffatt. "We want to offer the one-stop shop for somebody on the tomboy side."
Designing clothes that break gender barriers involves a blend of science and art. "If someone wants to accentuate their hips, for instance," said Wu, "you want a garment that is hugging your curves. If you're talking about something that's more masculine, then you want drape straighter, so it looks more like a line than a curve."
Sharpe Suiting uses a technique they call Andropometrics (adapted from the tailoring technique known as anthropometrics) to tailor their designs, based on hundreds of body measurements and millions of data points. That allows them to ask customers just a few questions about age, weight, and whether they want to present as femme, masc, or androgynous; an algorithm then predicts the correct fit. Wu currently works with several high-profile LGBTQ celebrities (we had to reschedule our interview so he could deliver a suit to Laverne Cox); his apparel can be seen on various red carpets and recently in a Revlon commercial.
There is, of course, a risk to designing clothes for queer people. "You can create a lot of customer loyalty, but you do that at the expense of a broader marketplace," said Laura Moffatt. "How focused do you go before it's too small? We want to serve our community, but how do we go about it in a way that we make our business viable in the long term?"
Wu has similar concerns. "We've done a good job of being all inclusive, but how is that going to potentially derail our heteronormative customers?" he wondered. "If somebody does not want to wear clothing inspired by the LGBTQ community, I have no control over that."
Ultimately, the feedback from devoted clients has been a strong motivator for queer designers.
"We've had a lot of repeat customers," said Kelly Moffatt. She helped a customer find a gingham dress shirt for a wedding, "and they wrote back a lovely email about how powerful it was to be able to express themselves at that kind of occasion," she said. "It's really exciting to be part of a movement. Queer fashion right now is a movement and people are pushing the boundaries of what society feels like everyone has to dress and look like. And people are saying, 'No, we're going to dress how we feel.'"
"Clothing is not just the fabric you wear on your back, it's not just an item you use to cover yourself up," said Laura. "It tells people who you are."
"It's not just the clothes. It's what our clothing stands for," Wu agreed. "My clothing stands for equality. Gender equality. Being empowered as an individual, no matter how you identify."
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