Karen Roberts, founder of the menswear line HauteButch, never felt comfortable in her clothing. From the moment she got dressed in the morning, anxiety about her appearance would linger in her mind. She constantly had to roll up her oversized jacket sleeves and hide the boxy shoulders of the button-ups she wore underneath.
Before creating her company in 2012, Roberts was shopping in the men's department, where she could find pieces with masculine detailing that went with her "butch" style. But the disproportionate garments, which are designed for male bodies, left her feeling frustrated and self-conscious.
"I was a full-time realtor working for investors and it put me in corporate settings, where I really felt uncomfortable in my own attire. I just started fantasizing about HauteButch and searching Google to see if other people were having the same issues and frustrations as I was, and sure enough they were," said Roberts.
Now for the past two years, she has been designing clothing for individuals who want to depart from frilly and feminine clothing, by creating "handsome fashion" that fits different body types. Her company caters to a community of butch and androgynous women, as well as trans men. With the success of a recent Kickstarter campaign, Roberts is hoping to continue to empower customers through HauteButch by bridging the gap between identity and style.
"People feel invisible and like they don't matter. Our community is underrepresented and underserved in that way," said Roberts. But with the advent of new lines like HauteButch, Roberts beleives that her customers are starting to feel "more like themselves and more visible."
According to Lillian Faderman, a scholar on lesbian history who first came out in 1956, the term butch was first used to describe masculine little boys before being applied to the lesbian subculture and eventually a style of dress in the 1950s.
"In the early 20th century, when women first started to work in business, they often wore styles that emulated men. Later in the 20th century, middle-class women who saw themselves as butch would often disguise their sexual identity when they went to work," said Faderman. "I would hang around the working-class bars and it was almost a uniform. Butch women would wear chinos, fly-front pants, and a T-shirt underneath a button-down shirt and very often penny loafers."
A week or so after speaking with Robert, I met with Daniel Friedman, the founder of Bindle and Keep, a custom suit shop in Brooklyn, who made a life-changing decision to start catering to women's and trans bodies.
Daniel was unaware of this previously ignored market until 2011, when he was contacted by Rachel Tutera, a self-described feminist and gentleman who runs a blog called the Handsome Butch, about a position with the company. She soon suggested that Friedman create suits tailored for women and trans men, but with the same masculine detailing.
What Friedman did was tap into a community consisting of 700,000 transgender and 8 million lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals he didn't even know existed. Now, the LGBTQ community makes up 85 percent of his business.
"There is such anxiety attached to clothing," said Friedman, who has listened to hundreds of women's and trans men's stories. "If we can solve that, they can focus on other parts of their lives like everybody else. It shouldn't grab the kind of real estate it does in people's preoccupations."
Although Friedman admits to only knowing a few members of the LGBTQ community before Rachel came along, he said that his encounters with his new clients give his life meaning. As I sat across from him, he thumbed through his emails, reading me quotes from grateful customers.
"There are so many stories. A few months ago I put a suit on a woman who was around 55 years old. When I dropped off the suit it looked great on her, but I asked her if there was anything that was triggering or uncomfortable," Friedman said. "She was stone cold, and just wanted us out of there. About two weeks later, a courier service came to my apartment building with a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue Label and note [from her mother] that said, 'I have never seen my daughter look so good and feel like her aesthetic and identity is finally correct. I am just so happy I got to see this in my life.' She wanted us out because it was such an emotional experience for her."
Although the response has been overwhelmingly positive for HauteButch and Bindle and Keep (the latter even caught the eye of Lena Dunham, who is currently working on an HBO documentary about the tailor titled Three Suits), many of the business that have tried to break into "butch" clothing have simply failed. But with the help of crowdfunding and loyal customers these brands are hoping to expand to international retailers.
"We no longer talk in terms of lesbian and gay, or male and female. We talk about LGBTQ, it is a huge alphabet soup. I think we are really opening up to those possibilities. I think styles are opening up to those possibilities too," said Faderman. "It is an acceptance of the huge diversity that we know exists. If there is a significant enough market to make it economically interesting to stores, it will be there."
Last month, dapperQ, a website for masculine women and trans people, hosted its third and largest semi-annual fashion show for the unconventionally masculine at the Brooklyn Museum. The event showcased brands catered to androgynous dress like Angie Chuang and Sir New York, while Goorin Bros. and Jag & Co. showed how brands that don't specifically target the LGBTQ community can still serve that community.
As society begins to recognize the rights of LGBTQ individuals, Roberts and Freidman hope that one day the lines separating women's and men's fashion will be blurred and individuals can have access to the kind of fashion that can truly change their lives.
"There are 10,000 clothing companies in the male and female spectrum, there has to be a couple that are willing to cross that boundary. We aren't talking about a radicalizing gender or sexuality," said Freidman. "Clothing companies should be about people expressing their own feelings."
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