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I love shopping at the best shops in NYC. From the moment I pick something off the rack, I can instantly envision myself wearing it. I can visualize the duds giving me the confidence to be outgoing, fearless—and, yeah, maybe a little flirtatious. But my dream scenario never plays out.
Truth is, I try on clothes that are way too small for my plus-size, Amazonian-woman frame because I’m in denial of my shape, and I end up feeling ashamed, like I’m not truly identifying with the person within.
This is a minor inconvenience that I—and many people I know—bear in comparison to the struggle Derek, Everett and Melissa (a few transgender subjects from HBO’s doc Suited, coproduced by Girls’ Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner) face when they’re in a fitting room. Their sartorial options are more limited than mine, but thanks to two Brooklyn bespoke tailors with a strong sense of style and an even stronger sense of compassion, the trans community has another fashion ally.
Daniel Friedman and Rae Tutera are the minds behind Bindle & Keep, a custom suiting company founded in 2011 that outfits all genders—especially folks in transformation. Friedman sums up Bindle & Keep’s ethos model in the Jason Benjamin–directed doc:
“No one emails us saying, ‘I need a fitting.’ They say, ‘This is my story.’”
Photograph: Courtesy HBO/JoJo Whilden
Apart from one sewing station and a bevy of fabric samples, there is very little evidence that you’re walking into a fitting when you first step into Friedman and Tutera’s small Greenpoint showroom. The business partners give a warm greeting, and before the tape measure comes out, the process starts with a conversation. “Every fitting is different,” Friedman tells me. “Some people want to talk about how clothing affects every part of them. And we’re going to help reshape their future.”
That’s exactly what Bindle & Keep has done for clients like Derek, a trans man searching for a masculine suit to wear on his wedding day, and Everett, a law school graduate searching for a job. “What’s really important is that they feel like it’s safe to be here and that they can ask specific questions like, ‘Will this be different if I get top surgery?’ That wasn’t a safe question to ask going into a department store,” says Friedman.
Transforming the shop into a safe haven for the LGBT community did not happen instantly. In fact, the brand catered mostly to straight Wall Street types until Tutera—who is transgender—asked straight-guy Friedman for an apprenticeship. One year ago, Tutera wrote a personal essay for the Huffington Post about their first custom suiting experience, “It was an imperfect garment, but it introduced me to my body,” says Tutera. “It took a year of self-reflection before I was like, ‘Wait a fucking second, I should be trying to do this for other people.’”
At first, the two had no idea what they were doing. “We put this awful suit on one of our first transgender clients who spent a lot of money. We remade it, of course, but it reinstilled this fear that it couldn’t be done,” says Friedman. Spoiler alert: They eventually got it right, which is how the brand garnered attention from director Benjamin—the boom operator for Girls—and the emotionally charged Suited, which chronicles the trans people who shop at B&K, was born.
Photograph: Courtesy HBO/JoJo Whilden
“When the film went to the Sundance Film Festival, everyone was getting a suit. [Benjamin] had his own mirror moment, where he was like, ‘Wait a minute. This isn’t just a gender spectrum. It’s how we feel about our bodies.’ I think it really touched him,” says Friedman. As Tutera puts it, “It is your birth right to be yourself,” so perhaps it’s not just about wearing what makes us feel secure, but dressing in a way that pays homage to who we are. Not a suit of armor, but a suit of honor.
Bindle & Keep, 313 Park Ave, Brooklyn (bindleandkeep.com). Suited airs on HBO Jun 20 at 9pm and re-airs on Thu 23 at 9:45am, 4pm; Sun 26, Tue 28 at 12:45am.