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  • Androgyny is in, menswear and womenswear are out
  • Androgyny is in, menswear and womenswear are out
    Sharpe Suiting (2015) ©
CASE STUDY

Sharpe Suiting: dressing people not genders

Menswear and womenswear is out; androgyny is in. Whether you’re L, G, B, T, Q or heteronormative, Sharpe Suiting tailors to bodies, not genders. As the brand blazes a trail, will others follow suit? Are we on the brink of a fashion revolution?

Location United States

Scope
For those who don’t identify according to traditional gender norms of ‘man’ or ‘woman’, the fashion industry’s stark dichotomy between menswear and womenswear can be problematic. Not only at an ideological level, but it can make shopping a bit of a nightmare too.

As we strive to grow out of limiting gender classification – with Facebook now offering 50 gender options –  is the fashion world lagging behind contemporary culture? As an industry priding itself on ‘self-expression’, is its adherence to binary gender norms starting to look old fashioned?

Sharpe Suiting is blazing a trail of terminology-free design, cut from cloth committed to superior tailoring, sharp styling, quality fabrics, finishes and fits. Overemphasising gender prescriptions for either garment or wearer is not on the brand’s agenda. Inclusion is its ethos, gender is in some sense irrelevant. Individual taste, and tailoring that flaunts individuality is instead paramount.

As one of the first clothing lines to tailor outside the boundaries of menswear and womenswear – and which does so with sufficient spunk to defy the shapelessness of ‘unisex’ – Sharpe Suiting identifies with the LGBTQ community. Sharpe is making a name for itself with its unique and sophisticated cuts – which are designed to complement both the physical figures and aesthetic ambitions of the genderqueer.

Is the fashion industry finally on its way to becoming more inclusive?

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Sharpe Suiting was founded in LA in 2012 by Leon Wu. At heart it’s a custom brand, tailoring suits for people, not genders. Born out of an LGBTQ community sick of restrictive fashion, the brand advocates inclusivity, explaining that “although our suits and dresswear are inspired by our community, we will gladly suit anyone who wants a high quality suit with a perfect fit.” [1] Consequently, Sharpe Suiting has had a lot of interest right across the gender spectrum. “We’ve had a lot of interest from outside the LGBTQ community”, says Wu; “they wanted suits and clothes that fit them, too, and they hadn’t found it any place else”. For those championing the cause of a more progressive fashion industry, this evidence of quality subordinating category is refreshing and exciting. [2]

In its first year of production Sharpe designed 100 custom suits. It used high quality fabrics, ranging from $900 to $1,400, and concentrated on offering a huge range of options. At every stage in the design process, customisation and commitment to the individual rule. “We have over 500 high quality super-110 or above suit fabrics”, Wu says, and these include Worsted weight yarn, tweed, flannel, wool, cashmere, silk blends, mohair and linen, and “over 500 dress shirt fabrics to choose from”.  After analysing 1000 measurements from the orders received in 2014, the brand is launching a ‘ready-to-wear’ line in addition to its tailoring service. The collection will be ready for April 2015, its e-commerce counterpart following in the summer to include dress shirts, suits and tuxedos orderable to your wardrobe.

These don’t come cheap, but they’re deliberately affordable, harnessing the trend away from disposable fashion and bargain-bingeing. Dress shirts cost around $100 while suits and tuxes come in at between $700 and $900.

The brand has an ethos of inclusivity The brand has an ethos of inclusivity
Sharpe Suiting (2015) ©

Context
Heteronormativity – traditional distinctions of gender restricted to ‘man’ and ‘woman’ – remains dominant. But it’s never been more questioned and challenged than now. The idea that gender exists as a spectrum is more accepted than ever and rapidly becoming the new normal.

But as Joanne Entwistle – lecturer at King’s College – argues, when most of us get dressed in the morning, regardless of where we may self-identify on the gender spectrum, the chances are most of us put on clothes that conform to the norms of ‘man’ and ‘woman’. [3] So for those that don’t identify as a ‘man’ or ‘woman’, the search for what to wear can be difficult.

The LGBTQ market may be a minority, but it’s still big. 6.8% of Americans over the age of 18 identify as gay, lesbian, or transgender – a proportion that equates to 15-16 million people. The buying power of this community was estimated at $743 billion in 2010. And they’re a fashion-focused demographic; 48% of members of the LGBTQ community keep up with the latest styles and trends, compared to 38% of their straight counterparts. What’s more, they’re right up there when it comes to potential brand loyalty. 66% of the LGBTQ community reported that they are likely to remain loyal to brands that are LGBTQ friendly, even if other companies offer lower prices. [4] Brands have started to make efforts to engage with this lucrative market as it has continued to gain momentum. Media support for gay marriage in particular has seen a direct effect on the way that traditional brands have sought to demonstrate they’re keeping with the times and embracing progressive attitudes. Tiffany & Co for example kicked off its latest campaign with an advert featuring a gay couple.

And although progress is being made, brands that align themselves with minorities are not always well-received. The 2014 Coca Cola Super Bowl commercial which featured numerous races singing ‘America the Beautiful’ was slammed as unpatriotic, a Cheerios commercial received flak for starring an interracial family, and in 2014 Honey Maid came under homophobic attack for an ad featuring a gay couple. "Saw Graham Cracker commercial where kids had 2 daddies. I'm shocked – but also angry – at how the homosexual spirit has gone mainstream," wrote one Twitter user, while on Facebook fans of the brand accused it of being ‘immoral’ and ‘turning its back on God’. [5]

We’ve had a lot of interest from outside the LGBTQ community. They wanted suits and clothes that fit them, too, and they hadn’t found it any place else

Leon Wu, founder of Sharpe Suiting

Whilst the high street has shied away from what lies beyond or between ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ clothing, the world of high fashion has long experimented with androgyny. From Katharine Hepburn’s ‘40s smoking jacket to Cara Delevingne starring in a DKNY 2015 menswear campaign, a longstanding tradition has fused traditionally masculine styling with an aspirational form of haute couture femininity. But inasmuch as the ‘tomboy’ and ‘boyfriend’ looks that have grown out of this tradition have always been targeted at ‘women dressing like men’, they have only reinforced the idea that there are two, heteronormatively determined categories only.

Queer and trans people have, perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, had a reputation for being resourceful, original and creative dressers known for modifying, customising and reappropriating items from within otherwise narrow parameters of classification. As lesbian film producer Karen Taylor explains, “All my tops are from H&M boys aged 14, and they fit me better than women’s. I buy men’s jeans. Women’s don’t fit me. My body shape doesn’t fit women’s clothing. I wear my jeans on my hips. It’s not something I’m consciously doing, it’s just me. I don’t feel right in ‘female’ clothes”. [6]

Having identified this problem – and gaping hole in the market – Sharpe Suiting has responded to offer not only a product but an ethos and a service designed to address the fact that shopping can be a very exclusionary experience for LGBTQ consumers. Clients schedule a consultation with no assumptions made about gender or identity. The purpose of the consultation is to get under the skin of the individual on their own terms – to understand how they identify and then from that position of understanding, tailor desired items to help express that sense of identity appropriately. Leon Wu explains, “We don’t judge anybody when they walk through the door, male or female. They can come in and look like they identify as butch, but only after we actually talk to them and get to know them do we start designing the suit.” [7]

Sharpe Suiting fits bodies not genders Sharpe Suiting fits bodies not genders
Sharpe Suiting (2015) ©

Insights and opportunities
Brands and business are starting to embrace the LGBTQ community more openly than ever before. Identities that hadn’t previously been given legitimate space are now finding greater room for expression. In addition to Facebook’s customisable gender options, Barneys has launched a campaign fronted by transgender models, Acne has launched a range of gender-neutral underwear and Selfridges is rolling out ‘A-gender’, a gender-neutral pop-up department that will include floorspace on three of its four floors.

“Androgyny is in right now”, Wu says, “which is great because the ‘straight’ fashion world is really taking a look at what gender-queer, androgynous designers can create. While we’re still considered a ‘niche’ market, I really don’t think it will stay that way. If menswear and womenswear are polar opposites on a fashion spectrum, queer fashion beholds everything in between and beyond.” [2]

The potential opportunities in this industry are limitless. Instead of a business built on exclusion, it would be amazing for fashion to evolve into a world built on what it should be about – an expression of self

Leon Wu, founder of Sharpe Suiting

Key to Sharpe Suiting’s success is its commitment to putting the consumer at the heart of the experience; it provides a warm, inclusive shopping space for those that feel out of place in highstreet stores. “You get stared at so often”, Karen Taylor says. “So having a shop that specifically targets us minorities is a different, relaxed shopping experience. It would be the same as going out in a gay bar – just a much more comfortable environment.” [5]

So is the queer fashion industry finally making a debut on the mainstream platform? It’s still early days, but “The potential opportunities in this industry are limitless. Instead of a business built on exclusion, it would be amazing for fashion to evolve into a world built on what it should be about – an expression of self” says Wu. [2] The cultural shift towards inclusivity will see more fashion brands adopt an understanding of gender as being constructed and fluid. And even though Marks and Spencer have noted a rise in women wearing men’s boxers, it may well be a while yet before the floors in mainstream shops are separated by anything other than ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’. [8]

Nathalie Attallah is a cultural researcher. Whilst studying Psychology and Anthropology she wrote her thesis on how minority groups appropriate social networking platform, Tumblr.

Related behaviour
Byegender: Men acting like women; women acting like men.

Sources
1. Sharpe Suiting - We Fit You
2. Interview with Leon Wu, founder of Sharpe Suiting (February 2015)
3. The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory, Joanne Entwisle (2000)
4. ‘The LGBT Population at Glance’, Harris Interactive (2010)
5. ‘Honey Maid Commercial Features Gay Couple, Single Father, Spurs Backlash’, The Hollywood Gossip (March 2014)
6. Interview with lesbian film producer Karen Taylor (February 2015)
7. ‘How One Custom Brand is Elevating Queer Fashion’, Fashionista (January 2015)
8. ‘Why Women are Buying Men’s Underwear’, The Guardian (October 2014)

 

Author
Nathalie Attallah