Transgender people might have the media’s attention now, but brands and retail workers are still embarrassingly unprepared to help all their customers find something that fits.
For lack of a better option, at least 1,298 people from the LGBTQ community have gotten customized suits at Bindle & Keep, where a bespoke suits starts at $795. Bindle & Keep is the most reputable and practiced of all bespoke suit operations serving anyone who wants unisex or masculine suits. Lena Dunham’s production company is currently filming a documentary about them called Three Suits for HBO. The LGBTQ community makes up 60% of their clientele, and the company is remarkable in their devotion to addressing this diverse customer base. If some labels are starting to offer gender neutral clothes, Bindle & Keep promises the dream: a suit tailor-made to all your specifications by people who listen to you.
The very existence of this place is unique. Kipper Clothiers in San Francisco and Saint Harridan in Oakland also strive to offer similar silhouettes, but the market doesn’t have enough operations like them.
When a suit doesn’t fit, it can trigger gender identity demons to attack the nerve center. A jacket can take a hundred wrong turns that make the difference between feeling natural and feeling stifled. Too much skirting here or overemphasized hips there, and the wrong cut can be dangerously threatening to a person’s sense of self. Bindle & Keep’s studio in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn is a place where people laugh off nervousness about how they think they look while they get their crotches measured.
One customer might pay Bindle & Keep for a masculine suit without darting or pleating because they have a bust. If a client asks, the clothiers will remove a button to make them feel flatter in the chest. For straighter hips, they’ll create a jacket that’s nipped tighter and closer to the waist, or higher armholes so it feels trimmer. They’ve done suits cut with almost all the features of a masculine suit except for a super feminine bust. Fittings happen at their studio or at the client’s house, and everything’s made at a factory in South Bangkok.
“It’s like a shield. If people want something a little bit more masculine and we put on something more feminine on them, then it’s a garb of vulnerability,” founding owner Daniel Friedman explains. “If they find a jacket that kind of fits, they’ll buy five because they’re afraid they’ll never find it again.”
At the studio, I watch customer Lindsey Melki stand warily in the mirror as Daniel measures her for her second Bindle & Keep suit. She needs a better fit this time. It’s for her wedding in July.
“I just want to do something different,” she told him. “The last one was too sharp and angular. I don’t want a women’s suit, but I just want it to be a little softer. I want it to be a little more in the middle because the last one was too far on the masculine side…”
But Daniel cut her off to try stuff on. They finally decide to use his own jacket as the template.
His explanation is considerably simpler than hers. “She said she wanted something more feminine. It’s not even about that. She just wanted it tighter,” Daniel says later.
He convinces Lindsey to stay away from the wrong collar and to get a pocket on her pants to avoid the “Lululemon butt.” “Without the pocket, it’s basically saying, look at it,” he joked.
Lindsey’s mother, enjoying her role, raises her eyebrows with fake concern and tells Daniel he’s a piglet and that he needs to stop hitting on her daughter. “She’s not married yet,” he jokes.
“I’m just excited not to be thrown out of the store,” Lindsey’s friend, Teak Wilson, tells Daniel. She laughingly remembered an awkward experience at Banana Republic. “Oooooh I’m just suddenly really busy over here,” she says, doing an impression of the salesperson.
Teak is an FBI agent who will participate in Lindsey’s wedding ceremony as her “best person.” Teak and Lindsey became friends at West Point. They were in the army together. Thanks to the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in 2011, Teak and Lindsey are able to talk to me. “It’s nice that it’s not illegal to be who you are,” Teak tells me.
Draping the measuring tape over Teak’s shoulder to get the apex of her bust, Daniel tells her to relax her stomach so her jacket will fit comfortably. “We can’t have the football shoulder gangbanger look,” he warns.
Later Teak settles on a deep blue pinstripe as she thumbs through a book of fabric swatches. Daniel tells her, “It’s going to look solid and then when you walk up to them introduce new layers of depth.”
What’s striking about all the talk over the leather volumes of textiles is that so much of this business just boils down to “how does this look,” which is the job of any tailor or custom clothier. But according to Daniel, how people look seems to exist so much more in the mind of the client, all of which makes a custom suit a dicey endeavor.
“How people feel in reality is a very different thing. They say, I have big hips, and I want a high waist, but they don’t have big hips or they’re so concerned about their bust and it’s overwhelming them, and it’s not a big bust, but how they feel is reality. That’s what we’re working with,” he explains.
When I ask why he thinks Lena Dunham is particularly suited to do the documentary on his company, he says, “I think she knows what it is to struggle.” The place scored buzz from enormously influential people like Laverne Cox. Laverne, who Daniel describes as a giant at least six feet tall, comes to them for women’s suits, and they just supplied the clothes for the pilot of her new show, Doubt.
“She can get whatever she wants from CBS. Money is no object. A lot of companies just don’t have that understanding,” he brags. “She’s cool. What I liked about her is she’s not aloof. We’ve done a lot of work for a lot of celebrities. I think it’s because of where she’s been that it makes her a little more focused on people’s eyes and how people are taking you in.”
Another client is the Orange Is the New Black producer, Neir Tannembaum, who told Daniel she was anxious about what to wear to the Oscars and the GLAAD awards. “She’s this big producer who’s so successful in her field, but she has to say ‘what am I going to wear to these events?’ When you put her in something amazing, all that noise… it’s quiet,” he says.
When Daniel started the company, they were selling men’s suits to Wall Street dudes. But that changed when Rae Tutera, who is now a clothier at Bindle & Keep, approached the company for an apprenticeship when [Rae] noticed that they made a suit for the drag king performer Murray Hill.
Rae wanted to learn how to make suits for people with queer bodies or queer identities so Rae and Daniel came together on the basis of a trade. “I tell him he’s my suit mentor and I’ve been his gender mentor, It’s a really weird exchange, but it’s been very beautiful, and I would say, equal,” Rae says.
Had Rae or Murray found a home at another custom suit company, Laverne Cox might have followed them. Before Rae, it hadn’t occurred to Daniel to make an androgynous or unisex suit for a woman. “It wasn’t even in my cosmology. It wasn’t the tiniest thought,” Daniel says. But once Rae was blogging about the apprenticeship on the blog, Handsome Butch, the company was invited to dress transgender women.
Now, Rae has a distant calm when talking about traumatic shopping experiences.
“I was doing an impression of a brave version of myself that didn’t exist,” Rae says. “My tailor kept telling me I was beautiful because he didn’t really understand.”
But shopping with offensive salespeople was humiliating.
“I was scared out of my wits. I strolled into a store playing it cool looking for tuxes that might be my size, and they said, ‘oh we might have boys tux that would fit you,’ and I was 25 years old. I’m not a tenth grade boy. I had to remove myself.”
Rae remembered dressing a Bindle & Keep client whose chest was still tender from top surgery. Having also been through the same post-op pain, Rae could relate.
“During his first fitting, I learned he was a gay woman who was married to a guy. He had this whole ride-around with his identity through his 20s and early 30s,” Rae says. “Now he had landed and the suit was part of that for him.”
As for Daniel, he didn’t know what he was doing when he started.
“We made a lot of mistakes in the beginning, There’s a way to do it,” Daniel says. “There’s a reason why companies back away from doing this.”
But he would never turn away the new market that came with Rae.
“It was like, now you make unisex suits. Do I know how? No, but it’s fake it till you make it. I just said O.K.,” he says.
Rae is currently the only employee from the LGBTQ community at the small company. They’re in the process of hiring two more. Addressing his critics who think the fact that the owner is straight is a strike against the company, Daniel said this:
“We’re more progressive. We’re done with the pigeonholing and saying ‘O.K. I’m gay so I must go to a gay vendor or gay venue.’ We are a model for stores and companies all across the country, that you can be open to new markets, and be receptive.”
He doesn’t even have a political agenda. He’s simply one of the few people trying to provide the customer service that everyone deserves. “I still don’t think these are my people, Daniel says. “They’re just humans. All we’re doing is putting a smile on people’s faces. If they’re trans or if they’re men or women, it’s just people.”
Daniel started Bindle & Keep at a desperate time. He had grown up wealthy and studied architecture at Columbia and UPenn. Then, at 28 years old, when he was in the middle of reading Infinite Jest at graduate school, he lost his ability to read almost instantly. He spent more than $60,000 on doctors to find out why he suddenly couldn’t read, but they couldn’t help him. To them, he looked fine, but he couldn’t read.
And so, buried in debt and student loans, Daniel was living on 99 cent pizzas. He devoted his days to seeing every doctor he could all across the country, but everyone thought it was psychiatric help he needed.
“I went into deep depression. I became self-obsessed with this issue. I didn’t know who I was. I couldn’t escape my brain,” he says. “On the inside, what I go through is pretty perverse, harboring this huge secret that I’m insanely stupid and no one knows.”
The battle seemed endless, and he finally decided to end it all in the snowy mountains near Colorado. He bought maps, packed camping supplies, and he figured out where he was going to get rid of his car.
As he was driving through Indiana to the mountains, a doctor called. “We’ve been looking at your brain scans, and I think we can help you,” the doctor said. Daniel turned his car around. In the end, the doctor couldn’t do anything for Daniel, but getting that call gave him the hope he ached for. The doctor had no clue what he did, but picking up the phone was the easiest way he ever saved a life.
Daniel still didn’t have an accurate diagnosis when he started Bindle & Keep to pay rent. But five months ago, he mentioned his symptoms to a client who then told him it sounded like he had Lyme disease. The client was right.
Now Daniel takes ridiculously expensive medication the color of mustard every day. He has an uphill climb ahead of him, but he finally knows why he’s sick. He thinks his pain makes him exquisitely sensitive to what his clients are dealing with.
“I can feel when people are scared about their bodies. It’s everything,” he says.
Unfortunately, the fantasy of the freedom, the recognition, and the weightlessness that the right suit will buy you reveals itself to be just that: a fantasy.
“The wondrous transformation doesn’t happen,” he says. “They think the suit is going to alter their life and it doesn’t. The reason why is because they’re still them. You may have put some part of anxiety away, but you’re still going to see yourself the way you’re going to see yourself. You’re still going to beat yourself up the same way. It’s just a suit.”
He admitted dressing satisfied clients doesn’t bring him the same happiness it does for Rae and his fellow employees. Because of his disease, he’s still in pain.
Funny enough, Daniel and Lindsey couldn’t stop laughing and smiling the closer they got to the perfect fit.
“After living with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell for so long, I know I am super sensitive to a lot of things regarding my gender, sexuality, and relationship with my fiancée, Julie,” Lindsey says. “It’s rare I feel completely comfortable and feel that I am being treated like an equal when it comes to these things. Although the logistics with Bindle & Keep are sometimes still tricky, I always feel equal. As long as this never changes, I will always keep coming back.”