This piece was inspired by Suited, the HBO documentary produced by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, premiering Monday, June 20. The film follows a range of clients of the custom suit shop Bindle & Keep, which looks beyond the gender binary.
Daniel Friedman is just as surprised as I am that he gets labeled a "queer tailor." He might be as comfortable discussing chest binding and top surgery as lapels and lining, but he isn't queer. He's earned that part of his title with luck, and a lot of hard work.
When we met for the first time, he was fitting a wedding suit for my beloved, show tune-crooning wife. It was without a doubt the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen her wear: a double-weight indigo blue linen number, cut with loving precision. For someone who typically wears ACT UP t-shirts and torn jeans, it was a radical aesthetic transformation to self-defined adult and self-described strong butch lady.
As she stood in front of the mirror, we got to talking with Daniel about queer culture. When we discovered he hadn't heard of Leslie Feinberg or Alison Bechdel, Jenna and I tried to keep our teasing to a minimum and sent him off to read Stone Butch Blues and Fun Home immediately. But as we left the shop I wasn't thinking about the gaps in his education. I was thinking about the suit, and how happy Jenna looked in it.
Fifteen years ago, I was a young femme dyke living in a world of fierce specificity. It was a tiny kingdom that fit within the boundaries of the Mission District in San Francisco, but it was plenty of room for a wild menagerie of queers. We chose our clothes deliberately. They were our passports, our signifiers, and our secret handshakes. For the butch women and transmen I chased around town and sometimes had the great luck of sleeping with, clothes were especially critical. If I wanted to, I could squeeze into an Ann Taylor skirt suit to pass as a secretary, then swap it out at six for platforms and leopard print. But clothing was more complicated for the masculine people around me. As a general rule they wore Carhartts, hoodies, work boots, and flannel (of course). And the idea of "drag" – either the professional or feather boa variety – carried a lot more weight. For the people I dated, putting on a dress would've been an unthinkable, humiliating subversion of identity, rather than a concession of convenience. And the alternative – a suit, a real, swaggering, check-me-out suit – was easier to imagine than put your hands on. Thrift store finds never quite fit, and if they did they looked like dated costumes. Add to that the rigid, alienating territory of mainstream men's clothing stores, and where could a dyke find clothes to be taken seriously in? In those days, there was no such thing as a tailor for butches.
In those days, there was no such thing as a tailor for butches.
Daniel Friedman walked straight into this yawning gap in the marketplace. But he didn't do it deliberately. After years in academia and the beginning of a career in architecture, he got sick –
really, really sick. Worse than the headaches and confusion, he found his cognitive skills were starting to decline. He couldn't think or write clearly, and he couldn't remember anything he'd read. After six years of frustrating, dismissive non-answers from dozens of doctors, Daniel finally got a diagnosis: lead poisoning.
He remembers the early months of his illness vividly. "My brain turned off. I have GChats from that time saying to friends, 'I can't read, I can't think, something's wrong.' I had gone to great schools to prove to myself that I wasn't an idiot. My academic work was my crutch, and I lost it. I had no money, and ten years of training was useless. I was living off of a girlfriend. I had no pride. I was 31 years old, and I said, wow, this is not what I expected."
Forced to find another way to make a living, Daniel experimented with interior design and house painting for a couple of years before working his way around to the idea of tailoring. In 2011 he convinced a friend to help with funding, and Bindle and Keep was officially launched.
Above all, he firmly believes in the transformative power of formalwear.
In its early days, Bindle and Keep was entirely contained within Daniel's beat-up 1986 Toyota pickup truck, which he deliberately parked a few blocks away from client fittings – it didn't quite mesh with the image he wanted to portray. He also invented a few of his first "employees" for the sake of appearances. "Sometimes I'd sign emails 'accounts' or 'client concierge,'" he remembers. "Of course it was all me! But I'd say, 'Sorry I can't give you this deal because Lee thinks I shouldn't.' To be fair, Lee was a real person – she's my ex-girlfriend – but she didn't work for the company."
A few dozen Gilt deals and hundreds of custom suits later, Daniel gained traction, and attention. Rae Tutera, who keeps tabs on queer masculine fashion on the blog The Handsome Butch, discovered his work after legendary drag performer Murray Hill sported Bindle and Keep onstage. Rae reached out in search of a job and eventually built a hefty network of queer clientele for the company, bolstered by word-of-mouth praise.
As someone with no particular connection to queer people, language, or culture, Daniel needed an on-the-job tutorial in etiquette and terminology. He learned to be careful with pronouns, use neutral language ("chest" instead of "breasts," for example), avoid assumptions at all costs, and always listen carefully.
Bindle and Keep's new specialty didn't take long to get noticed. Less than two years after it was founded, a story in the New York Times Style section announced that Daniel was making "Custom Suits to Make Transgender and Female Clients Feel Handsome." Today, about 90% of his clients identify as queer or trans.
Along with his new cultural fluency, Daniel's absence of an agenda serves him well. Ask him what he thinks is masculine, and he won't claim to have an answer. "I don't have a strong opinion about gender, so I didn't come to this with any expectation. I don't impose design. I ask, and I listen. And I don't think I have to understand what it's like to get kicked out of a fitting room to do this job well."
Ask him what he thinks is masculine, and he won't claim to have an answer.
I don't think I would have agreed with that statement ten or fifteen years ago. Back then, I was coming of age in an era still heavily influenced by lesbian separatists who created whole communities completely apart from men (queer or otherwise), and I took pride in finding the dyke mechanic, bookseller, acupuncturist, or hairdresser, wherever I lived. These days, my perspective has shifted. Without diminishing the power of a separatist economy or the importance of queer entrepreneurs (I never forget to visit Womencrafts when I'm in Provincetown – and neither should you), I do see Daniel's point. At a moment when so many queer people are gaining visibility and shedding the self-preserving instincts that created closed communities, it doesn't seem weird that a straight, cisgender man made my wife's wedding suit. It's not even particularly surprising.
It might seem like Bindle & Keep's origin story is a simple, cause-and-effect narrative. But the truth is, Daniel's ability to connect with his clients comes at least in part from his own experience. The alienation and isolation he felt during his illness, the fact that he's estranged from his family of origin, and the uphill battle he fought to reinvent himself read like the story of an outsider. But he warns me against making easy comparisons.
"I can say, 'I've felt like an outsider for so long, and so have my clients,' but the truth is, I've just felt tremendous pain and not understood why. I spent years wishing that a doctor would listen to me before I got my diagnosis."
At this point, so much of his life has been defined by wild left turns that he's become an expert at letting go of expectations. This comfort with ambiguity gives him common ground to stand on with his clients.
Most of the time, a conversation with Daniel about Bindle and Keep isn't about clothes. It's about how happy he is to make his clients feel comfortable, handsome, and visible in the world at large. The spring in their step is obvious to everyone around them, too – one client's father sent Daniel a bottle of Johnnie Walker with a note saying that "the first time that my daughter felt like she was dressed right" was in her Bindle & Keep suit.
Thinking back to my 20's, I remember the wide lapels of those costume-y vintage suits fondly. They were sexy, hilarious, and powerful in their own way. Still, everyone deserves to stand in front of the mirror and feel like their reflection is right. Sometimes you need the perfect suit to help you do that.
Kira Garcia is a writer living in Brooklyn.