Brooklyn, New York-based company Bindle and Keep boldly embodies the belief that "Fashion has no gender." This is apparent in the new HBO documentary Suited, premiering Monday, which gives audiences an in-depth look in multiple ways.
On the micro level, it's an examination of an LGBTQ-friendly bespoke custom suit business. On the macro level, it's a look at gender-bending, trans and queer people comfortably wearing what best fits them. On both levels, one message is clear: The focus is on people and stories, not labels or genders.
Bindle and Keep is the brainchild of Daniel Friedman and Rae Tutera — or, rather, the current queer-positive and trans-friendly philosophy that so defines the company is the product of their collaboration.
While much of the positive discourse surrounding queer and trans people depends on finding ways of loving oneself and feeling comfortable in one's own skin, Tutera admits in a phone interview that clothing, something that can be seen by many as mundane or superficial even, is very powerful.
At a time when trans rights are at the forefront of a national conversation, Jason Benjamin's film takes Bindle and Keep as a springboard to tell the story of six customers. This includes Derek, a trans man from Pennsylvania who's hoping to find a suit for his upcoming nuptials to his girlfriend and Michael, a 12-year-old who's happily convinced his family to throw him a Bar Mitzvah (and not a Bat Mitzvah "because I don't want to become a woman").
"The reason we do what we do is because it's really powerful for people for people to make eye contact with themselves," Tutera said. "But it's also really very powerful to be seen. And to be comfortable being seen."
It's a radical approach, if only because it tackles critical issues that many cis people may never confront in their lives but which are so central to the way those struggling with their own gender identity, or those wishing to break down gendered labels live with every day.
For trans folks in particular, going to a retail store can be a fraught experience, particularly frustrating for those looking for clothes that fit their bodies but which are designed with rigid gendered ideas in mind. When it comes to suits, for example, womenswear accentuates breasts and hips, two things people like Tutera (self-described in a 2013 New York Times article as navigating "a very tiny space that exists between being a butch dyke and being a trans man"), wish to avoid. Yet purchasing a men's suit comes with its own pitfalls.
It was with these needless obstacles in mind that Tutera approached Friedman. "I had no experience measuring people for clothes," they admit. "My only experience beforehand was being measured for someone who I had to continually contextualize myself for and make myself legible to."
This is what Tutera's brought to Bindle and Keep, and what now is so central to the way Friedman tackles his work with would-be customers: empathy. By creating a safe and inviting space for those who may cross, transgress, or blur sexual labels and gender identities, Friedman and Tutera are able to better understand how each of their customers see themselves. As Friedman puts it, it takes "listening to how people explain their vision of what's in their mind's eye and how they want to see themselves" and responding in turn.
The most emotional moments in the documentary come courtesy of the frank discussions that greet those initial fittings in the Bindle and Keep offices in Brooklyn. When Derek implores Friedman and Tutera to craft him a suit that allows him to pass — he wants no one to be able to single him out as trans in a crowd — you can feel his desire to be seen as who he is rather than who he was.
But just as the film highlights the way clothing can be a way to adhere to easily legible gender norms, it also shows us people like Grace, Lena Dunham's genderqueer sister, who heads to Bindle and Keep to ask for a suit that speaks to her androgynous look. As Dunham, who's a producer on the doc, described her at the Sundance Film Festival, Grace is "a gender nonconforming person born in a woman's body with a radical attitude about what life can be," something which comes through in her interactions with Friedman and Tutera in the doc.
In one of the film's funniest moments, she admits that she gets a thrill when what she's wearing leads gay men to hit on her and that, while she admires the breasts she got (she'd love them on anyone else), she's all too happy to bind them to more comfortably project herself to the world in her own terms.
These candid conversations, and the teary-eyed, joyful moments that arrive when a suit fits just perfectly, are what make Suited such a powerful document of and for the trans community. These scenes, which also include touching moments at the hospital between Derek and his mother and his bride-to-be ahead of his hysterectomy, bring up very serious issues about allowing cameras into the lives of those who come through Bindle and Keep. Having nurtured such a safe environment for people sharing a lot of private and intimate information about themselves, the question of how and whether having a camera would impinge on that was a concern that Tutera admits was constantly in the minds of those at the company and those involved in the film's production.
Toward the end of their interview call, Tutera turns quiet. They're unable, they admit, to enjoy the run-up to Suited's premiere, or the otherwise encouraging impact it's already amassing in positive press and advance buzz. Orlando, Florida, they note, weighs on them still. They don't mention him by name, but Everett Arthur, a law student at Emory, a customer who's featured in the film, is an Orlando native.
In the film, Everett openly addresses his struggles growing up and the discriminatory practices he's experienced as a trans black man in the South. It's him you can see in the trailer for the film breaking down after trying on his new suit, confessing that he'd never liked what he'd seen in the mirror. Even as he's admitted that "no one should have to go to a bespoke tailor to finally feel like themselves," watching his and everyone's else stories in Suited will hopefully lead to more support for his trans and gender nonconforming siblings.
Seen now through the eyes of the Pulse tragedy, the calls for self-love that make up the work at Bindle and Keep and which are at the heart of Suited feel all the more urgent. As we call for more visibility and for more strength, the work Friedman and Tutera do, offering not just affordable bespoke suits but carving out queer-positive spaces where you're encouraged to "dress braver than you feel" and are reminded that "you have the right to be handsome," is a beacon of empathy in a world that desperately needs it. What's on-screen is the result of a supportive network of people that values the importance of sharing these stories and, as Tutera notes, getting "people to know that there could be tender portraits of people like us in the world."