There are two threads to the Bindle & Keep origin story, and they both start with $1500.
Daniel Friedman used US$1500 to start a business. He’d been studying to be an architect when one morning he woke up completely unable to read or write. Doctors had no idea how to diagnose his strange condition – they thought it might be Lyme disease; eventually they figured out it was lead poisoning. A few years later he found himself struggling just to get by, couch surfing and without a career. He decided the best way to get out of this rut was to start a company so, in 2011, with a small loan from a friend, he opened a tailoring business, Bindle & Keep, doing fittings in clients’ homes and his living room.
Meanwhile, in 2010, Ray Tutera paid US$1500 for a custom suit. Ray, who identifies as transmasculine, struggled to find clothes that matched his gender identity, so he made an appointment with a bespoke tailor. It was quite an intimidating experience, surrounded by non-trans men, and Ray had to keep explaining his reasons for wanting a more masculine cut, with customers wandering in and out all the while. But putting on the suit was transformative – Ray suddenly felt more like Ray.
These two stories became stitched together in 2012 when Ray contacted Daniel looking for both a brand-new suit and an apprenticeship with Bindle & Keep – Ray had learnt that Daniel was making suits for Murray Hill, who is a prominent drag king, and wanted to join in on the work.
Going out to do fittings in people’s homes was borne of necessity – Daniel didn’t have the money for a shopfront or studio in Brooklyn. But he found that clients, especially women seeking an androgynous suit cut, would talk more openly about their body struggles and difficulties in finding clothing that fit well and made them feel good when they were in their own homes.
“It allowed them the privacy to talk about their bodies in a safe space,” says Daniel. “It was fortuitous. I was there for a different reason, but it offered a sense of safety and trust.”
He also did fittings in his own home.
“I was fitting people in my living room – and trust me, my living room was not sophisticated – and people would fly in from all over the country to get a custom suit,” he says. “That’s when I realised, this is more than a business, we’ve hit a vein. We’ve tapped into something very rich here; a market that’s unserved. And it’s not unserved in the sense that they can’t get the suit anywhere, it’s about the discussion and the conversation.”
While the initial Bindle & Keep client base was made up largely of typical Wall Street types, they were able to reach out to potential trans and queer customers through talking about it on Ray’s blog, The Handsome Butch.
“I was at the beginning of figuring out how to situate myself in my masculinity,” says Ray. “I felt a little isolated, both professionally and personally, so I started the Tumblr to keep myself company and to work out my process in public. I felt like I wanted to shoot up a flare, hoping that someone would find me.”
The legalisation of same-sex marriage in the US, and increasing visibility of the transgender community, gave the business momentum. Now trans, queer and gender-nonconforming customers make up the vast majority of Bindle & Keep’s client base. Many of the 1500 suits they make each year are for weddings, but people buy them for all kinds of important occasions. Clients fill out a form online before visiting the studio’s secret address for a completely private two-hour consultation in which they can talk freely about how they see themselves and how they wish to be seen, as well as to get measured and make fabric choices.
The suits are then produced at an ethical workshop in Thailand, and eight or nine weeks later clients return for a final fitting to ensure that the final product not only looks good, but also makes them feel good.
Everything is geared towards toning down or emphasising different gender signifiers in the tailoring, according to the clients’ needs – particularly around the shoulders, chest and waist.
“The internal questioning of, ‘Is this feminine? Is this masculine?’ tends to get a little quieter,” says Daniel, who can now only read words if he says them aloud, but it hasn’t prevented him from understanding the transformative power of a good suit.
“When I was homeless and had no job, I always wore a nice suit because it made me feel strong and brave and cool, like I could face the world,” he says. The experience helps him relate to
the issues faced by his clients.
“Even though I don’t know what it’s like to be part of the LGBTQ community, I know what it’s like to not feel totally at home in your body, or your head, or your environment. You don’t have to have a PhD in gender studies to make people feel good about their gender. It’s not rocket science, it’s very simple stuff. It’s just listening to what people say, not judging them, and responding to it.”
Word spread about Bindle & Keep’s compassionate business model, soon after attracting the attention of Lena Dunham’s production company. In 2016, a documentary about the company, Suited, was released on HBO. It follows the stories of some of the company’s clients, and their reasons for wanting a made-to-measure suit. Aidan, a transgender 12-year-old from Arizona, needs a suit for his upcoming bar mitzvah; transgender woman Jillian Weiss needs to look great in court, where she is arguing for transgender rights; and transgender law student Everett needs a new job interview outfit.
The scenes when each client sees themselves in their suit for the first time are emotional. The documentary was filmed over two years, a period Ray describes as being “terrifying”.
“We had just sort of hit our stride, and it felt like after all this time spent agonising over how to make the process as user-friendly for everyone as possible, then people started filming us doing it,” Ray says. “When you’re not in control over the project yourself, you’re going to go to sleep at night worried about what it will do to other people. I wanted the film to have a positive impact, I wanted it to be uplifting. Luckily, I had a really good therapist so all my sessions started to be [me talking] about my fears around the documentary.”
Daniel likes to describe the Bindle & Keep way as “capitalism at its best” – a marketplace in which everyone’s needs are met and everybody’s dollar counts. Now that Suited has hit screens they’re looking at partnering with organisations that support other marginalised groups, such as Syrian refugees, ex-prisoners and veterans with PTSD. It’s the company’s way of fighting back against the current political tide.
“We’re trying to show that being open and accepting of everyone is not just good for the country, but it’s good for the economy,” says Daniel.
Always at the centre of what they do is listening to people’s stories without any judgement. “What we’ve learnt through our work is that listening is an act of solidarity,” says Ray. “That’s the foundation of empathy, you just listen to everyone who crosses your path.”
“Society’s fantastic at making us feel very insecure in ourselves, so any little [thing] we can do to help bolster against that is amazing,” says Daniel. “I’m happy to be part of that fight!”