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A New Fashion Frontier: Designing Suits For Women

Susy Guerrero |
April 17, 2014 | 11:36 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Mary Going must have felt like Goldilocks; entering the men’s department, in search of a suit that would fit just right. Going, who is a lesbian, has favored masculine looks ever since childhood when she use to dress like a cowboy. In December 2012 at the age of 45, she decided to start Saint Harridan after being frustrated with bad customer service and ill fitted menswear. The company specializes in traditional suits that happen to fit women. She’s part of a niche community designing clothes directed towards butch lesbians.

Saint Harridan models show off their suits (Kickstarter.com)
Saint Harridan models show off their suits (Kickstarter.com)

Before Saint Harridan, Going was a nonprofit consultant in Oakland, Calif. She didn’t even think about starting the company until she went shopping for suits during her 2008 wedding. Daunted by the lack of options, Going finally decided to get one custom made, and she felt incredible.   

It took her a few years to begin the business because she wanted to start a family first and attend graduate school. While she was getting her MBA she decided to go full force with launching Saint Harridan. The company was ready for business last March.  

Even though the company is online based, Going works from an office inside a spacious warehouse in Oakland. It’s in a remote part of the city where life seems almost dormant, despite a few parked cars along the street. She greets me here and shows me to her workroom. Her eyes are bright blue and she has short, silvery hair. 

As Going walks into her office a row of dark, earthy toned suits decorate the interior. Unlike the cowboy getup she use to wear as a kid, these suits are high-end, running at $700 to $900 a piece. They’re classic in color and cut, and they embody the idea of looking sharp. Going sits in front of a large computer monitor and begins sorting through a plethora of emails and customer orders. 

What’s interesting about the location is that it’s caught between two train tracks where the one facing the office appears unused, while a few yards behind is the Fruitvale Bart Station. It was there that a young Black man was shot and killed unjustly by a Bart police officer in the early morning of Jan.1, 2009. 

Going isn’t new to the feeling of discrimination herself. Many garment factories refused to work with her because they were either sexist or homophobic. She found the whole thing traumatic. 

“Women and men have separate clothing, that’s just the way it is. I encountered resistance from a pattern maker telling me I had to start with a woman’s pattern. A factory in Chicago didn’t want to work with me to change the suit so that it could accommodate breasts. I called several of them that were like that.”

Eventually, she found a factory that agreed to reengineer the traditional suit, but her problems were far from over. Now, she has to worry about being placed on the back burner as bigger clothing companies, like J. Crew, are favored and have their needs satisfied first. Fulfilling customer orders has been challenging since Saint Harridan is still a small fish in the market. 

“Somebody called earlier asking about their suit. I had told them it was going to be here in October. Now it’s almost a year since they placed the order. I’m just struggling against promising people stuff.”

Cash has also become elusive. Going explains she’s at a point where she needs to make money in order to move to the next level. Marialexandra Garcia, designer and co-founder of Fourteen, agrees and says that her company also doesn’t serve cash revenues like larger corporations. The company is based in Miami, Fla. but since Garcia’s company doesn’t have a permanent location, customers can check out their merchandise on Fourteen’s website. 

Garcia designs wedding or special occasion attire for lesbians and the trans community. She argues there’s a dire need to have more companies like hers since women who are very masculine or androgynous don’t want to look feminine, but have few options.  

Karen Roberts, 50, couldn’t agree more. At the age of 19, she knew she was a butch lesbian but struggled to find places to shop. She use to go to the men’s sections of Macy’s and H&M, but realized at the end of the day she had nothing to wear. Roberts describes herself as a confident, capable, butch with a swagger of tough and tender, and was frustrated that her wardrobe didn’t express her personality. So in 2012, she started HAUTEBUTCH and is the CEO and designer of the company.

“A few clothing lines or companies focus towards this community. Butch, stud and tomboy women don’t want to be men. Instead, many of them embrace the idea of moving between genders and need a clothing line that celebrates this,” says Roberts.

HAUTEBUTCH is based in Santa Rosa, Calif., but like Garcia and Going, her company only has an online presence. Roberts’ designs are in many ways more relaxing than the previous entrepreneurs since her clothes can be worn beyond special occasions. Even though she offers dress shirts and bow ties, the company also has T-shirts that proudly display the brand name and other logos like “Dykes Love Bikes” and “In my Truth.” Muscularly androgynous models appear wearing HAUTEBUTCH throughout the site, with expressions that make you wonder if they’re all thinking, “I’m butch and I’m proud.” 

Roberts is determined to have her clothes and shoes at typical boutiques and stores, but she’s struggling to raise money with mainstream investors and having her merchandise distributed. 

With DOMA struck down last summer and the ever-increasing attention the LGBT community has been getting in the past few years, Roberts believes it important now more than ever to have HAUTEBUTCH seen. She argues that lesbian wear has basically been untapped in fashion, which is why she keeps pushing large retail stores to have her merchandise sold. 

“We’ve grown impatient and frustrated with having to conform in any fashion…pun intended.”

If there ever were an era where the masculine look really took off, it’d have to be during World War I. Women who worked in factory positions traded their long skirts and dresses for trousers and overalls. They had to, in order to work the rigorous jobs available. But the trend was restricted within the vicinity of the factory; however, because women were discouraged from wearing pants at home or in the public eye. 

Still, around that same time Gabriel Coco Chanel introduced the first women’s sport clothing line in France, which was largely influenced from men’s fashion. Since many of her male acquaintances were athletic, high society horsemen and polo players, it was easy to draw inspiration from their clothes. In fact, she worked with men’s fabric, sometimes owned by her lovers, to create relaxed but sleek clothes for women.

“She actually wore her boyfriend’s suits quite often, and that became a major influence,” said Cynthia Harvey, career advisor and instructor at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) in Los Angeles. 

Chanel rejected social norms and decided to go into the masculine realm of fashion since she felt their clothes were more comfortable. She didn’t like how restricting womenswear was. The talented French designer was able to do what no other designer had done in the past; she ultimately catapulted men’s style onto the public stage. 

In the 30s and 40s, Katherine Hepburn also pushed the boundaries by wearing androgynous looks. She hated skirts and preferred to wear khakis and open-collar shirts before it was fashionable to do so. Like Chanel, comfort was critical for Hepburn and she once famously said, “Anytime I hear a man say he prefers a woman in a skirt, I say, ‘Try one. Try a skirt.’”

YSLs controversial 1967 "le smoking" tuxedo suit (dejavuteam.com)
YSLs controversial 1967 "le smoking" tuxedo suit (dejavuteam.com)

A few years later, Yves Saint Laurent took menswear and encouraged the look for women, and by 1967 he presented his controversial tuxedo suit “le smoking”. Saint Laurent thought that a liberated woman was even more feminine when she chose to wear masculine clothes. 

There’s certainly a tone of femininity when looking back at a 1960s image of a model wearing his “le smoking” ensemble. She wears a shadowy, striped suit with a polka dot tie; black pumps and a white fedora over pulled back hair. The woman has taken a puff of smoke from her cigarette while grabbing her vest with her left hand. She seems empowered by the way she sticks out her chin and boldly concentrates on the observer.

Harvey says that Saint Laurent was the first to influence women to wear jumpsuits in the workplace on a large scale. An affinity for masculine style progressed well into the 60s and 70s as unisex styling continued, which opened the door for the androgynous movement in the 80s and 90s. 

Quickly it became an androgynous world, more receptive to knocking down sexual barriers by changing them. 

In Nick Santa-Donato’s article, “Sartorial Ambiguity in a Gendered World,” he explains that the fashion industry thought they would create shock value with androgynous looks; however, what they did was transform society’s perception of clothing. 

“The movement really pushed the envelope in fashion so that it was acceptable for women to cut their hair short and not wear makeup. They wore really structured suits and slacks that resembled menswear,” said Harvey. 

Today menswear inspired clothes are ever more so celebrated as more companies like Fourteen, HAUTEBUTCH and Saint Harridan are surfacing.  

Going, Garcia and Roberts have plans of opening a flagship store in the future but it all depends on finances and the market. Roberts says she’s still trying to determine if the market has a greater need for lesbian wear before she makes plans to find a location. 

Going on the other hand has pondered about opening a store in San Francisco, New York or Chicago. But Going thinks that having a flagship store is something she’d like to test first in a smaller town before making the leap to a recognizable metropolitan. Surprisingly, Los Angeles was not on her list since she believes it isn’t very butch. 

Going may never have a permanent location in L.A., but its certainly one of the several cities listed in Saint Harridan’s pop-up shop tour. This year, Saint Harridan will make its way to 12 cities across the country with L.A. being the last stop in December 2014.

Roberts has also put herself out there. She’s had an impressive amount of attention placed on HAUTEBUTCH since she launched the company last year. Its been mentioned in a few blogs and also in an article, alongside Saint Harridan, in the New York Times. She’s also participated in a few fashion shows. HAUTEBUTCH had its debut at the Eden Pride Fashion Show in San Francisco in 2012. 

Last February, she was in another show called, ButchLYFE: All Stud Fashion Show. In one image, a HAUTEBUTCH androgynous black model wears an ivory jacket with large black buttons, matching pants and a thin black tie. She’s not wearing a shirt under the jacket, but her look is completed with a neon green belt.  

Of the three designers, it seems that Going has been getting the most buzz. If you take a look at Saint Harridan’s website, you’ll come across a section in the “About” tab titled, “Who’s Talking About Saint Harridan? Everybody!” A list of press coverage follows, where the likes of NPR, the New York Times and Buzz Feed are mentioned.

She certainly expects everyone will be talking about Saint Harridan in the next couple of months since Lea Delaria, who plays Big Boo on Orange is the New Black, will model suits for the company. 

“It’s really exciting. It was scary for me to contact a celebrity and say, ‘Hey, do you want to model for us?’ But she said yes because she recognizes the importance of what we’re doing, and she’s always having trouble finding suits just the same way I am,” says Going.  

Just a few days ago a video was posted on the Saint Harridan blog of Delaria wearing one of Going’s classic black suit and a bow tie. In a matter of seconds -- 28 to be exact-- Delaria gives her account of why she loves the company and how great she feels in her new tux. 

Going confesses that she’s also thrilled to have Delaria on board to fulfill another personal mission, to challenge the idea of what it means to be “sexy.” She explains that Delaria pushes these boundaries due to her age, size and gender representation. She’s eager to see people’s reactions once the photos are released. 

As she ponders over her the whirlwind of complications she’s dealt with over the last couple of months, she seems confident about the future of her company.  

“This is definitely a baby, baby, baby industry. Its not like there’s a lot of people around the world doing it, but if anyone has a chance to make it happen, we do.” 

Reach Contributor Susy Guerrero by email here, follow her on Twitter.



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