Stylist: Sarah Zendejas
Most young designers are desperate to turn a profit, but Gogo Graham has the opposite concern: "I just want to give these clothes away," she said on a Sunday morning in the kitchen of her railroad apartment in Bushwick. The clothes in question were in the adjoining room – Graham's studio, which also doubles as her bedroom – and would show in less than two weeks' time at her second showing at New York Fashion Week.
A 25-year-old designer originally from Pearland, Texas, Graham makes custom clothing exclusively for trans women. What's more, she gives them all away for free. Though she started out making more traditional womenswear, Graham refocused when she came out as trans herself. She was finding it difficult to shop for clothes that flattered features like broader shoulders, narrow hips and wider waists, and figured other trans women faced similar problems.
“I was making all this stuff that looked cool, but I was like, 'I can’t wear this, this doesn’t make any sense,'” Graham said. “That’s when I was like, I need to do this, because it’s really important and really hard for a lot of these girls to find stuff to wear.”
Her design process, then, is somewhat backwards: “I do the casting and then I make the clothes, because a lot of our bodies are so different that I can’t even start to make something until I know who I’m working with,” she said. After getting measurements from her models, a mix of friends and strangers that she usually connects with online, she takes notes on their style preferences, taking in particular account what features they might not want emphasized.
“While I’m making the clothes, I’ll send photos and say, ‘Is this your look?' A lot of times the response is, ‘I love it, it doesn’t really matter,’ but some girls are really picky – and that’s fine, and why I’m trying to do this: to make sure that everyone is happy,” she said.
Her aim, after all, is to create a sense of comfort and community for these women, something that's just starting to gain traction in both fashion and culture at large. The collection that showed the next Thursday at Artists Space, a gallery in TriBeCa, was against the backdrop of increased visibility and acceptance of trans people in the mainstream, thanks in part to the Amazon series Transparent and the actress Laverne Cox, of Orange is the New Black, who appeared on a cover story in Time headlined "The Transgender Tipping Point." Fashion, too, has been catching up. Two years ago, Barneys New York's cast 17 trans models to appear in a campaign shot by Bruce Weber, and Alessandro Michele cast the trans model Hari Nef to appear in his fall men's show, which purposefully blurred gender lines.
Graham herself had worked with Nef on one of her previous collections, but that was before she exclusively designing for trans women. “I don’t feel like that was me, or important to my identity or my craft, or even my brand in general,” she said.
That's not to say Graham's background is limited: She currently works at the luxury furrier Dennis Basso, and also managed production at a factory in Midtown that made gowns for the likes of Oscar de la Renta. Before that, she spent eight months with the costume designer Zaldy, managing onstage technicalities for performers like Nicki Minaj. (That came after a degree in Textiles and Apparel from the University of Texas, which she got after switching from pre-med to fashion, just one physics class shy from finishing a biology major.)
Still, she describes her first true collection as a "resort moment” that trans photographer Serena Jara captured on the beach just last year. It caught the attention of the artist residency program at the Flatiron’s trendy Ace Hotel, and they offered Graham a hotel room as a work space, which she politely turned down with a request to use their lobby as a runway. To her surprise, it was approved, and Graham had her first show there last season.
This time around, her 25-look fall collection is a mix of thrift store materials and high-quality scraps from her day job at Basso – some sheer and revealing, some thick and baggy, but all meant to address persistent issues for trans women. For inspiration, Graham points to instances like a night on the train when a man was taking her photo, and threatened her when she confronted him – the type of interaction she’s had “more than once, more than twice, more than three times – someone is feeling a certain way about the way I’m presenting, so they decide to act violently toward me,” she said.
"I definitely want to stress that that’s not everyone’s experience. A lot of this collection addresses the diversity of our experiences,” Graham added, noting that the soundtrack, composed by musician Eli Guterman, features voice-overs of some of the women describing their experiences transitioning. “But overall, it’s this feeling of how we’re in this place that’s not made for us,” Graham said.
The caveat, though, is that her clothes are almost impossible to reproduce. While Graham would love to help even more trans women, at this point, she doesn’t think mass production is likely if she is to continue making clothes for an underserved clientele – and to do so for free.
“Everything’s so early on that I don’t know what I’m going to do, but hopefully I can just keep making clothes for all these girls, because that’s really important to me,” Graham said. After some consideration, she added: "I don’t know if that’s really a viable business plan, to be honest."
But for now, and for the 24 women taking home pieces from this next collection, it'll work out just fine. Their appearances on Thursday moved more than a handful of audience members to tears – including Hari Nef, who noted the power of seeing something by and for trans women. The show ended with cheers, and after congratulating Graham, most headed to the midnight after-party in Bushwick.
As for Graham, she joined the festivities for a bit, but soon headed home: With an important meeting on the Upper East Side for her day job at 8:30 the next morning, it was back to business as usual.