The first time a young man gets fitted for a tailor-made suit is a momentous occasion and a rite of passage. Custom suits are expensive, so they are usually ordered for some of life's most important occasions -- an interview, a new job, a wedding. It's an intimate process where dozens of measurements are taken to ensure the result is just right. And it's a ritual that has been largely reserved for straight biological males -- until recently.
In Los Angeles, a company started in 2012 is taking gender out of the equation. When a client schedules a consultation at Sharpe Suiting, no assumptions are made about gender or identity. "A big part of that consultation before getting down to the details is really getting to know that person and their identity," says founder and CEO Leon Wu. "We don’t judge anybody when they walk through the door, male or female. They can come in and look like they identify as butch, but only after we actually talk to them and get to know them do we start designing the suit."
This kind of approach was missing in Los Angeles and the LGBT community has been enthusiastically supportive, turning to Sharpe for wedding attire and even red-carpet looks. In its first year of production, funded mostly by Wu's savings, the company designed 100 custom suits for prices ranging from $900 to $1,400. And it wasn't until last summer that Wu decided to quit his job as a project manager and dedicate himself full time to the company.
After collecting and analyzing about 1,000 measurements collected from those first 100 suits, Wu realized that there were enough commonalities among the custom suits ordered by masculine-leaning/female-presenting clients to justify a ready-to-wear line. Not knowing whether or not there was a viable market for the collection, Wu launched a Kickstarter campaign in October 2014 for $60,000. A month later Sharpe had raised $69,387, with enough extra to allow the company to move to a larger location in L.A.'s downtown fashion district.
The first RTW collection of dress shirts ($90 to $100), and suits and tuxedos ($700 to $900) will be ready by April in store, with e-commerce following in the summer. But this is only the beginning for Sharpe. "I really feel that one of the primary goals of fashion is to make people feel confident about themselves and empower them," said Wu. "The queer fashion industry coming to market finally is a really great opportunity for myself and my peers. Our next goal is to prove to the rest of the world that this is a necessary market to pay attention to and to invest in."
I spoke to Wu about how he started in fashion, why he launched a Kickstarter campaign, and the joys and challenges of dressing androgynous bodies.
Why did you start Sharpe Suiting and where does your interest in fashion come from?
I think it started ever since I was age five, as a little girl, so to speak. People ask me how long I have been designing clothes and how long I have been doing fashion, and I think that's a very conceptual question. I’ve been designing clothes since I was the age of five when I was putting on my dad's clothes and raiding his closet. But I guess the recent inspiration for wanting to do this is that in the past two years we have seen this type of fashion come to light in this new market called queer fashion. My definition of queer fashion is if you were to see menswear and womenswear on a gender fashion spectrum, then queer fashion would comprise everything that's in between those polar opposites. And it could also be not necessarily defined by that spectrum, but anything that's outside of that spectrum. And in the past two years we’ve been seeing a lot of popularity with female body masculine menswear.
What kind of career and education background do you have?
A lot of my paid professional experience has been in the realm of IT or strategic project management. When I threw myself into Sharpe 100 percent, which was this past summer of 2014, I left my job at Warner Brothers.
It took some life coaching and some friends in the fashion startup world to convince me and say, 'Hey, you've got to do this, this is your thing, you can continue to do what you’re doing and do it well, but they need you at Sharpe.' So I decided to take the leap. This has been my passion, as I said, ever since I was five but also definitely in the past 10 years. I actually went to get an MBA not just because it was a good way to continue my education for my current professional paid track, but also as a way to get involved with the luxury retail club that was at NYU Stern. It was such a new club— I think was the second or third year when I was there — and it was also one of the reasons why I went to NYU. I had a fashion startup company that I was conceptualizing right before I got accepted to business school, and we were about to go into production at that time when I got accepted and I decided to put that on hold.
What happens in a typical consultation for a custom suit design?
Clients can either do a 30-minute drop-by or they can schedule a consultation. They usually book a consultation when they know for sure they are coming to get a suit. The 30-minute drop-by is to see what we are all about and to talk face-to-face and see the fabrics and designs we offer. Once they come in for a consultation, it can take anywhere from one to two hours because they get to pick out all of the various attributes of their suit, and we have a lot of different design attributes. It's one of the things that makes us unique as a tailoring company. They can pick contrast lapels, button holes, stitching, thread color -- everything.
Most of our clients are wedding clients and that's because they may be female body/masculine-presenting and they don’t feel comfortable going to get their custom wedding suits from a standard tailor because that person might not necessarily know or understand who they are. A lot of our clients come in and they say, 'I like H&M or I like Banana Republic or Uniqlo.' And it all depends on how they feel when they go into that store. And with our ready-to-wear line, we hope to be able to bring clothing to people that can identify with it. We are building a brand that's going to fit them.
Your trademark has been bespoke tailoring. How do you create a ready-to-wear line that feels custom?
All ready-to-wear does unfortunately have some standardization, not just in the fit but also in how you choose to design it. But in coming up with our ready-to-wear line we have to be a bit more conservative and take into consideration everything from our most daring clients to our more conservative clients. After selling over 100 custom suits we had an idea that there are actually some standard designs that our clientele like, and we’ve collected over a thousand different measurements. My background has always been very good in math and geometry, and we put all that information into a kind of database and I calculated some nerdy -- I guess you could say -- correlations between various measurements. If you take out all of the straight or bio men and just focus, for instance, on measurements collected for masculine-leaning/female body people and follow those points, then you’ll see a natural small, medium and large come out of that.
People come in and say the same things, like they want this type of collar that's thinner than a normal menswear dress shirt collar, or most people want a long-sleeve shirt versus a short-sleeve shirt, so why don’t we go ahead and make a ready-to-wear dress shirt with contrast collars and cuffs? We’ve seen that as a trend, too. One of the people that came into to work for the team taught me a lot about andropometrics. That's what true tailors study and also what engineers who work in ergonomics study -- it's all these body measurements. When somebody comes in and they are masculine-leaning/female-presenting or they just want a masculine cut, we have certain measurements that we cheat for them so that they can get a shirt that looks a little bit more straight, like a tunic shirt. The most important measurement in a top garment, in a blazer or a dress shirt, is the shoulder. And then from the shoulder, if you look at that as a primary measurement, the chest and perhaps the waist will have some correlations. This first collection will be targeted towards masculine-presenting/female body people.
Why did you choose to raise funds through Kickstarter instead of finding investors?
I chose Kickstarter basically to test if a second line of business in ready-to-wear was going to be a viable market. We've had success with custom dress-wear, but launching ready-to-wear is almost like launching a new product. With Kickstarter, it's either a yes or a no -- you either reach your funding amount and the budget of production and all the costs that come into starting a RTW line or you don't. And if we reach it then that means we should go forward with it. Also the reason we chose Kickstarter over Indiegogo or another crowd-funding site is that you do get a certain amount of publicity that comes out of Kickstarter. As long as you’re ok with seeing how things go and not necessarily reaching your goal, then I think Kickstarter is a good test as well a great way to get publicity as well as get the funds that you need to do whatever new project or new business you want to do.
What about clients with other gender identities or male bodies?
We definitely target the LGBT community because that's what inspired me, but we have had some cisgender straight men come in for suits. I really love that because not only are they supporting a local business but they are supporting a business that is gender free.
Same thing goes with dresses. If somebody who’s biologically a male comes in who identifies as female or not necessarily at all -- again, we don’t judge. Our tailor has experience at Marco Marco for a number of years, which is one of the big costume design shops here in Hollywood, and has done womenswear for men. The majority of people on our team are female, although they might not identify as such, but we just hired somebody on the menswear side and -- again, this can get very blurred when I’m trying to explain -- the kind of the gay men's market.
Three clients' partners asked us if we would be willing to do their wedding dresses, and if we have the time, we have the talent in-house that if someone brings a sketch we can help them design and make a dress that they probably wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else. We have done some of that on the side and it turned out to be very successful, so we are now opening that up as another option.
Tell me about the custom workwear you've designed.
One client of ours is a professor and she writes on the board a lot, so she needed a shirt that would stay tucked in and we take that into consideration when we are making a garment. We've had a few academics come in—a professor and also a PhD student who wants to look good in her interviews. She is very thin-framed and her style was more like Banana Republic. She wanted a good look that fit her but was more conservative because she was interviewing with places around the world and needed a good suit for that.
We have a client who is 57 years old with a career in finance, so she has a blue-chip background and she's in the conference room with the big boys a lot. She's had custom tailoring done for her before but never in the sense that the tailor actually understood her and never to the quality that Sharpe has provided for her. She was just in tears, she wrote us a few poems and gave us chocolates -- which was really sweet. She was a heavy hitter for the Kickstarter campaign, she's an amazingly supportive, just really sweet client. Tears of joy are the best thing you can get from a client or customer.
This interview has been edited and condensed.