What It’s Like To Model In An All-Trans Women Fashion Show
“Oh, girl… it’s about you!”
It is August in Brooklyn, New York; it's the second heat wave of the summer. I feel the wet spot of sweat on my back grow, as I practically run to make it on time to a meeting. It's hard to imagine a future beyond this sweltering reality. However, my destination—Gogo Graham’s Spring/Summer 2017 collection—is proof that time does go on, the seasons do change. This is how the fashion system works; it anticipates the desires of the consumer months in advance. By looking into the future, the industry determines what we will find aspirational; in a sense, who we will want to be.
But the industry’s idea of the future is quite different from the ethos of Gogo, who has long worked independently, rather than by pandering to buyers. As a transgender woman, Gogo exclusively creates clothing for trans and gender non-conforming people. This is how she maintains the sacredness of dressmaking. As a trans woman, I look to Gogo’s show to see myself. Her show during New York Fashion Week is a time for the world to meditate on trans women's collective beauty and talent. For this upcoming season, I wouldn’t just be a bystander. I would be walking in the show, and I was prepared to offer my person as a medium for Gogo's vision.
Weeks before the show, I am invited to Gogo's Bushwick apartment. Lauren Perlstein, the photographer that would be documenting this process, had already arrived. Dried red roses sat atop the kitchen table, and I would later find out these were given to Gogo after her Fall/Winter 2016 show. As we sit down for a drink, Gogo notices the ring I wear on my left hand. It is my grandmother’s ring, given to me by my mother when she decided I was responsible enough to take care of it. This is the sort of eye that people have come to expect from Gogo, one with an appreciation for precious details. It is a silver ring with a deep red garnet in the center and marcasite around its edges. It has no monetary value, but I tell Gogo that it is all I have of the woman that raised me. In response, Gogo goes into her bedroom to retrieve the necklace she inherited from her own grandmother: a delicate silver choker. Afraid of damaging it, she tells me that she never wears it out of the apartment. By the time our drinks are gone, she invites Lauren and me into the bedroom that also acts as her studio.
There is no linear way to understand Gogo’s aesthetic, and there are no trends you can trace in her shows. They are the culmination of her political and social responsibilities and the deep love she has for women like her. Her bedroom can also be described in this way, as the sewing machine sits parallel to piles of different fabrics and books. She apologizes for the mess, but I am happy to have walked in on the frenzy of a designer working on her latest collection. Giving me a tour of her windowless space, she shows me pieces from the previous season. What quickly catches my eye are the twisted metal, jewelry-like adornments that sit above her mirror. Sensing what has captivated me, she takes one down so I can get a closer look. It is a neckpiece, and she has twisted and turned the metal all on her own. She shows me the pliers that she has used to create them and declares the hours she has put in with a sort of pride. Behind us, I can hear Lauren clicking with her camera.
These metal wire creations will adorn the girls walking in the show. She suggests making one for me to wear on my hand, with my grandmother’s ring acting as the centerpiece. As a model, this suggestion helps me breath easier. Although this is my first time modeling, I was fearful for what would happen to my sense of autonomy. Gogo relieved this by piecing together what was important to me and creating the garment accordingly. As she showed me the pieces she had begun working on, she described each girl who would be wearing the piece at hand. Gogo respects that every woman has restrictions and limitations, and so she doesn’t begin to work on a garment unless the model has approved it. The girls wearing the clothes are the guides for her design process. Trans women are expected to squeeze into clothing made for cisgender women. However, we are often born with larger ribcages and broader shoulders than people who were assigned female at birth. The clothing we shop for is hardly ever made with trans women in mind. Within the world of Gogo Graham, though, the clothing molds to us. As we part ways, she tells me we will be in touch to discuss the garment I’ll be wearing.
In the three weeks between our visit, Gogo stays true to her promise. We communicate through hurried texts, as we both live and work in opposite ends of the city. She asks me what I am comfortable with and what parts of my body I would like to emphasize. As a size 12 with small breasts, these are the questions that I’ve waited my entire adult life to hear. I want to emphasize the dip in my waist and keep my breasts hidden from the audience. A few days later, she texts me three sketches. She has honored my requests and has made it quite difficult for me to choose which look would be the one for my debut. I choose the second look, a miniskirt that flares outward and a deep V-neck top that shows my shoulders. Even though I don’t think I’m allowed, I show this to my best friend one night when we are in bed. As we entered September, I prepared myself to meet this garment in the flesh.
On the last Sunday before the show, I head to Gogo's apartment to see the collection as it nears completion. I am riding the train to her after having spent the afternoon in bed with a lover. On this evening, my body was a good place to live in. The sleepy boy I parted ways with helped me discover new areas of my body, and Gogo was now going to drape me in her vision. As I entered her new home, I was startled by the color palette of the collection. Neutral shades shot through with a bright shade of green, a complete departure from the brightly colored collections of the past. She pulls my look from the rack, and an intimacy begins to build. As she dresses me in her clothes, I see the version of me that she sees through clothes. I like this version, and I aspire to be this person. This sort of aspiration is internal and isn’t being sold to me. The lace of the blouse sits on my breasts comfortably, no excess fabric to suggest that they are too small. It was made with me in mind. Before we separate, I have one more request for the show. I ask Gogo if I can wear flats for the show, as the thought of walking in heels terrifies me. She waves away my concern.
“Oh girl, you can wear whatever you want. It’s about you.”
The day of the show arrives, and we are all congregating in a basement in SoHo. I arrive at our meeting place by walking through a jewelry store and down a flight of stairs. Before I join the group, I see an open courtyard with a massive tree in the middle. Artist Ser Serpas is busy at work, designing the set for the show. Behind her, model and Fashion Week favorite Maya Monès is texting on her phone. I ask them where hair and makeup are. Before pointing me in the right direction, they introduce themselves with a hug. As they begin to say their names, I tell them I already knew who they were. I’ve obsessively followed their work on social media for quite some time. I’m happily surprised that they share the same sentiment. I’m relieved that our interaction has moved out of the internet and into real life, but I rush to makeup before I can fully express myself.
Entering the basement, it’s exactly as I imagined. There is a girl in the corner getting her hair pulled and blow-dried and a girl to my left testing out the makeup. Crowds of makeup artists in all-black inspect her face, thinking out loud and making adjustments as they go. Before I can Snapchat the situation for my friends back home, I’m placed into a chair to begin my own process. I peek at the hair stylists from behind my bangs, hoping that I’ll look like myself by the end of it. My hair is completely straightened and slicked back, showing my forehead the light of day for the first time in few years. What they put in my hair looks like glue, and I watch them apply it through my phone’s front-facing camera. I make a joke about how easy it will be to wash out, and the only girl who laughs is sitting next to me. She is also getting glue put in her hair, and we’ve never met before. But we both know we are there because we want to offer a new idea of beauty for trans women. Before we knew each other’s names, we were already friends.
As they put a finishing touch of gold on my cupid’s bow, I watched as makeup artists and hairstylists doted on this entirely trans cast of models. It is a rare occasion that the beauty of transness is nurtured, and here was an entire team of people doing just that. Their expertise and knowledge were used for us, not against us. It was time for me to see my garment finalized, so Gogo and I found a quiet corner for me to step into my look. It was as perfect as I imagined, the skirt fitting the span of my hips perfectly. She pinned the skirt and adjusted my blouse. Every girl was demanding her attention, and Gogo was spinning from girl to girl, making last minute adjustments. Still, before we parted ways, she asked me one last question.
“How are you... do you feel good?”
As we re-entered the courtyard, it was unrecognizable from before. Lights had gone up, and the sun had set. Each model is placed in her own spot, with salt encircling her. The salt acts as a protection for each girl, both from the harm of the world and the gaze of the cisgender viewer. We are allowed to do as we please, as long as we stay within our circle. This would not be a runway show with us walking up and down for an audience. The audience was allowed to view the show in groups for five minutes at a time. Not everyone would receive the same experience, and they would be left to wonder what went on before and after they left. The power shifted in favor of the trans women they were here to consume.
As people poured in, I spent time looking at the girls around me. Seeing their beauty displayed assured me of my own. If it exists inside of them, then it must exist for me. I twirled my grandmother’s ring around my finger, wondering if she would’ve ever imagined me as a part of New York Fashion Week. As the crowds came in and out of the courtyard, I turned my back to them. This is a power that doesn’t exist in the world, but it was mine for the duration of this show.
Next to me, my fellow model gave a photographer the middle finger. No part of us was being consumed against our will. When the show was over, I felt as though I gained new tools of protection that I could take into the world. As Gogo stepped into the crowd to mark the end of the show, the applause from the models lasted longer than what is usual. Outside of the building, the mostly cisgender show attendees stood wondering what was occurring. They had no access to the joy amongst trans women, created by trans women.