Image by Soraya Zaman

Fashion

5 Queer Designers on Navigating Fashion and Identity

The designers reflect on their formative fashion lessons and balancing creativity with commercial viability.

It's no secret that fashion can be both notoriously competitive and an elitist space. Despite the ever-increasing presence of top fashion schools, and new brands across the world, the stakes are higher and opportunities are increasingly low.

The window to success is even narrower for marginalized folks looking to bring in their own creative vision. The standards of beauty within fashion have remained embarrassingly rigid and outdated for over decades and although change is afoot, it's painfully slow. But as our understanding of gender and sexuality widens, young queer designers today face a unique set of challenges in establishing their identities.

Ahead, we spoke to five dynamic young queer designers on navigating fashion and staying true to their identities.

Al Sandimirova, Founder, Automic Gold

What inspired you to pursue design and establish your label?

AI: I grew up very poor — couldn't-afford-to-buy-food-or-toilet-paper poor. Fashion has always been a way to escape for me, to dream about a better time, and to show my status by how much creativity I have, rather than resources. I remember making clothes as a teenager from old school uniforms, combining femininity and masculinity in my special way, which made me comfortable and confident.

Courtesy of Automic Gold

How do you balance staying true to yourself with the pressures of being commercial?

AI: By listening to 'my' customer's money. I love talking to customers and I love making custom orders. I ask what would you like and how much you're ready to spend and let my creativity run! By doing that, I can get a sense of what my customers like and can afford. And that is in the base of all my future designs.

What is your advice for navigating fashion a young independent designer?

AI: Be ready to not be taken seriously! No, for real. If you're not a white cis-het man, independent designers are not taken seriously. The more marginalization you have, the harder it gets. For me, being read as a gender non-confirming woman, not only exposes me to misogyny, but to homophobia and transphobia as well. It is devastating not to have the same doors open just because of who I am. But also, it gives me a push to prove everyone wrong.

Jordi Phi, Creative Director, Radimo LA

What inspired you to pursue design?

JP: The realization of the gender binary was a huge lesson I learned growing up — that there were certain styles I couldn't wear. If I did, there were people who would treat me differently because I was assigned male at birth. Breaking the binary drove me to pursue design.

Image by Soraya Zaman

How do you balance staying true to yourself with the pressures of being commercial?

JP: I definitely have compromised many times during my career. Mainly because of survival and the necessity of finances. I think prioritizing my own style, how I express and present on a daily basis has set the standard for how I show up to the world in the fashion and entertainment industry. When you set trends you tend to find yourself on commercial mood boards often, I'm just trying to get paid doing so.

What is your advice for navigating the fashion world as a young independent designer?

JP: Find your passion. By identifying your path or the direction you want to question in you develop a strong resolve that is unshakeable. I think it takes a strong creative thread to weave within this industry especially if you are non conforming, black, queer, and indigenous. Set the trends, and the best way I know how to do that is by living in my truth and expression. I walk like I'm on a runway everyday.

Patrick Church, Founder, Patrick Church

What inspired you to pursue design and establish your label?

PC: The encouragement of my husband definitely inspired me to pursue design. I considered myself as only an artist until I met him. I was always inspired by glamorous people. In hindsight, what I thought was glamorous growing up was arguably a bit camp!

Josh Cadogan/Courtesy of Patrick Church

How do you balance staying true to yourself with the pressures of being commercial?

PC: I guess I am not afraid of failure. I started painting clothes as I wanted something special to wear, and it is the same kind of mentality that I have today. I wouldn't want to create something that I wouldn't wear. I think creating selfishly and sticking to my aesthetic and instincts is one of the strongest parts of the brand; if it doesn't feel right, I don't do it

What is your advice for navigating the fashion as a young independent designer?

PC: The internet is the future. Make sure that you have a strong aesthetic and don't worry about mass production. Focus on a small market and stay true to yourself.

Tazia Cira, Founder, Xyst Ugli

What inspired you to pursue design and establish your label?

TC: I first pursued design as a method of protest. I started making clothes in high school during a cesspool of oppressive acts from teachers and administration. My severely socially anxious self realized making wearable political art pieces could normalize the ideas I wanted the community around me to believe. I also became more aware of the global effects of fast fashion (apart from the hypocrisy of 'empowerment' brands who don't pay workers adequately), so I started making clothes only sourced from thrift stores or ethical production.

Courtesy of Tazia Cira

How do you balance staying true to yourself with the pressures of being commercial?

TC: You are ALLOWED to exist in both worlds, because unfortunately not everyone is floating through the stratosphere on a trust fund. Even as someone who practices mutual aid with every piece I am paid for by donating a portion directly to folks in need, there still is that nagging feeling of 'selling out'; just for people paying me for my work. Accepting that it was OK to make money off my work and not feel guilty helped me find real balance.

What is your advice for navigating the fashion as a young independent designer?

TC: Let people pay you for your work. Selling yourself short is also a projection of assuming that people that want to support you carry the same thinking as your imposter syndrome, which isn't fair to them. You also do not have to operate in the same methods of the terrorism that is the system of fast fashion to succeed. It's okay to make boundaries, it changes our society for the better.

Sky Cubacub, Founder, Rebirth Garments

What inspired you to pursue design and establish your label?

SC: I was always into dressing up. Both of my parents were artists, so I think my mom recognized that dress and self-expression was very important to me. People got upset when I dressed even just a bit out of the "ordinary" (western ideals), but the lesson is that you or an ally should stand up for what you want to wear because self-expression and taking up space as a person who is multiply marginalized is important. I have loved to play and mess with this idea ever since.

Grace DuVal/Courtesy of Rebirth Garments

How do you balance staying true to yourself with the pressures of being commercial?

SC: I am uninterested in being commercial. I plan on staying a small business. I don't have a lot of overhead cost; I have the privilege of doing mainly what I want to do with my business with a lot of flexibility. I don't look at anything the fashion industry is doing, because it usually just makes me mad at how stuck in the mud it is.

What is your advice for navigating the fashion as a young independent designer?

SC: Don't uphold outdated standards. Clothing is a strong political tool that you can use to make real change in the world. We don’t need any more brands that only focus on white, skinny, tall, cisgender, heterosexual women; it is way overdone. I hate when people say that everything has been done before or nothing is a new idea, because there are mountains of things that need to be made for disabled folx, fat folx, and trans folx, so get to work!

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