FABRICATIONS: Meet Queer Fashion Designer Leon Wu Of Sharpe Suiting – Huffington Post
This is the eleventh installment in a miniseries titled “FABRICATIONS” that elevates the work of up-and-coming queer individuals working in the fashion world. Check back at HuffPost Gay Voices regularly to learn more about some of the designers of tomorrow and the way their work in fashion intersects with their queer identity.
Leon Wu is a queer fashion designer and founder of the ready-to-wear clothing line, Sharpe Suiting. A response to the need for clothing that fits the bodies and lives of butch, androgynous and masculine-of-center individuals, Sharpe Suiting is filling a valuable niche within the fashion world for members of the queer community. In the words of Wu, “Everyone deserves to choose for themselves what expresses who they are. Everyone deserves to be seen.” Read the interview below to learn more.
The Huffington Post: What has Sharpe Suiting’s journey as a ready-to-wear queer fashion designer entailed?
Leon Wu: Fashion is identity, so the journey really began with understanding myself and how I fit into the world. At an early age, I desired to wear menswear and idolized the clothes my father wore. I would sneak into his closet and try on his clothes when my parents weren’t home. When I finally physically matured into an adult, I was disappointed that I still didn’t fit into his suits, my brother’s, or anything else available off-the-rack in the men’s section. I resorted to wearing baggy men’s clothes and justified incorporating it as part of my urban style.
Several years into my adulthood after college, I co-produced one of the first Butch Fashion shows in Los Angeles with Vanessa Craig, who is now also part of the Sharpe team. Masculine or androgynous clothing that fit gender-queer bodies was still not really available during that time (circa 2005), but by then we had each developed a knack for sourcing and styling clothing to match our body types and identities. The crowd was excited about the production and we received a lot of supportive feedback.
Who is your target customer? Who are you designing for?
Sharpe began designing clothing for people who are masculine-leaning or androgynous, as this was the immediate solution to issues myself and my community directly experienced. We had a very successful Kickstarter campaign to create a ready-to-wear line for this niche. During the campaign and throughout the early successes of my company, however, many cis-gendered straight men and women not only praised our mission but also voiced their concerns about feeling left out of the fashion industry as well. Christine Wu — my sister, professor, and CEO of a biotech non-profit — summed it up perfectly: “What about me? I don’t want to be pigeonholed either. Can I get something from Sharpe too?” I saw that the issue of being excluded from the market was a much larger problem then I myself had experienced. Thus, Sharpe is now looking at the potential opportunity to broaden our market into producing and distributing unisex, fashion-forward luxury clothing for everyone.
Why is clothing like this so important?
Bridging the gap between menswear and womenswear is going to have a large social impact in that it defines the acceptance of queer identities, as well as advancing gender equality in the larger straight community. Just take corporate or office-wear as an example. Why do we necessarily need to have a separate dress code for men versus women? In my previous corporate life I could always tell when I wasn’t being taken seriously when I interviewed in a suit and tie. Their preconceived notion of what I should be wearing didn’t let them just see me, a well-qualified prospective employee. I learned I had to tone-it-down by perhaps leaving the tie out or going for the more androgynous no-nonsense look. Fast forward a few years I got a job working as a corporate project manager at a major entertainment studio. It was there, for the first time, I felt an enormous amount of support from my senior management and peers wearing a suit and tie to work. I finally felt seen.
At Sharpe Suiting, we don’t judge clothing by an individual’s gender. We will make you custom dresswear (suit, dress, etc) for whoever wants it. Everyone deserves to choose for themselves what expresses who they are. Everyone deserves to be seen.
What does it mean to you to be a queer designer? How does your queer identity intersect with your work?
As a queer designer I’m able to see fashion outside of the box. Identity is based on experiences, and because I’ve experienced the shame, frustration, and anxiety gender-queer bodied people often do, I wanted to create not just a clothing line to fill the lack, but a place to rectify this issue of not being welcomed or accepted. We encourage all Sharpe team members to bring their histories to the table, and this inevitably produces incredible creations. For example, one of the Sharpe signature touches is the contrast double buttonhole on the lapel to symbolize the equality sign.
A suit worn should speak for the person wearing it. Is it understated with a pop of color in the lining? Is it double-breasted to inspire images of speakeasies? By understanding the queer mentality and queer bodies, we understand how to create clothing that fits like a glove and better showcases the client as a person.
What has the reception been like in the fashion world surrounding brands such as Sharpe Suiting?
We have received an enormous amount of support inside and outside of the queer community. The majority of gender neutral or cross-gendered clothing brands have done extremely well using Kickstarter and Indiegogo, usually far surpassing their goals. From these crowd-funding campaigns alone queer fashion companies are already seeing revenues in the multi-million dollar range.
What does the future hold for Sharpe Suiting?
First things first: keep our promise in fulfilling all the goods to our supportive Kickstarter backers. We are currently in production for our first ready-to-wear line this spring which will be available on our brand new e-commerce shop this summer. Starting February 2015, we now offer bespoke dresses for our feminine-identifying patrons. Long term, we want to continue designing luxury dresswear that is inclusive as well as expressive.
Want to see more from Sharpe Suiting? Head here to check out the website. Missed the previous installments in this miniseries? Check out the slideshow below.
“To be queer is to be constantly reminded that you are different… There is power in reveling in your difference — accepting it and projecting it full force — you cut your critics at their knees if you can preempt their attack. I think to be queer is to fight; the very first collection I designed was about fashionable street warriors and I think that vibe is really prevalent in my work — being authentic and brave in the face of a tidal wave of homogenization. These are also the people that inspire me and that my clothing attracts… BCALLA is built on collaborations with other dreamers who refuse to see the world the way it is.”
-Bradley Callahan of BCALLA
“The scaffolding-like structures we create at Chromat build on my architectural design foundation. We treat the body the same as an architect treats the building site — looking for context lines, experimenting with new materials and working on defining silhouettes. Chromat is swim, lingerie and harness structures that build on the body and built for strong, powerful women. The woman we design for is unafraid, intelligent and interested in standing out.”
–Becca McCharen of Chromat
“I never wanted Sir New York to be for any specific type of person. If anything my thinking was way too broad. I wanted all genders — everyone wears menswear… Fashion has accustomed people to gender bending. We are more open to human expression rather than binaries. People are starting to let go of being uncomfortable about other people being different. Gender is often best expressed in presentation, how you wear your clothes and the swag you have when you feel good about your look. Fashion communicates identity with options.”
–Auston Björkman of Sir New York
“For me, being a queer artist means having to pay attention to how things blend together and lose their edges. Right? That’s the kind of power that the idea of the spectrum has to offer us. It’s about being able to see presumptions and unnecessary barriers, tearing them down and revealing an unknown nature to things. I think this relates directly to queer experience and how something as mundane as attraction and who a person is attracted to can be this huge societal barrier that invites discrimination and violence to those just born the way they are. Thankfully, so many of those barriers have come down — but there are still more.
It’s a dangerous and powerful thing to reveal yourself and be boldly strange and resist labels, but that is the good work that has to be done.”
“The takeover [of NYFW] proved that people are ready and receptive to this type of change in the fashion scene. Photographers literally ran out of the tents at fashion week during Mara Hoffman’s show to get pictures of us… Honestly, this type of fashion makes people smile, whether they are loving it or appalled. Fashion is getting way too serious and stale… My brand, as well as this type of self expression, is just that on a larger scale. I want the future of fashion to be that people stop looking at clothes as a necessity but to look at it as personal adornment once again. For it to be more democratic in terms of designers who get praise, for people to have their own list of favorite designers, have opinions that are devoid of that of the industry, and to own pieces that will make them feel proud to wear. Reject the business of fashion and give yourself over to the art of fashion.”
–Julia Shapiro of J SHAP
“Unisex is very important to me. I don’t see clothing as only for a male or female-[identified individuals]. I think if someone likes something, they should be free to wear it regardless of their sex or gender. I think fashion is the perfect platform to help people understand the entire range of human expression and identity and, if I can help people be open to new things that way, I will feel I’ve made a positive impact.”
–David Siferd of GODDESS
“Historically, and to this day, the fashion industry is dominated — and some would say run by — gay men. It’s an industry that really celebrates, encourages and trusts the creativity we bring to the table and has for a very long time.
With that being said, fashion is something that everyone relates to, whether it be, directly or indirectly. The fashion industry has grown so much over the past few decades and provided a lot of jobs and opportunities that can’t be overlooked. LGBT have been there at the top of the game the whole time and if you have any interest in fashion… you just can’t be a closed-minded fuck.”
–Kyle Brincefield Of Studmuffin NYC
“There are four major points in the TILLYandWILLIAM philosophy: First, a garment must be gender-neutral. Second, a garment must be able to transform. Third, a garment must always be attentive to comfort. Finally, a garment must allow its wearer full movement of their body.
Everything we design is passed through these standards before it is brought into creation. A lot of times we think about the simplest way to reach these goals. We employ a great deal of mathematics and geometry when creating the patterns. But mostly our inspiration is the human body itself. We think about what the body needs, we think about what a human needs, and then we make it.”
–Jessica Lapidos & Tom Barranca of TILLYandWILLIAM
“Being a queer designer has allowed me to express myself to the fullest and most bad ass extent of my fantasies. Being queer has encouraged me to be fearless — it’s given me a sense of invincibility and the creative freedom to transform the ordinary into extraordinary. It’s given me an experimental spirit: to use make-up, wigs, unconventional materials to transform and create without having to justify my methods or materials. I am gay, it’s what I do! It’s also defined a sense of community and brought about collaborations with a lot of amazing artists.”
“As someone who does not feel limited to one gender role, I make my clothes and costumes gender-fluid as well. Any one garment is never specifically made to be worn by anyone male or female.
Influenced by the glam rock period, where men wore platform shoes and the man-dress was a thing, I look for similar roads when it comes to male-identified clothing, like workman’s clothes or suits. I take these and change perhaps the fabric, exaggerate some section, add a colored stitching, or intervene in some other sort of way. All of the results, from every road I travel, are an invitation to fill in your own interpretation of whatever gender it is you want to be that day.”