Four transgender fashion designers making clothes anyone would want in their closet

These rising stars of the catwalk are redefining the boundaries of style with their gender-neutral and unisex outfits for all shapes and sizes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 September, 2017, 5:48pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 September, 2017, 5:48pm

No one does fashion better than the queer [LGBTQ] community, states the lifestyle site Still, perhaps just because their time has not yet come, transgender designers are rare – much rarer than transgender models.

In fact, the ranks of transgender designers have thinned. In January this year, it emerged that Houston trans designer O’Rhonde Chapman had been converted to the straight path by gospel singer Kim Burrell. Likewise, the Seattle fashion house run by transgender tailor Leo Roux recently announced it could no longer move forward due to lack of funding.

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However, other rising fashion designers remain defiantly trans. Meet four survivors whose fluid work redefines the boundaries of style.

Leon Wu

A transgender man, Leon Wu from Los Angeles is the founder and chief product officer of Sharpe Suiting: a gender-neutral fashion house that makes suits, blazers, shirts and other professional gear for all body types, including transgender.

In October 2016, USA Today named Sharpe Suiting one of the top 10 best clothing and accessories makers in the US in the custom ready-to-wear category.

Early on, Wu would secretly try on the clothes in his father’s wardrobe. When he evolved into a transgender adult, his father’s suits were still too big. He resorted to wearing baggy men’s clothes which he integrated into his urban style.

After gaining an economics degree at the University of California and an MBA at New York University, Wu worked in financial services and the entertainment sector in high-powered roles.

The high-flyer’s fashion firm debuted in April 2013. In a year, it sold more than 100 suits online and raised US$69,000 in 30 days on Kickstarter. Wu left his job as the senior project manager at Warner Brothers.

Now he voices the view that queer customers deserve sharp suits, as does the rest of the population, it seems. He frames his style as unisex, fashion-forward luxury clothing for everyone.

Mogok Pauk Pauk

Myanmese pioneer Mogok Pauk Pauk is probably the world’s most visible transgender designer. Mogok’s success may partly stem from her public passion.

“The biggest lesson I have learned is that you have to find a place that is fitting for you – a place where you can make your passion your profession, and that you have to have faith in your life and keep pursuing your dreams,” she said in a 2016 TEDx talk.

Her desire to chase her dreams took her from her hometown to Mandalay, and beyond. “Perhaps, one day, it will take me to the world.”

Born a boy, the so-called “fairy godmother” was raised in a city renowned for rubies. Her early penchant for wearing girls’ clothes led to some harassment, but the child refused to be cowed. By the age of 16, Mogok was already a sought-after make-up artist for brides and traditional dancers.

Her career breakthrough came in 2006, when she moved to global fashion hub, Milan, in northern Italy to attend the Burgo Fashion and Design Institute. Overcoming the language barrier in a strange land was tough, but the move paid off.

“In Milan, my eyes opened to the world of haute couture ... When I came back, I instinctively understood that Myanmar’s haute couture has to be our traditional textiles – especially achaik,” she said, referring to the traditional style that had become frumpy wedding wear.

Gogo Graham

In June this year, transgender New York designer Gogo Graham staged an exhibition called Dragon Lady that mocked the idea of the Asian harridan.

The show, which riffed on Graham’s own experience of the slur, crushed stereotypes, according to gay magazine Out. The style site i-D suggested hers was the first true trans designer line.

In an October 2015 Huffington Post interview, the trailblazer described herself as “a fire-breathing trans femme dragoness”.

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The fashion dragon was educated at the University of Texas where, first, she studied evolutionary biology. However, halfway through the course, she changed tack and wound up with a bachelor of science degree in fashion and apparel design.

After graduating in 2012, Graham went to New York and joined forces with the costume designer Zaldy, making clothes for a J-Pop band before switching to the reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race, which charts the titular model’s quest for the next drag superstar.

But Graham was worried that making cool clothes without a higher purpose could become her stock-in-trade. Cue her start-up in 2015, which is committed to creating wardrobe staples for trans women of all ages, races, shapes and sizes.

Auston Björkman

Brooklyn designer Auston Bjorkman runs the upmarket, sleek sportswear label Sir New York. Bjorkman’s work has been worn by stars including the musician Usher and rapper Wiz Khalifa, according to Teen Vogue.

A graduate from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Bjorkman has also studied pattern making, couture sewing and fashion design in San Francisco. In the past, the all-rounder also designed fetish and leather gear for San Francisco-based Mr. S Leather.

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His start-up is all about “athleticism with a hint of provocation” and dates back to a 2011 Kickstarter campaign. He was motivated to go solo by his frustration about being small and unable to fit into off-the-rack gear.

He avoids playing up his transgender identity because he resists being objectified, something he feels is a problem for trans models. If his brand emphasised his fluid status, it would just be hot for a minute, he says. He hopes that his work withstands scrutiny on its own terms.

His company’s name comes from his urge to subvert the formal definition of the word “sir”, which implies someone who demands respect. Bjorkman says he wants everyone to feel respected when they wear his clothes.