These retailers are betting on transgender customers
Between Bruce Jenner’s buzzed-about 20/20 interview, Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox landing a spot on the TIME 100, and Jeffrey Tambor winning a Golden Globe for his role as a transitioning dad on Transparent, the transgender community has never been so visible in American life. And as the profile of the community has grown, so too has the small but growing industry that caters to its specific needs. From apparel and lingerie to shoes, cosmetics and prosthetics, it’s now possible to seek out a range of merchants whose products are designed without the constraints of traditional ideas of gender.
Exactly how big is the potential transgender market? That depends who you ask. The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law has estimated there are about 700,000 transgender individuals in the country. Vanessa Sheridan, the executive director of the Institute for Transgender Economic Advancement, puts the figure closer to 1% of the population, or 3.2 million people. “I think it may be even higher than that,” she says. “Many transgender people are closeted.”
Here’s a look at a few of the retail categories that are beginning to cater to America’s growing transgender community.
Not surprisingly, many of the people now marketing to transgender people come from the LGBT community. Take NiK Kacy, who identifies as gender-fluid. Kacy has always gravitated towards men’s shoe styles, but with feet that take a women’s size 7.5, most men’s shoes were at least a size too big. So, Kacy saw an opening to create gender-neutral shoes in a range of sizes, tagline: “Style should not be defined by gender.” Kacy launched a Kickstarter campaign in February with a goal of raising $36,000, ultimately receiving $47,542 from 267 backers. “Almost half were first-time backers, which means the demand was out there,” Kacy wrote in an email. “I received personal messages from people all over the world who were excited and relieved that someone was finally making shoes that they wanted to wear, that fit them.”
The shoes are being handmade in Portugal and will cost between $300 and $400 per pair. Kacy has initiated a first production run of 250 shoes, sized from women’s 4 to men’s 14, which will be delivered by September. If the first run is successful, Kacy plans to order another 1,000 pairs.
Cy Lauz, founder of Chrysalis Lingerie, a lingerie company for transgender women, also gets the need for sizes that transcend gender norms. The three-year-old Chrysalis currently sells two products, a T-Strings bottom and an Enhancer top. Both are available in size 0 to 23. “The [large corporate] manufacturers were only cutting standard sizes,” says Lauz. “The reality is that there are so many different sizes out there.”
Lauz says that when she was going through her own transition, she couldn’t find beautiful lingerie that actually fit. She won’t disclose sales, but says the demand has been greater than what she anticipated when she launched the company. “We get hundreds of emails a month from people telling us how our products has changed their lives or the lives of their lived ones,” says Lauz, who is expanding the line for the Christmas season.
Mary Going launched her Oakland-based company Saint Harridan in 2013, after ordering a custom suit for her wedding to Martha Rynberg. She says she loved the fit and feel of the bespoke garment. “I feel so much more masculine than feminine, and yet finding clothing that fits and looks masculine was a big challenge for me,” says Going. She and Rynberg used Kickstarter to test their business idea for suits that feature a sleek, masculine cut, re-engineered for women and transmen. They set a goal of raising $87,000 and ended up with $137,000 from more than 1,000 people. Last year, Going and Rynberg took their pop-up store on the road, visiting 15 cities and measuring nearly 2,000 people. Going says Saint Harridan has sold 800 suits and tuxes. The garments cost an average of $1,000 each, and have been purchased by buyers from all 50 states and 11 countries.
“It’s about the customer being the one we expect and want, not the one that we’re tolerating,” says Going. “So many people have stood in our store and cried because they have never been treated like they’re legitimate before.” When Saint Harridan opens its first store in Oakland this June, it will have a barber chair where customers can get whatever kind of haircut they like, without fear of being judged. “We’re not checking genitals at the door to see who’s who and what’s what,” says Going.
The creation of actual stores that cater to transgender people is an important step forward, says Sheridan, of the Institute for Transgender Economic Advancement. “A lot of transgender people are forced to shop almost exclusively online because they simply feel unable to do so in public,” she says. “That puts them at the mercy of unscrupulous online retailers. That is a problem.”
Of course, not every merchant catering to the transgender community based the business on their own experiences. Suit maker Daniel Friedman says he only considered the transgender market when an employee at his Brooklyn shop Bindle and Keep brought it to his attention two years ago. He had long made bespoke suits for men, and began to experiment with creating androgynous suiting for female and transgender clients. In 2013, androgynous suiting accounted for 25% of Bindle and Keep’s business. Over the past year, that figure has risen to 80%. “Word of mouth led to the growth,” says Friedman.
Since 2013, Bindle and Keep has sold 1,500 of these non-traditional suits at an average price of $1,000 each. According to Friedman, 80% of his customers are from New York and the remaining 20% come from out of state. The company will soon open shops in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. to meet the growing demand in these areas. “They aren’t masculine suits, necessarily,” says Friedman. “They are just suits made for the person.”