Shaz Riley for Butch Clothing Company was interviewed on November 15th, 2018 via Zoom (from London) by Kelly Reddy-Best. The interview was 1 hour and 3 minutes. The oral history transcript reflects the history of the brand at the time of the interview.
Oral History Video
Oral History Transcript
RILEY: I’m RILEY, and I am 52 years old, although I don’t look it. I always say that! I was brought up in a small county, well, it’s a quite large county actually, but it is called Kent, which is one of the home counties of London. My parents were Londoners and they moved out and bought a modest, semi-detached house, as we call it over here in Kent, and I grew up opposite cornfields, which was very nice. When I was 18, I got a job in the West End Theaters, and moved to London, and had a great career, until 10 years ago, when I started this business. Now, I live with my wife in a place called Paddock Wood, which is back down in Kent. It’s near quite a big town called Tunbridge Wells. It takes about an hour to get to London. It’s quite handy for getting everywhere.
REDDY-BEST: Yeah. Can you just tell me about your educational background?
RILEY: Yeah, I’ve had the classic education. I went to Thamesview, a technical school, a high school, and did the usual. In this country we do GSCEs ‘O’ levels and A levels. I did all three of those, got good grades, and then at 17, went to work in a theater, and then did do these trade school courses over here call city & guilds, and I qualified with a city & guild in carpentry, & in electrical and electronic installation. So, my education is more sort of technical, really.
REDDY-BEST: What term do you use to describe your gender identity, and which pronouns do you use?
RILEY: Gay, woman.
REDDY-BEST: How would you describe your personal clothing style? Just briefly.
RILEY: You know, I like to be on trend, basically. I watch very closely the fashions and bring it into the business, but I also buy outside of the business as well. So, I’m really big on Ralph Lauren, really big on Ted Baker, and those kind of designer brands. Hugo Boss shoes—brogues. I keep up with the latest fashion trends clothing wise and accessory wise. 1) Because that’s always been my sense of style. I’ve always liked to have been in with “the in crowd,” if you like, and I like to look on trend. I change my hairstyle quite a lot and I look at the trends of hairstyle. I have a very trendy barber, who I’ve been going to for about 10 years. He’s a young guy, for his business. But yes, I like to stay on trend, because, as much as I realize that not all my clients are on trend or want to be on trend, I like to have that option there. Obviously I’m 52 years old, and we have an expression over here called “mutton dressed as lamb.” So, you have to be careful that you’re not “mutton dressed as lamb,” you know. I can’t walk around like a 20-year-old, but I can walk around like a cool 50-year-old, do you know what I mean? So that’s how I do it.
REDDY-BEST: And then, how did the idea for the Butch Clothing Company come about?
RILEY: Well, that’s an in- that’s an interesting question. I read that there and I thought, how am I going to answer it for your purposes, because obviously you’re going to edit it down. So, I’m going to give you my version that I say, to tell friends when friends ask me, and when clients ask me. Or I tell clients really, I deliver the information to them: I set up the company in 2009. My father passed away. My mother had died when she was quite young, and my brother and I knew we had to clear the family home. I’d been working in theater and high-end live events for 25-odd years, maybe 30 years, and I wanted to do something different. I was a little bit burnt out, and when I went into high-end live events, and I was working with all the major corporate clients, the banks, credit card companies, pharmaceutical companies, you name it, celebrities, I had to put on a suit, and, as a butch-identified woman, I would wear men’s suits. This would mean going into a department store. I even remember buying one at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, once. Going into a department store and buying ill-fitting suits is not fun, because the thing about buying men’s suits as a female is that, if they fit you on the shoulders, they’re not going to fit you on the chest and if they fit you on the chest, they’re not going to fit you on body length, and if the trousers fit you on the waist, it’s not going to fit on the crotch, and so on and so forth. So, it’s very hard to fit a male suit to a female body, and I thought, right in 2009, “I want to quit doing the live event stuff, the theater stuff, what am I going to do now? And I spoke to my partner about it, and she said to me, “Well, you’ve always been moaning about the accessibility of buying suits. You have always bemoaned about having to have these badly fitting suits.” The catalyst for that was that the year before, when she had turned 40, I had gone to her birthday party, and when I first started the company, I put up a picture of myself and went, “this is why I started the company,” because the suit was so badly fitted that I looked atrocious. I just thought, “Nobody’s doing it, somebody should be doing it, and there has to be a way.” I’d been a project manager, and a production manager for many years, and I have good spatial awareness. And somebody said to me, “Surely, if you could measure a room, you could measure a person,” and that’s the key to the success to my end of the business: it is that I have a good business acumen. Of course, I have to have good business acumen, but I also have, the ability to be able to measure a person and to get a look at a person’s body and be able to… and you would know this from your background, but yes, that’s why we started the company. I just decided that. I just decided that it needed to be done, and it was a good move for me, a lifestyle business, for me. The reason I called it… there’s a funny story as to why we named it that, but one of the fundamental reasons for naming it, and this is not a funny bit, was I wanted a company that, globally, every woman in the world would recognize was a gay business, and if you put the word “butch” in front of anything. Mostly, women are going to go, “Oh, it’s a clothing company, and then it’s probably going to be for gay women.” I mean, obviously, men do use the term butch and so on and so forth, but if you Google the term, even previously to when we existed, pre-2009, “butch” was often related to women. So, it was a way, and that has worked, and how the name came about was a weird one. You know, feminists aren’t always great lovers of butch women and butch-femme couples. Strict feminists feel quite uncomfortable with the whole butch-femme thing, which is another thing I don’t want to get into, but we had round strong, feminist friends of ours for dinner, and they were the last people that I would have ever thought would’ve come up with this, but one of them said to me, “Just what are you going to call the company?” I was like, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” I need it to be recognized, but I don’t know. Then she was like, “describe to me what it is and I said, well it’s butch clothing. It’s clothing for butch women. She went, “Well, there you go then. There’s your company name,” and I was like, “The Butch Clothing Company. Yeah, that works!” And that was it. The big mistake was my email address, because 10 years ago, I didn’t realize that I was creating myself the longest email address in the world! It’s Shaz@thebutchclothingcompany.co.uk, and you have to spell out each of the letters for a lot of people. Ah yes, too long. But yeah, it’s worked.
REDDY-BEST: And then you began in 2009. Is that when did you start thinking about it? Was it in 2009?
RILEY: No, I actually formed the company then. We were incorporated. I don’t know what they call it in America, but when you start a business, you get your trademarks and all the rest of it, and you incorporate it with Companies House in the UK. That’s when we incorporated, when we officially became a business.
REDDY-BEST: Can you tell me about the business model for the clothing company?
RILEY: When you say business model, do you mean, “what I was going to sell and what my price points were, and stuff like that?” Explain that a little bit more.
REDDY-BEST: Right, for example, are you eCommerce, or do you do wholesale?
RILEY: Oh, how do we trade? Right! Yeah, no, it’s face-to-face consultations. It’s good old-fashioned tailoring. So, I don’t have a shop front, but I have a consultation room, on our premises, and I invite people in. So, we advertise, or I obviously have a website. We have 4000-odd followers on Facebook. So, we publicize a lot on there. We do direct advertising, up and down the country. There’s a lesbian magazine over here called DIVA Magazine which is a high glossy, you know, with a massive readership, massive footfall, and we pay to advertise in there and have done that for 10 years, but the mainstay of our business is, I guess, through the website, through Facebook, through the advertising, and through my visibility, because I’m always somewhere. I’m always at lots of events and stuff like that. So, we’re quite highly publicized, we’re quite well-known. England’s quite a small country, so obviously we’re quite visible. Someone phoned me yesterday because they’d been at an event in Bristol, which is in the southwest of England, on Sunday, and she’d been searching for a year for some reason, because she was a feminine girl, although a gay woman, and she wanted a male-style suit. She didn’t put in butch clothing or clothing for butch women into the search engine, so she’d missed us. Which is a learning curve for me, even yesterday, I’m always learning. But somebody else said to her, “Oh you should try the Butch Clothing Company. They make clothes for all gay women,” and so she phoned me, and that’s kind of what happens, but yes, the business model is not an online business. They contacted me through the website online, there’s a contact box, and then I always follow it up with a phone call, because we’re a small niche market company. So, I always follow it up with any client inquiries, with an email, and if they want a phone call, i.e. they’re serious, and are potential clients to purchase this bespoke suit, because our suits are handmade and bespoke and they cost a lot of money, I then follow it up with a call, and that doesn’t matter where that is in the world, and then they’re invited to a consultation and that’s either a face-to-face consultation at our premises, or a skype consultation.
REDDY-BEST: How many folks work at the company? Is it you, or do you have other folks who work with you?
RILEY: That’s an interesting question. How many staff there was for the company. The company is me, my wife is a co-director, but doesn’t work within the business, she has a separate job, but she’s a company director. Then I have teams of people that work with me that I employ, like, I have an accountant, and the chap that is my accountant, he’s paid monthly from me, but he has his own business. I have a bookkeeper, for the same purposes, for accounting purposes, and then I have a manufacturing team, so I have a tailoring team, run by someone that I met many years ago when I first started the business. He helped me construct the business. He was my head of development and design, and worked for the manufacturing partner that I first started working with, and he now works on his own, and he and I have set up a studio space, and he looks after the cutters, and the tailors and so on and so forth, and oversees it all. Then we work, with the fabric suppliers within the UK. We use English mills, and we use Italian houses, and we get the fabrics from the English houses over here. So yeah, that’s how it works, basically. I work with companies like, here, I’ll show you a book. This is a company called Huddersfield. And they provide me with books of fabrics, and I have lots of these different fabrics and fabric companies and stuff that I work with. So, it’s a bit of a, bit of a combined effort, but for seeing people here, it is basically just me. I see the clients, and I deal with the day-to-day running of the business. It’s a very small, niche market, but you have to surround yourself with other people, because you need accountants; you need book-keepers; you need a web designer; who looks after the website, and so on and so forth. They would all consider themselves part of the Butch Clothing Company, but they’re all paid individually, and paid as required, basically.
REDDY-BEST: Can you tell me what a typical day might look like for you when you’re running the business?
RILEY: Yeah, for when I’m seeing clients or when I’m not seeing clients?
REDDY-BEST: Well, maybe both? What does that look like?
RILEY: Okay, so, a typical day when I’m not seeing clients could be filled with any kind of thing. Yesterday, I spent the day with a TV company who was talking about making a documentary series about us. Today, I’m with you. Tomorrow, I will be at the alterations tailor, that’s another person I work with, my alterations tailor. He’s based in London. I’ll be up there seeing him. Mondays, for example, is paperwork day. So, if, from the ordering from the week before, so if I want to order any material, or I need some paper for the printer, or I have to do the company accounts, and so on and so forth, I will sit down. So, the dog and I will get up about half past seven, have some breakfast, and then we’re always at our desk by nine o’ clock. Always. The phone rings a lot because I get a lot of inquiries. I’ve normally had emails, and emails coming in globally overnight, and sometimes in the evenings in the UK, from the night before, so I always have a lot of emails to answer. I will check the company accounts every day, every morning, and whatever else needs to be done. As I say, it could be ordering stock, it could be working with the fabric houses, it could be uploading all of my information sheets and costing sheets about the fabrics, because fabrics come in and out, as well. One day, I might have a certain fabric and the next day it’s gone, so that has to be updated onto my system and on my sheet. So, it’s a lot of paperwork, really. Then I’ll be fielding phone calls from prospective clients, talking to repeat clients, and chasing people, writing blogs, all kinds of things. I mean, just it’s a real active business. The good thing is, because it’s a lifestyle business, if I want to take a day off, I take a day off. This morning, I took the morning off because there’s an elderly couple that live locally to me, and they have really bad trouble with their internet, so I went to sort it out for them, but I get the flexibility to do that because I work for myself.
REDDY-BEST: And then, what about when you’re with clients? What does that look like?
RILEY: When I’m with clients, what happens is they will come at a set, allocated time. Normally that’s 10 o’ clock, 12 o’ clock, or two o’ clock, because those times seem to suit people. The consultations last two-to-three hours, which is much longer than any male bespoke tailoring company. So, I invite them in, and we sit down, and we have a drink, such as tea or coffee or something like that, and then I show them the swatch books. How the consultations work is I show them the swatch books of the fabrics, and people are pretty much instinctively drawn to the fabrics they like, and they look at fabrics, linings, and shirting fabrics. Then after about 20 minutes, half an hour of chatting, and looking through all those kind of things, I then take a measurement. The measurement process, which is a fully clothed measurement process, but I encourage them not to wear shorts or track suit bottoms… I forget what you call them, but no casual clothes! They should be in a shirt and a pair of trousers. I take a 20-point integral measurement list. I basically take a measurement profile, sorry. Then, after we’ve done that, they go back to the fabrics, and by that time they’re ready to choose the fabric that they like, and then we look at the design elements of the suit, which is, basically all the detailing. It could be, you know, collar style, number of buttons, buttons on the cuff, color detail, et cetera, et cetera. And that’s how they design their suit with me.
REDDY-BEST: When you’re talking about the design details with them, are you showing them line drawings or do you have like examples of all the different kinds of suits available?
RILEY: No, I have a sample rail and I keep about 30 or 40 pieces, or maybe about 25 to 30 pieces on the rail. I mean, a lot of the fabrics have gone out by that point, and there might be fabrics on that rail that they can’t buy anymore, but they can certainly look at the style of the jacket. They’ll also be looking at the width of the collar, whether it’s a notched collar or a peaked collar or a wide collar or a skinny collar, and I’ll show them different options of the number of buttons on the cuff, and I’ll show them pocket styles, and I physically show them all the options, and on the trousers, whether they want to have adjusters, or whether they want to actually have buttons, so I have samples of everything we offer. Not everything that we offer because if I want, I can show them digital images if I want to show them something for which I don’t have a sample. Or I can explain it to them. I keep the dummy and I keep the rail, so yeah, I can show them that way. I keep an iPad running, with images of clients that have been there before, because I don’t use models. I only use actual clients. So my shop’s publicity shots and everything are all real clients, real people.
REDDY-BEST: When you are working with the clients, would you say that you’re helping them facilitate designing their own suit?
RILEY: Yes. Now, basically they mostly come with a blank canvas, but they want a suit. So, you look at the elements that you think would suit them, so, if they’re quite fashionable, then you know that they’re going to want to have a tight ankle, and leg, in their pair of trouser. So, when you’re designing you’ll be like, “right, so you want slim leg.” You would say, “Right, well you want a 14- or 15-inch ankle width.” And then you’ll say, “well, you know, you’re not a big build, so perhaps a slim, skinny collar,” either for fashion reasons, for which I always have a skinny collar, but also if they’re a big build, and if they’re quite small, they’re going to look ridiculous with a normal sized notched collar, which is a very male classic style. So, you’ll suggest to them that they have a slim-cut collar. And yeah, you’re basically designing. I mean what we do is not like going to a fashion house and going, “Oh, can I have a strawberry covered patch pocket, and can I have the other pocket with a zip, and can I…” It’s not all those kind of … We’re classic male styles, in the latest fashion trends. So, anything that’s on trend or is classic, in the suited male suiting world, is what we do, but we don’t try and reinvent the wheel, but what we don’t do is make suits and alter them, you know, make male suits and then alter them to fit the women. These suit are bespoke and made for each individual client to their measurements, and we take into account that women have boobs and bottoms and hips and thighs, et cetera. I think that’s why a lot of people don’t do this, and don’t do it successfully, and why a lot of people have failed doing it, and that because it’s complicated. When you go to a male tailor, such as the woman who phoned yesterday and just reiterated what I’ve heard a million times in the last 10 years, is that when you go to a male tailor, and they try to make you a man’s suit, they never successfully make you a man’s suit. They always then start making it into a lady’s suit, because they don’t know how to do it. I just did a tailcoat coat, for a toast master or toast mistress, you know they wear the red tailcoats, I’m assuming they do in America. They wear red tailcoats, and they announce people coming into the rooms and stuff like that, and at a wedding they’ll say, “Mrs. and Mrs., or Mr. and Mrs.,” and they stand there in a tailcoat. The toast master company, with who this woman was trained, brought in a tailcoat tailor, and this tailcoat tailor, who I’ve now got to know, refused to make the jacket for this woman, because he said he wouldn’t know where to start. So, I made one and I made it perfectly successful, and it’s a beautiful fit and she loves it. It’s because male tailors don’t know how to make male suits fit women, so I guess I’ve cornered the market. I don’t know why I’m not rich and famous.
REDDY-BEST: We think you’re famous here, so! [laughs].
RILEY: You know, I am sort of known everywhere. That’s the thing, I’m a little bit famous here as well, too, because, because people know of me. Do you know what I mean? People see me at things, and are like, “Oh, they’re always at events.” You know, sometimes you even get celebrities who scream a little bit when they meet me and they go, “Oh my god, I really wanted to meet you!” I met a comedian, a couple of years ago, and she was like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m meeting you,” and I’m like, “Yeah I know.” It’s kind of weird, you know. But I’m not inclined to look at the internet, because you can get a lot of negative comments and stuff. So, I don’t Google myself, and if I’m on anything or featured on any radio show, or in any press, or anything like that, I don’t look at it because there are always the assholes that are going to say nasty things to you. So, I don’t look at it. So, I don’t really know how people see me, but I do know that people know who I am, globally.
REDDY-BEST: Can you talk about your price point, what is the range?
RILEY: Yeah. Now, the price point is interesting, because what I do is very expensive. I’m trying to think of the equivalent in America. I don’t really know. We have a street here, a famous street, called Savile Row, which is where all the men’s suits are made, the high-end men’s suits. Now, the price point of Savile Row is about four and half thousand pound a suit. I work with the same fashion houses for fabric, but comparatively, my price point is not that high at all. As a matter of fact, we dropped the price point this year. When Miguel, my business partner and I started the new studio, well, I say he’s a business partner, he’s not part of the Butch Clothing Company, but we work together extremely closely, when he came to me and said, “Shaz, we can work together again. We can do this, and you’ll be able to drop your price-point because, actually, we’ve found different ways of doing things where, believe it or not, the quality’s increased, but the cost is dropped.” That’s just because of how my previous manufacturing partner worked. So, I’ve managed to drop my price point to two or three hundred pounds, which is about four or five hundred dollars per suit this year. I’ve done that but because, I want to reach a more accessible audience. I’ll look the prices up for you now so you can transcribe it at today’s rate. A three-piece suit is a at about let’s say 1600 pounds, which would be if I just pop that into the XE.com for you: 1600 pounds is about 2000 dollars, basically. So, sometimes you might get a three-piece for 1400, sometimes 1500 to 1600 pounds. The americans used to pay about two and a half thousand dollars, and they’re now paying about two thousand. And a two-piece is about 1200 to 1300 pounds, and the jacket’s about 1000 pounds. The trousers are a little bit less than that, maybe 800 or 900 pounds, but the fabrics are expensive and the making process is expensive. We take seven to nine weeks to hand make each piece, and it is all hand-sewn, and hand-stitched, and we cut paper patterns, and then we cut fabric patterns, and if mistakes are made it gets remade, and so on and so forth, before it leaves the studio.
REDDY-BEST: When you think about the style, do you ever look to any kind of style icons, such as popular gay women, you’re presenting your clients with inspiration images, or the imagery of what they want to look like when they’re purchasing their suit?
RILEY: No, I’ve never bought into that. I mean, we all know what a legend Ellen is, and how great she looks, but the reality of it is that most gay women don’t look like Ellen, and they don’t look like how she looked when she was young, and they don’t follow the style trends of someone like Melissa Etheridge. So, there’s very few gay role models out there, and I always say, “Look,” to my clients, “You don’t want to look like me and I don’t want to look like you. We both don’t want to look like the next person. We all want to look like ourselves. So, what I try and do is build a picture, that’s why I talk with them for an hour before they come for their consultation. It’s to get to know them, and to get to know what they need, because what I like, another person, undoubtedly, is not going to like, and so on and so forth. I think that that’s one of the reasons I don’t use models. I could easily, too. I get people volunteering to model for the company all the time, and I could easily take all these good-looking butch women on and have them come and do a photo shoot. I work with four different photographers, they’re other people that work with me and I could easily get any one of them to do a shoot with actual models, but I don’t. When we do a photo shoot, I only use real clients, because I think that this is a real world, and butch women have it hard enough anyway, so why do you want to see a model that looks like something that’s always going to be unattainable for you? You know, as butch women, we’re, always given the hardest go in society, because, feminine gay women, they have their own styles, and they fit in with society, and gay men are all often portrayed as pretty boys, whereas, historically, butch gay women have always been portrayed as the unattractive maiden aunt types that nobody ever wants to have anything to do with, and that is ugly. I wanted to change those perceptions, really, and I wanted to say, “Look, there are lots of different gay women, and everybody looks different, and we’re really no different to anyone else, and actually, creating your own style, and your own look, with, you know the Butch Clothing Company being your go-to brand, will really give you a sense of your own identity. That was really important to me.
REDDY-BEST: Do your customers ever comment on the models when you’re talking with them?
RILEY: Oh yeah! Often. Yeah, they used the images of the website of my previous clients, because, I mean I’m really slack at putting them up. I mean, I have hundreds that have never even gone up there, because I’m so busy since it’s just me. So, I forget to send the images, and more of them go out on Facebook than they do on the website, but the clients look at Facebook, or they look at the website, and they go, “Oh, I like that girl, fourth row from the top, third in! I want to look like she looks in her suit.” And it doesn’t matter if that client weights 20 stone or nine stone, or whatever. Weight, height, looks, whatever, do not come into it, just that they like the suit. They go, “That’s what I want to wear.” And sometimes I have to steer them away from it, because, perhaps it’s not appropriate for them? Sometimes, you’ll have a client, I’m just looking at the conversion chart for weight here, so I’m going to do it in pounds for you. Do you work in kilos or pounds?
REDDY-BEST: In pounds, yeah.
RILEY: In pounds. So, I might get a client in here, and they might be, what we would say is like, nine stone, and that’s really slim — nine stone: that is 126 pounds— and she might be wearing her suit, and looking lovely in this white suit, about to get married. Then you get someone else who comes along, and they are, say 19 stone. So, that is 266 pounds and that 266-pound client is not going to look like the former client. You have to manage expectations, because I can still make her the same suit, and people are not stupid, but you have to manage the expectations that the 19 stone woman, the 266-pound woman, is not going to look the same in her suit as the 126-pound woman. So, what you do, when you’re doing the design of the suit, you go, “Look, she’s got a skinny color, but actually I think the standard notch color would look amazing on you.” And then you just kind of manage the expectations and the design of the suit based on what they’ve seen I expect the average weight of my client, if I had to say an average, would be about 12 stone, about 160 to 170 pounds. That’s average, and a lot of my clients fit into that sort of category, thereabouts, or maybe, are 50 pounds either way, and they can all pretty much look the same in it and have any suit that they like the look of, but they very much, look at other people.
REDDY-BEST: How would you describe your customers? Are they from all over the world?
RILEY: Yeah, it’s a global base. If I was describing them as individuals, I’d say “very eclectic.” I mean, I’ve had super-rich, feminine, American women, to dirt-poor, English women, to Australians, who had previously identified as straight, who were getting married. I mean, they just totally eclectic. I mean, you know, just because I say the “Butch Clothing Company,” not all my clients are butch, and probably 75% of my clients wouldn’t identify as butch, they would just say that they’re gay women. You would see them, and you would go, “Oh yeah, they’re butch,” but actually they wouldn’t say that about themselves. I get women that look like you, and women that look like me, and everybody in between. So yeah, that’s my market really, and it is variable. I’d like to do a bit more within America, actually, and I should probably pursue that, but it’s funding it that’s the problem, because we are a niche market and it takes a lot, and I don’t really make a massive living at all. Unfortunately. I wish I did, but I don’t, and I struggle quite a lot, because it’s so niche, and I think that I’d have a better market if I traveled to America, and I did pop-up shops in America. I did that in New York one time and it was very successful, but it costs money to do that, and as a small? quantity company, we just don’t have the money to do it. So, I, I find myself in a bit of a catch-22 situation often. The garments are expensive, so that prohibits how many people come to the company, since I don’t sell that many suits, but I’ve built a good name and a good reputation, so people that do come here, love what we do. However, I do feel in a bit of a catch-22 with it already, sometimes.
REDDY-BEST: Who is it interacting with the customers that are calling, is it you?
RILEY: Yeah, I am.
REDDY-BEST: What would you say that you’re most proud of, so far?
RILEY: Most proud of? Most proud of… I think it is the longevity, and that we’ve been able to survive, because I’ve seen a lot of other companies like Saint Harridan, like Tomboy Tailors, companies like that in America that have started after us and (failed) there’s no one else really in the UK other than me. There’s a couple of tailors that advertise in the same gay magazine that I do, but they’re basically straight companies and they make different kinds of suits to the one that I do, and I think I’m really proud of the fact that we found a way to make male suits for women. I’m really proud of the fact that, God knows how, I’ve just hung in there, and people like you go, “We think you’re a little bit famous.” Do you know what I mean? I’ve made a name for myself out of nothing. I was literally sitting here at three o’clock in the morning going, “I’m going to do this, and I’m going to get myself a company name,” I got it from the friends at dinner that night, and sat there and created a crappy little website and then I had to find a web designer to make it proper. I’ve literally taken it from nothing. We’ve taken no investment, we’ve taken no funding, we haven’t taken anything from anybody. I’m also really proud of the fact that we make high-end, quality products, and that people are just overjoyed, and it changes people’s lives, because they come to me, and some people are in tears when they come to me, because they’ve never been able to find garments that fit them, and they’ve never been able to find garments that match their personality or that equivalent of, you know, how when a guy puts on a suit, he can put on a suit and feel like he looks a million dollars. When women put on a male suit, they just feel like crap, because it doesn’t fit and doesn’t look great, and yet you know that if you put on lady’s clothing, you’re going to feel awful, and you’re not going to feel who you are. So, for a lot of these women that come to me, it’s the first ever time that they’ve put something on where they actually feel 110% themselves, and they feel like they look amazing. I mean, there’s nothing like putting on a perfectly fitted suit, and going, “Oh, yeah, I look magnificent.” You know?
REDDY-BEST: What do you think has been most successful?
RILEY: I think the most successful part of the business has actually been consistently delivering, excellent suits, that these women love. I mean, yes we’ve been successful at getting the brand name out there, considering that I’ve had to work so hard, all alone, basically, to make that happen, and I think that that’s great, but I think the fact that I—and I always say to people that they have to be prepared for alterations and remakes—but my record for alterations and remakes is absolutely superb, for the amount of times we have to do an alteration, and virtually never a remake. I feel blessed that I have the ability to be able to measure someone so successfully, and that I have such a great team that can cut suits so amazingly well. I’m just so proud that we deliver consistently these amazing suits for people.
REDDY-BEST: What types of positive feedback do you get, related to your brands and products? You already kind of mentioned a few things, but is there anything else that comes to mind?
RILEY: No, I just think that it’s word of mouth, I get a lot of referrals from clients that have been here, and from even people that haven’t been here because they just know how we perform. I get a lot of testimonials coming in all the time where people will write to me, email me, or put it on Facebook, and say how delighted they are. People send us photographs of their wedding. A lot of the stuff we do is for weddings, and I always get photographs back of their weddings, and people say “Oh, the, the big star of the wedding day was my suit, and people kept asking me, ‘where did I get it,’ and that they’ve never seen me looking so smart.” I get that all the time, like, virtually every order. I also get repeat clients. I did someone’s wedding the year Sue and I got married, in 2011, they are divorced now, but the, one of the partners, who had purchased the suit, came back to me, recently, and said, “Listen, I’d like to have another jacket.” I took the jacket to her on Sunday, I was on my way to the football actually, and she happens to live near where my team plays. I have a friend with a 14-year-old boy, who I take to the football with me because he doesn’t have a dad, so I always take him to the football, and we dropped it into this client, and she was just blown away. She messaged me today saying, “Shaz, I couldn’t have even hoped that the jacket was going to turn out the way that it did. It far exceeded my expectations!” That just came through on a text this morning, do you know what I mean? So, it’s that consistently, we’re really delivering.
REDDY-BEST: So, you’ve talked a little bit about positive feedback, and then you did talk briefly before about some of the negative feedback, that you don’t read that, but have you ever received any negative feedback from folks inside or outside of the gay community?
RILEY: No, I haven’t, actually. Can I add something to the question that you asked before? You asked me what I was most proud of, and I was just thinking about it, and I was thinking that one of the things that I’m really proud of is that because the business hasn’t grown out of hand, I’ve still been able to offer the personal touch to everybody. I was just thinking about this, actually. I just took it for granted that I would just drop this jacket off to this client on a Sunday, because I happened to be out that way, so it was no big deal, and I feel really privileged, and really blessed to be able to offer that kind of personal service, and when people come to me, I think that they feel very special. People are spending a lot of money and I respect the fact they’re spending a lot of money, and I like to make each person feel special, and feel that, even if it’s not about their wedding day, it’s about their new job, or it’s about some really big, important reason that they’re doing this. Although they’re going to have a three-piece bespoke suit in their wardrobe that they’re going to be able to mix and match with their jeans and their shorts and all their chinos and all their other elements in their wardrobe, and that they’re going to have it for the next 20 years and they’re going to love wearing it, I think the moment that they purchase it, that’s when they need to feel the most special. So, I just wanted to add that in. I feel quite privileged that I get to offer that personal service to people, and I get the time to be able to do that. Now, negative feedback, yeah… There was an article that came out in the Guardian newspaper, written by a famous journalist, who I happen to know, and it was a little bit tongue-in-cheek, the article, but the editor said that she could publish an article about the Butch Clothing Company the week that we launched in 2010, if she wrote this piece. It was a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but they did a photograph and all that kind of thing, and then from that, there was a website that popped up, with people saying things like, “I’d like to cave her head in with a cricket bat. And I’d like to…” you know. It was awful, awful stuff. Anyway, I contacted my solicitor eventually, and he said that we would do a cease and desist letter. We contacted the owners of the website, and they said that it wasn’t them, and that it was somebody else that did it, but it was taken down immediately, so that was the worst thing. It was a real, physical violence threat. The other thing that I had that was negative was, from a few years ago, and I started getting these phone calls, and these emails, and there are phone calls in the middle of the night, a 3 o’clock in the morning, from this woman who used very bad language, and very offensive, very threatening behavior, and emails to match, and then one day we were out with my little nieces. I mean they’re 12, they’re 13 and 10 now, but they were tiny. We were in London, and then phone rang, and it was one of these abusive phone calls in the middle of the day. I said to Sue, “That’s enough, now. They’re not going to do it to me when I’m out with my family.” That’s just ridiculous. When I got home that night, I contacted the local police, and I said, “I don’t want to waste your time.” I didn’t call like 999, which is our equivalent of 911. I just called the helpline, the police general helpline. And I said, “I don’t want to be a time-waster, but I’m a gay woman, and I run a gay business, and I’m getting these emails and I’m getting these phone calls, and I’m getting really upset by it, and they’re really kind of horrible, but I understand that there’s real crime happening out there, and all the rest of it. And they said, “No, no, no, you’re quite right to call, this is a hate crime. This would be considered a hate crime.” Anyway, they came around, two guys came around, and they were really lovely, and they were horrified by what they read. I’d kept all the recordings and everything. Anyway, they were like, “Well, we’re not going to let go of this, we’re going to sort it out,” and they traced the person. They traced the person to north of England, to some 18-year-old. They didn’t quite know why she did it, I never got an explanation as to why she did it. I personally wondered if it was her or her mother, that had done it, but police were there waiting for her when she came back from college one afternoon. The mother was evidently mortified and horrified that the girl had done this, and they basically said, If you ever do anything like this again, you’re going inside, you’re going to get locked up, because it’s a hate crime.” So, that was pretty horrendous, but really well handled by the authorities, and I’d like to think that things got handled like that everywhere, but I’m sure they don’t. Certainly, in our local police force, it, that was good, but those are the two worst things, that I can think that I’ve had. I mean I go on various websites, and I’ll go on various chat groups and things like that, even within our own community, and people can be critical. I think, sometimes, that can be jealousy, and sometimes that can just be devilment, you know? I think everybody can be critical, but generally, we’re extremely well-received and extremely well-supported. I have always lived my little gay life with blinkers on, because I try to ignore all the crap around me. But yeah, I think generally speaking, it’s good.
REDDY-BEST: How do you think about, or consider sustainability, or ethics throughout your business model in your company?
RILEY: Yeah, we really work with our studios. Our studio now, for example, is overseas, and we make sure that we pay 50% above the national wage, and ethically, you make sure that the people that are working with us are well taken care of and well-remunerated for what they do. I always said that we would never run any kind of sweatshop. It would never be about that, and the price point would always be high, and my profit margins would always be low, because I wanted to make sure that nobody was ever taken advantage of. Also, in the early days, when we had a lot of suits that were incorrect because we’d made a lot of mistakes, they just didn’t fit the people they were made for, so we’d send them to charities. Stuff like that, so that, people can benefit still. I mean, I lost 3 stone this year, in weight, that is uh … I lost 42 pounds in weight this year, so I had to get rid of all my suits. I didn’t want them altered, I just said, “let’s start again,” and I gave them all to charity, and things like that. I try to encourage people if they’re getting rid of their suits and having new ones made, that they do the same thing. Also, we’ve just started, I haven’t got it here, actually, but we’ve just started a new brand for vegans. So, we’re making our suits from a fabric made from bamboo. The wood, bamboo, you can create fabric out of it. Don’t ask me the process, because I don’t know, but I thought that it’s an expensive option, but it’s really good for vegans, you know, people that don’t want to wear anything that has anything to do with animals or any connection there. So, I thought that was quite ethical. Yeah, that’s about it, really. But I mean, I just really have very strong ethics and very strong morals. So, it’s all about not taking advantage of people, for me.
REDDY-BEST: Are any other types of community outreach or things of that nature?
RILEY: Personally, I do, yeah. I do a lot. I mean, I feel that I have to give back to society, because I feel that Sue and I lead a privileged life, and although the company doesn’t turn over a lot of money, my wife has a very good job. We’re not rich, by any stretch of the imagination, but we are able to have a nice lifestyle. I think that a lot of people would look at our lifestyle and really want it, you know. I mean, we’re not Ellen and Portia, by any stretch, but, we have nice holidays, and we have a nice house, and we have cars and things like that, so we are fortunate. I always think it’s important to give back. So, we have a national organization in the UK called Age UK, and Age UK looks after the elderly of our society, and it’s a massive charity. I wanted to volunteer as an individual when I started the company, to go and visit with elderly members of the LGBT community, who I knew would be isolated, because, if you think globally and historically, the LGBT community have been very badly treated and very badly abused and disowned from their families. The elder generation now, are mostly people that don’t have families that would be in contact with them because they were disowned by them. In our country, it’s a lot of the men would’ve imprisoned from the 50s and the 60s, and these are people that are still very ashamed of being gay. I wanted to be able to go and help these people and our local Age UK, in the surrounding areas, didn’t have anything. They said, “Oh no, we don’t have anything for those types here.” At which point I said, “I need to speak to your chief executive,” and they brought me to the chief executive, and I said, “You need to do some stark retraining because you don’t say, ‘I don’t have anything for those types.’ And also, why don’t you?” And she said, “It’s a great idea, we need to be doing something about it.” I said, “Well, there’s a program that Age UK ran in London called Opening Doors, and I think we could set something similar up down here.” So we did, Kent-wide, and Kent’s a massive county. I think it’s going through the other part of the UK now. It’s called Out and About, and it’s an LGBT charity for the elderly, and lonely and I founded it. I mean, I no longer work in the service because I got too busy, but it’s in very safe hands and it’s got a lot of volunteers, and it helps a lot of people. It changes a lot of lives. In Age UK there’s about 150000 volunteers (removed sentence as incorrect) and they award fifteen awards a year. I think it was three or four years ago, that I got Volunteer Peer of the Year. So, I got one of the major awards because of this organization. So that was really nice, and then, at Christmastime, Sue and I always try to work with the homeless. We go around London handing out information sheets on where they can go, because there’s a thing over here called Crisis at Christmas. They open centers seven days a week, the seven days for the week of Christmas. So, they can go and they can get help with mental health; they can get clothing; they can get haircuts; they can get food; they can get everything they need. The problem is that the real homeless don’t have mobile phones, so they don’t know where to go and where to get the free bus to get to these community centers. So, we go around with information sheets and a little bit of money, and hand it out to them. Then, this year, on Christmas Day—although I will be clear that I’m not religious—Sue and I were actually volunteering for the local church on Christmas Day and during the buildup to Christmas, helping to serve lunch to the homeless and the isolated and lonely in our area. So that’s a really good thing that the local church organizes and for which we volunteered. So, I’m always trying to find the time to do something, you know? My wife does a lot of charity runs and a lot of sporting events and that kind of thing to raise money. So, yeah we give back. That’s how we do it, basically.
REDDY-BEST: Yeah, that’s really impressive, considering how busy you are running your business.
RILEY: Yeah, thank you, but it’s important to give back.
REDDY-BEST: Through our conversation, you’ve answered almost all of the questions, but I always ask the end, and I didn’t ask about funding, because I think you had mentioned in your email that you didn’t want to talk about that, or could I ask about initial funding?
RILEY: We didn’t have any initial funding. We self-funded ourselves. We’d been offered several investment over the years, but they always want to change the brand. So, they always want it to be something else. They wanted it to be either a brand for trans people, well, for trans people have a fully inclusive company. Trans people are welcome at my company, and straight men are welcome at my company, and disabled people are welcome at my company, and straight women are welcome, everybody’s welcome! It’s fully inclusive, but I set the brand up for gay women, and fundamentally for butch gay women. I’ve been offered money to deviate from that brand, because of the quality of what we do, and also to go into other markets like shoes and things like that. I’ve been offered tens of thousands of pounds to do that, and I’ve never taken it, because that’s not what it’s about for me. It’s about my brand, and us being the go-to brand for lesbian and gay women to have male-style suits. We’re totally self-funded.
REDDY-BEST: Is there anything else that would be important for us to know about your brand’s history, your background, or your story as we sort of think about where you are now and where you’re going in the future?
RILEY: You know, this is always funny, isn’t it, because when you come off these things, you go, “Oh I should’ve said…” I think that the aim of the company was to be the go-to lesbian brand for butch clothing. I think that I would love to see the global brand grow. I really would. I’d love to be able to reach more people. I think that if there’s a message to be taken from the company, it’s to say to people, “Look, you can feel fantastic, and you can look great.” Clothing is so important, and the rest of society takes it for granted you can go out and you can buy a piece of clothing and look great, and unfortunately for butch-identified women, that isn’t the case. I guess we can go and put a pair of jeans and a t-shirt on, that’s no problem, but as soon as you want to look smart, you want to look smart for work, you want to get married, you want to look amazing, you want to feel the way that a feminine woman can do when they put a dress on. It’s a really hard path, and it’s a really hard journey, and for a lot of people it’s a really emotional journey. Don’t get me wrong, I know that I’m not running a charity here, but I do think that one of the legacies that we are giving witness to as a company is the fact that people can finally feel like they fit. That is really important to me. I think, to reiterate, I think the personal contact with the client is really important. I think that people feeling special is really important. I think selling quality products, and that making and selling and producing quality products is really, really important. Being accessible to my clients is important to me. I don’t care if I’m talking to you at three in the morning, or, whenever, because I’ll answer. I often answer emails in the middle of the night and I always answer emails personally, and I always answer them individually. I don’t have a standard response, although I do have a standard response, because obviously people are asking the same questions, but I am answering each, individual email. I just think that I’m really proud of everything that we’ve achieved. There’s probably a lot more that we could talk about, and there’s probably a lot more that I could tell you about the company, but, off the top of my head, I think, that the garments themselves are interesting. I think that you can see behind me. This is a jacket with a satin lapel, a skinny satin lapel, and satin buttons and satin pocket jettings, and when you open up the jacket, what you see is that women are finally being able to get garments the same as men. I always make sure that there’s inside pockets, and spare buttons along this side, which may be easier to see where the label is. You get a ticket pocket, and you get a pen pocket, and you get more spare buttons, and you get the piping, and the quality of the garment, which are as good as anything from a male, suit-making company or bespoke tailors. That was really important to me, that women were actually made suits that they wanted, and not just the suits that society think they should had with a feminine twist on them. That’s remained important to me.