Strapping Sacramento: Oral History
Susan Stewart for Strapping Sacramento was interviewed by Kelly Reddy-Best in the store, which is located in Sacramento, CA. This interview was 1 hour and 13 minutes and 26 seconds. The oral history transcript reflects the history of the brand at the time of the interview.
Oral History Video
Oral History Transcript
SUSAN: I am Susan Stewart. I am the owner and — I don’t like to call myself the “fashion designer,” but I guess I’m the designer of Strapping Fit.
REDDY-BEST: Can you tell me about just about your background, such as, where did you grow up? Where have you lived?
SUSAN: Yeah! So, I was raised by some truly insane people from New York City, from the Bronx, but I grew in Palm Springs, California, which is a very interesting town in Southern California. It’s very vacation-centric, there are a lot of older people, mostly retired, there is lots of golf, lots of tennis, lots of pastels — if you want to talk about fashion. So, I actually started my career as a golf professional. I started playing golf as a little kid and that whole entry is very masculine, and not in a masculine way of like, “Female can be masculine.” It’s a very macho, male-oriented profession and I just was having a really hard time grasping that being my career, so I ended up getting into retail within golf. I ended up becoming a buyer for resorts, early in my career, and I did that for probably about 10-15 years, and it’s kind of just all led me to this brand, it’s kind of funny, just working plain boring retail and being a buyer led me to getting kind of ants in my pants and go out alone and start my own store and start my own clothing brand, that’s kind of my background,
REDDY-BEST: Can you tell me about your educational background?
SUSAN: I have no education, I’m the worst. I went to Palm Springs High School. I got my high school diploma. After that, I was just one of those people. I was a big-time art student and I was looking to go to some private art schools and they were just way out of my price range and I just decided that, instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on education that wasn’t going to really help me, to just kind of go it alone, and unfortunately, that’s what brought me into the golf world, because that’s what I fell back on and that’s kind of what I knew. So, I didn’t go to college, I am a high school graduate, that’s about it. So, no big background, unfortunately[laughs].
REDDY-BEST: Which terms to do you use to describe your gender identity?
SUSAN: So, I don’t know if this is just like my age group – I’m 38 years old, and I’m going to be 39 on Thursday, and my generation never really talked about gender that much. It was kind of like, “male-female,” and if you were [queer], you’re either gay, bi or lesbian, there was nothing really else other than that. And if you’re in the lesbian world, you’re either Lipstick or Butch and so I’ve always considered myself a female, I’ve never felt particularly masculine or feminine, so if I had to pick, I’d probably say I’m very androgynous. I’m kind of in the center, but I definitely identify as female, and since I am “old school,” because I guess I’m 38, I would classify myself as androgynous or like, a “soft-butch lesbian.” I also identify as female, she, she- I don’t know what the heck! All the pronouns… I’m the worst. I’m the worst. It’s my age group, I don’t know why. So anyways, there you go! I’m a Gen-Xer and I feel like Gen-Xers, or maybe Millennials, started the whole thing — well not started it, but they awakened it. I just have a lot of lesbian friends and we just are all kind of that same age group and we never really like that. We were just like, “that’s who you are.” I think it’s fascinating all the stuff that’s happening with gender, because as a kid growing up, I’ve always felt kind of in-between, I’ve never felt one or the other, as far as social norms. I’ve always…I’m definitely… I have a lot of feminine qualities and I have a lot of masculine qualities, but I just like, “you know, that’ s just my generation,” it’s like, “we’re a lesbian, well a soft-butch lesbian,” it’s like “all right, whatever,” but…
REDDY-BEST: How would you describe your personal clothing style?
SUSAN: I think growing up in Palm Springs, I always feel that like, “a European man” is my clothing style? I also call myself “Connecticut dad,” because I like to wear Madras, and I like to wear Polos and I have more Sperry’s than anyone should ever own as a human. So, my personal style is, it’s very masculine, it’s always I don’t wear women’s clothing hardly ever. There’s nothing on me that’s female, even my shoes are male shoes, but that being said, it’s not hyper-masculine. I like to wear casual comfortable, kind of European, with lots of colors, and I don’t mind wearing short-shorts kind of style so, I would never classify my clothing and my personal style as feminine, but I’m not a tough dude. I would be a push-over dude, [chuckles], if I was to be like, “woosh,” little wind comes by and I fall. That’s the guy I am [laughs].
REDDY-BEST: How did the idea for your store come about?
SUSAN: So, my store came from my clothing line. I think most of the people, you’re going to talk to that have clothing lines, have an entrepreneurial spirit as well. It’s not necessarily just like, “I needed this so I made it,” it’s like, “you kind of want it to be in business for yourself anyways.” That was something that you’re really interested in, my clothing line came from just, purely me having a hard time finding stuff that fit me. Like, I really love button-ups, I love wearing ties and bow-ties and the stuff that is made for women, is very darted and the necklines are too big to wear with anything, and everything is so tight and form-fitting. Then you get to guys, and I have like, double-D boobs, and a big gut and big hips, you start trying to put on like a man-shirt and the shoulders are too long, and the sleeves are too long, and it doesn’t fit in your chest area. There’s just kind of the frustration of trying to find something, when you have a shapely figure that’s going to work, and on top of that, the thing that makes my line different than a lot of other lines that are out, such as the queer lines, as a buyer for many years, I know that there’s ways to get things a little cheaper. My line, my shirts are $29, so I wanted to make something really, really affordable, I’m not going to have the coolest, nicest fabrics in the chicest style, but I feel like you should be able to get a cool comfy flannel for under $30 that fits your form. At least your personal style, and how you like to express yourself, and I do actually have cisgender men that are just short, and they all wear my stuff. They do have a little bit more hip to them, they have a little bit more than just the average the box that the major fashion designers kind of put everyone into. It was just a necessity, it was like, “I want to be a business owner,” and “this is something that’s a need,” and I think that anyone’s who’s successful in business, that’s kind of how you have to approach things, you just kind of want to make something that’s great, but it has to be fulfilling some kind of need for the public, as well.
REDDY-BEST: When did you begin thinking about the brand?
SUSAN: So, it was in 2015. It was actually after my wedding, because I was having a really, really hard time finding a dress shirt, now that I’m in the queer fashion world, which [groans] makes me laugh because I’m such — when you see my line – you’re like, “ooh fashion.” I started meeting really cool other queer brands, and I’m sure half of them are people that you’ve interviewed, like Kirrin Finch, Lauren and Kelly are amazing! Then Thuy [Clothiers] and Dapper Boi, you know, they’re all these people that you start meeting, and you’re like, “oh, this was already out there. I wish I had known about you before my wedding.” My particular brand started because I was having a really hard time and it was just frustrating and I had to make do. Even for my wedding, I had to make do with a women’s shirt that barely fit, and it was kind of popping open in half my pictures. Thank god for Photoshop! But you know it’s just like that, I have the background. I know how manufacture. I know where I can go to get things done, like, how hard is it going to be to make a pattern. Come on, it’s not that big of a deal, let’s do this, so that is how it all kind of came about.
REDDY-BEST: So, you thought about it in 2015,
SUSAN: 2016 is when the first prototype came out. 2015 was almost just convincing my wife it was okay to go into business, and then also coming up with a pattern and finding someone who understood what I was talking about. It was so funny, there’s all things you had to fix on a men’s shirt to make it work, and there’s little things you had to fix on a women’s shirt to make it work, but for some reason saying like, “I would like a woman’s shirt, with no darting and a slimmer neckline,” to pattern makers, they were just like, “wait what?” Or if I was saying, “I want a men’s shirt with a smaller neckline with shorter sleeves, and maybe a little more room in the chest and the hips,” people are so programmed, that it took me awhile to find a pattern-maker that would work with me. I worked with a little company in Humboldt, it was very expensive here in the U.S. to get it done. I was really shocked, but yeah, so it took me like about probably about 5 or 6 months to get the right pattern, so 2016 is when I launched the actual line online.
REDDY-BEST: So, is it just you?
SUSAN: It’s just me, yeah! It’s just me, my wife has a normal job, that’s what she calls it, she’s like, “I have the insurance.” That’s what she always says. No, it’s just me, and my wife. My wife does not have the entrepreneurial spirit. She very much keeps us sane, which is very good ying and yang, because you need that. All these couples that do it together, I’m like, “God bless you.” If my wife and I were working together, we would not be wives, we would be divorced. So, it’s just me.
REDDY-BEST: Can you talk about the name, the significance?
SUSAN: Yeah! So “strapping” plays along a lot of stuff. I have a really weird sense of humor so I’m okay when people make fun of things as well, but strapping’s like, “strapping young man,” big, tough strong, and it’s made for like little people, they’re not maybe big, and, they’re stuff and strong, but they’re not big, and then also, I make neck-ties, so “strapping” was kind of a play on words for like, “strapping” and then they’re “strapping” and you know, there’s other stuff, and my “Target” [Tar-zhay] name is “Strap-on” people do call it that here, I have a store, that you’re in right and it’s a gift shop, but I name I it after my brand because I’m really proud it, and like, I’m like the only person in Sacramento who has, you can come into my shop and buy gender neutral clothing and more specifically masculine clothing for women, so I’m like, “I’m naming it ‘Strapping,’” and everyone calls it “Strap-on” and that’s fine [chuckles]. That’s what the name, the name is funny because it doesn’t make sense at all in my gift shop, but it makes perfect sense for my clothing line.
REDDY-BEST: And then, can you tell me, what like a typical day might look like in work?
SUSAN: So, I mean, this is where we’re going to get really honest, online, trying to sell my clothing. It is not easy to have a queer clothing line. The ones that are super successful, I really don’t know what their magic is. It’s really, really difficult. When I was just doing my clothing line, I was at home, trying to get as much Instagram and social media time, as I could, and as much publicity as I could, and as many bloggers and whomever trying to wear my stuff, as I could. It was really difficult and for people, who’re not used to having something that fits them anyway, buying online for something they’ve never ever tried before really freaks them out. So, I ended up just being Strapping solo, and just having clothing solo. I opened a store to basically, I don’t know, show some Sacramento pride and be like, “hey, this is a queer company coming in and here’s my stuff,” but also just to survive as an entrepreneur. I’ve had to add everything, I have to have a gift shop. The one thing that I’m really proud of, because of my gift shop, is that I can also have queer businesses be a part of my store, in places that they never would think. I don’t know, maybe they are in boutiques. I know a lot of time queer businesses have a really hard time getting into boutiques, because people don’t understand the concept, so by having this store, it’s been nice for me, because I have six queer women brands, and that’s including myself. I have six queer women-owned brands in my shop, and that makes me happy because it’s not just me that I’m helping. I can help other people as well, but having it just a brand, my day to day is running a gift shop and trying to get out there as well, like, “hey,” support these other women, support myself, be proud to be here in Sacramento and not afraid, but as far as just selling clothing it was tough. I honestly didn’t think I was going to survive, so I had to make it an adjustment.
REDDY-BEST: Who else do you carry?
SUSAN: So I have right behind me, [chuckles] I have Lucky Skivvies, she’s a gal from Brooklyn, gender-neutral underwear, geared to fit women a little bit more, but it has a pocket for the boys. I also carry local Sacramento, couple Zen threads, it’s a wife couple that’s right down the street and they do they do pretty much just regular printing, but they do some queer stuff as well, um I have, look at all this stuff right behind me, I have Stuzo, they’re from Los Angeles, and “Live Your Truth,” I don’t know if you’ve met with those guys. Yeah, so Uzo and Stoney, and I also have, which I don’t have in hand right now, but I have Teresa from HellaBae — she’s in Oakland. I don’t know if you’ve talked to her at all yet, but she does very, really cool women empowerment, and cultural empowerment for the black community as well, and then really cool HellaStuff for Northern California. So, I feel good about like being able to be able to promote some Queer people, as well. And all women — I didn’t mean for that guys! Sorry, it wasn’t me being sexist I swear. And then there’s me Strapping and of course Strapping’s in here, as well.
REDDY-BEST: Tell me about the business model.
SUSAN: The business model originally was to be a brand, and to kind of change with seasons, for the colors of patterns and stuff. It was also have an affordable option for people because spending $150 on a shirt isn’t always accessible to everyone, so that was my business plan. It was just the popularity thing is really hard, to be a brand like, Supreme. Supreme is the perfect example: it’s a T-shirt that says Supreme and they can sell for $800, and popularity comes into play with that. I just don’t have the following. Sacramento is a great a town, but we’re 2 hours from San Francisco and you think that would help, but it’s a little behind the times when it comes to fashion and understanding of gender, and the need for gender-neutral clothing. I’ve had people ask me like, “what’ s this shirt?” And I explain, I’m like, “you know, it’s for Masculine women,” “why would they need that?” and it’s like, “[groans] really?” I feel like [queer masculine] women is very understandable. Like, we’ve all seen Ellen, and you’re like, “huh?” no? I mean – just been watching for years, for decades, women that are more masculine, and wearing masculine clothing. I didn’t think it was such a… [sighs] but for some people, if you’re in a town like this, that’s a little bit behind the times… [grimaces] It got really difficult, so business model was to switch it up, [chuckles] and have a platform where I could have a business that runs smoothly in the gift shop, in the comedy, which is the fun stuff, which is like my world, and also to provide, a way to introduce Queer things to people. Tonight, we were going to have Thuy, Thuy from Thuy Custom Clothiers, come here and do suit fittings. She’s been here three times; she’s getting a nice little following here in Sacramento because people are desperate for it. They’re like, “Oh my god, I would love to get a suit made for my body that’s masculine!” It’s like, “what a concept!”
REDDY-BEST: Tell me about the different products.
SUSAN: So the ones that are with my brand. I’ll show them to you. So, I do ties, and the thing that’s different about these ties, is that they’re 51 inches, a standard man’s ties is 58 inches, so if you’re under 5 foot 6, you’re basically tucking your tie into your pants, or making the world’s biggest knot, because you just keep tying it to make it fat, and it’s a hot mess. So, 51 inches, that was the first thing I came out with. It’s such a simple fix and the people that make the ties weren’t like, “oh, let’s just cut a couple inches off,” and they’re like “okay and done.” So that was the easiest. Then I also have a long sleeve flannel, and these are both $29 dollars, so they’re not going to be the most high fashion. We have a long-sleeve flannel, and then we also have a short sleeve option and then these both come in 4 different colorways, which I don’t have with me currently. That’s pretty much all I have in my line and then I have accessories, like hats and tie clips, but they’re not anything that’s specially made.
REDDY-BEST: And was there anything you stopped selling or making in your,
SUSAN: Yeah! I mean, for all of my shirts right now, everything’s kind of ceased in production. The one of thing that people don’t understand that aren’t in manufacturing or fashion design, unless you’re making it yourself, is that small batches are impossible, especially if you’re trying to get a price point where I am. It’s everything. Everything I have is stopped, because I have such a high inventory still. I probably won’t be coming out with any other shirts for like a year, so, I don’t think it’ll stop completely. I pray to God, but who knows who’ll see this video? It stopped Susan! But yeah, the production of my shirts, I actually worked really hard to get a manufacturer that would give me a hundred units per style, which is actually pretty good and still keep that price, but it’s overseas and I’m sure we’ll go into that later, but still, selling all that stuff to a small niche of an already small population, and there’s not that many straight-identified female that dressed in masculine wear. I’ve kind of almost revamped my brand, like here in Sacramento, just to not scare people off with the flannels. Instead, to be like, “it’s a very cool cut flannel, and it sucks, and this is going to be good for you because, I don’t always tell people that it’s gender-neutral because some people really get freaked out and the thing about wearing a queer brand, it scares them, they’re like “Oh, I’m gay. ” We’re like “Oh my god, I’m wearing a queer brand?” I’ve sold it to straight men, that are short! I don’t tell them. I’m like “Strapping! STRAPPING! You’re so big and strong!” Because my placket’s on the right side like a man’s shirt, and there’s no darting or anything, or any cuts that are going to make it look feminine, so if there’s a little guy, he’s like “Gosh, this fits really good. There’s a little bit extra in here.” And I’m like, “That’s fine, it’s for comfort.” So, I mean unfortunately, yeah, I’m not stopping making them but we’re slowing it down so that I can brand. You have to! [sighs] It was designed here in the U.S. only because the communication of trying to like talk to somebody in a different language and describe sizing. We’re the only nation that doesn’t use the metric system, and trying to convert inches into centimeters is just horrific, especially if you don’t speak the same language. I had the designs or the pattern made here in the U.S., and then I had my samples made in China and I use a factory in China and that was simply because, my thoughts as an entrepreneur who is, I guess I like to think of myself as a business-minded human, I’m like, why does the GAP get away with using factories overseas and why does everyone get away with it, but the second that you say that I’m a small business, “oh, you have to be the most ethically sourced person,” and I definitely checked my factory to make sure if there was any weird child labor. They had to be accredited, you know? But, that being said, I wanted to play with the big boys, and at the time, when I first started, I thought I was going to make them in the U.S. but then, I was like, “let’s get these made at a good price,” so that if I take them to a store, so that if I want to sell them wholesale, I can, because they don’t cost a bazillion dollars. I don’t know what other brands you’ve talked to, but I’m sure that’s the hardest thing for them is that they can’t go wholesale because they’re probably doing things domestically. The same shirt I had priced here domestically was going to cost me $75 – $80 dollars cost, which means for retail, if I were just selling it in my store, I would have to sell it for $120, and if I was selling it to a Macy’s or something, they would be selling it for $400 dollars a shirt. It’s the most heartbreaking thing to not be able to do things domestically, but my whole goal was to make something accessible, because, there were so many people that are masculine-presenting females or trans men, that don’t have a ton of money, so because you don’t have a lot of money, you shouldn’t have to go to Target and just settle, or whatever. We might as well have one brand that’s made in China. So there it is.
REDDY-BEST: A lot of people don’t understand that. The general public doesn’t understand the cost of labor and why ethically sourced t-shirts cost $200.
SUSAN: They don’t, and it’s because somebody really cared about ethical sourcing. I love those people, but you have to almost pick a goal. You’re like, “what’s your goal? Is it to be the champion? Or is goal to be a champion in another way?” You guys are starving for this, so here it is, and it’s going to be cheaper, but I’m going to have to be the bad one.
REDDY-BEST: I think, it’s interesting, the overseas thing, but I agree with you. Look at Target.
SUSAN: Or look at anything – you can go look in my store, and look at things that are like, “designed in Portland” and then you look it over, and flip it over and it’s from China. Anyone who can, who’s going to make a lot of product, and like cycle through is going to do that. We’ll touch on fast-fashion. I was never going to be fast-fashion because I can’t afford that, I’m not rich enough for that kind of stuff, but fast fashion’s so huge right now, and nobody seems to worry about that ethical thing that’s happening. That’s really hard, when you have disposable fashion. I still worked really hard to make sure I had really good fabric. Really good. I made them send me about 50,000 samples, I’m like, “No!” Again, again, [chuckles] so I mean, yeah, it’s been hard on me, and I think that’s kind of why I’ve backed off making another batch, because when people see it, and they’re like, “tsk, tsk, tsk, you made it overseas” and it’s like, “but that’s how I’m getting it to you for so inexpensive.” I don’t want to say we don’t have the factories, but that’s not our trade in America anymore, there might have been at some point, when our trade was to make buttons, suits and make clothing, but nowadays, our trade is technology. I don’t know what our trade is. Here it is agriculture, and stuff like that, so by not having those trades, you have these little itty-bitty factories that can produce, and maybe small batches for you, but you’re paying Americans and Americans aren’t going to work for low wages, so then everything costs an arm and a leg. It’s not prestigious to sew in a factory anymore. Have you seen all the chefs on TV? Those guys are so full of themselves and all they’re doing is cooking food. No, I’m just kidding! [chuckles] All the chefs are going to come and kill me now. No, it’s true, and I’ve had this conversation with people, and they don’t comprehend, that it’s not our trade and that we don’t do it anymore. Therefore the people that do, and rightfully so, charge a lot of money. It’s really expensive and the people that are doing it, because I know a lot of the brands, like I said, a lot of them do it domestically and their shirts are $150 dollars. That just puts you in a business model where, that’s your brand, you’re selling it from your store, and that’s kind of where you can’t go into regular retail, which is my goal. I have a brand, I’m going to take that brand and put it in Macy’s and Nordstrom’s and wherever, like, at my level – you know, Target and wherever, because you can’t play with the big boys and charge lower prices for shirts.
REDDY-BEST: Tell me a little bit about the design process for your shirts, any part of it, such as your inspiration for the prints, or the fabrics or anything else.
SUSAN: Yeah, as much as I like wild prints, like, I love wild prints, I played it really safe. All of my shirts are, very classic, almost like, what the Gap does, and I kind of always kind of geared my brand towards that person, someone who likes classic fashion, because I don’t have the money to keep up with the new trends, so I chose basic flannel, with lots of blues and navies and greys. I think the wildest one is the burgundy one. Ooh burgundy! For the simple fact that it has a mass appeal, because I’m already playing in a market that’s so small, and then it’s like, “queer,” “lesbians” or “trans-men,” and masculine, so it just keep getting smaller and smaller, so you have to be as broad as possible to that little baby customer group, because if you go even farther and cater to this kind of person who likes wild, Hawaiian prints, it just keeps getting too small. So mine was about mass appeal, for the actual design, I started with a shirt that I actually felt pretty good in, but just needed some tweaks. I took a Uniqlo woman’s shirt, and there’s something about Asian clothing… I think Uniqlo’s from Japan, I’m not sure – don’t butcher me if it’s not.
REDDY-BEST: I think it is yeah,
SUSAN: I think it’s Japanese, and they make their sleeves a little bit shorter on the Uniqlo shirt and they have necklines that fit, and I’ve never found a neckline that fit on a woman’s shirt ever. This was just a plain Oxford shirt, and it like, “well this is freaking pretty close.” The only thing they have is a little bit of darting, and they were a little short and even though they had really good room in the chest and stuff, they were just a little bit too feminine. So I took that shirt to a patternmaker and I said, “this is rad, but I need this, this and this changed and I’d like the placket on the opposite side, so that if I have a trans-fella wearing it, he’s not going to feel like, ‘I’m in a woman’s shirt.’” So those were the adjustments and then they came back with the pattern and we had a sample made, and it was pretty good! We had a few adjustments done, and that’s kind of how the shirt came to be. Then, they gave a digital pattern, and I sent that to China, to my factory in China, and my one representative [chuckles] I was dealing with, she had a very big difference in language, probably. It was always kind of like, “No, no, no I’m insulting you. You’re insulting me!” We’re just back and forth the whole time and they made me a sample in a couple of different fabrics that I chose and then I got a feel on looking at them, and having someone try them on, just going back and forth until you got the one you liked. The nice thing about sending it off to China, for people that are watching this, and that don’t know, my sample shirt here in the U.S. cost $500, and my sample shirt in China cost me $20, so sending it back and forth to China was not such a hard task. Even with the shipping, it was so much less to have a sample made there. I think it cost me like, $35 a shirt, with shipping, so [groans], obviously you could almost get, what? 12 or 13 shirts for the price of one. That’s another reason why I was very into going overseas, just for the simple fact that it was saving me, as an entrepreneur, some money. So there’s that, [chuckles] and then you have a shirt [sighs] and then a hundred pieces per style later, you have a shirt.
REDDY-BEST: [chuckles] Can you show us some of the design details, on some of the shirts?
SUSAN: Yeah, so the first thing I designed was the flannel. This is the flannel. You can see the plackets are on the same side as a male’s placket, the neckline is, gosh, I think it’s 14 inches? It might be even a little bit smaller. The average woman’s neck is around 13 inches, I think, so it’s just a little bit extra to give a little bit. It’s got a small collar width as well, so it kind of keeps it all in proportion to who you are. So if you have smaller shoulders, the shoulder width is smaller, and we did a straight line across that back so it was a little bit more of a masculine cut, rather than something with a little ruching or whatever. Again – not a fashion designer. [Indicates to shirt] You can see that it’s a very square cut, as far as, there is no darting. Then the sleeve length is kind of interesting. I want to say it’s 21 inches, so it’s a lot shorter than a man’s shirt, but it’s very masculine-presenting, and when it’s on, it’s got a very crisp, masculine look. Then we did one with the short sleeve. We changed stuff up a little bit. What I was finding, with the long sleeve, was that women with boobs were having a little bit more of a hard time, we made a little bit more room than the short sleeve. The neck’s the same for the short sleeve. It’s a little bit longer than a woman’s short sleeve shirt would be, but a lot shorter than the guys. Again, it’s a very boxy cut, there’s no darting, and this time I did add the little bit of extra here and what that did was allow some room for your boobs without making the shirt boxier than it already was, and it gave you a little bit of this action- I was right! So, the squared off back like that, did make it a little tight, and then also, with this pattern, for people that don’t know fabric, when you have an up and down pattern like this and there’s not enough stretch, which I found — there’s not much stretch this way, it’s all kind of on the bias — they couldn’t really cut it on the bias because of the patterns that I chose for the flannels. So, with my short sleeve shirts, I ended up getting all over patterns so that, they could cut it on the bias and then give it a lot more stretch. Voila! Random fashion advice from Susan [sighs]. These are all thing I learned. Oy!
REDDY-BEST: Do you look to any style icons, or celebrities, or other people when you’re thinking about…
SUSAN: Yeah! I mean, I think that it might be my age group again, but Ellen DeGeneres is always my favorite, besides her personality. Like, take her personality out of it, because everyone loves Ellen, so Ellen could wear a garbage bag, but she’s really stylish too. She’s very fashionable. I also look at men and I usually look at, again, it has to do a little bit with my styling, a little bit of that European man’s style, just because you’re masculine doesn’t mean that you’re dowdy and boring. I don’t know how to say that, but it’s that assumption that every lesbian’s like the lumberjack [groans]. I don’t know, I like to make things kind of fun and fresh and exciting, and that’s kind of what me as a human. I like my personality to come across, so that’s kind of where I go for inspiration. I’m trying to think of guys that I like to follow. There’s all these guys — like Ryan Gosling’s probably someone because I really love his style, because even though he’s beautiful, handsome man, if you look at his clothes they’re really European and really kind of fresh. His style is refreshing. He’ll wear tighter things, with shorter sleeves. He wears his little shirt, like a very, very gay man, with the button down here and stuff, with really tight rolled sleeves. So yeah, Ellen and Ryan Gosling, two beautiful humans, ha! Strapping [laughs]!
REDDY-BEST: Have you received any feedback?
SUSAN: So, the first one designed after feedback was the short sleeve shirt. My first flannel, the feedback was that the sleeves are a little short if you get past a certain height. So, I kind of almost geared my clothes a little bit too petite, so when I did my second batch, which was with the short sleeve, I went back to the drawing board and I had the pattern adjusted and I had some more samples sent, but I feel like it’s fixed. My short-sleeve sells, gosh, at least 7 to 1 to my flannels, so, yeah, I’ve had feedback. And not only negative. I’ve had crazy, really adorable, tearful, people come in and just like thank me, which is weird, because I’m like “you’re welcome, here’s a shirt.” I think what the important thing about what’s happening in the whole queer market right now, and like gender-neutral clothing, is that there’s a lot of people that are desperate to find something that fits. It’s like pant-shopping. It’s miserable, and when you feel very masculine and you’re body’s not, and you’re trying to find something that fits your personality as well as like your gender expression or whatever, when you find something that fits and makes you feel good and confident… I’ve had people straight up break down. I’ve had moms break down, because, especially here in Sacramento, there’s a lot of young, queer teenagers that are transitioning from female to male, and, if nothing else I make them feel comfortable in here, but also they can get their shirt for prom. I do have a white plain, basic shirt, I should preface that, they’re not going with flannel for prom, and moms have cried, just because their kid feels normal and accepted. So that’s been the only weird thing. It’s weird, it’s weird. I love it, but it’s happy weird. It’s like [chuckles], I don’t know if anyone goes in the Gap and starts crying, “this t-shirt fits so good.” They start crying, so it’s an emotional experience for a lot of people and that’s kind of cool.
REDDY-BEST: Have you ever received negative feedback from folks in the LGBTQ or the queer community?
SUSAN: Not in the queer community. Everyone in the queer community is pretty down, maybe because I’m having things made in China and not here in the U.S. That’s the only negative comments I’ve ever had. Usually I can like explain it and people understand that I’m not trying to go to sweatshops, or anything like that. That it’s just kind of where our fashion is made, unfortunately, and I’m trying to be progressive enough to be like, “if the mainstream can do it, why can’t queer people do it?” So that’s the only negative.
REDDY-BEST: Can you talk about funding?
SUSAN: Yeah, funding is really hard. I’ve learned a lot about business, in the short period I’ve wanted to do this. I’ve personally funded all my stuff. I had to do a lot of it on credit cards and just kind of hope and pray, because something people don’t understand about business funding is that it doesn’t matter how wonderful your personal credit is, if you don’t have business credit it means nothing. Also I didn’t do any crowdfunding or anything. I feel like, some people get stuck in that, so every time they want to make something new they crowdfund. I just didn’t want to put a bad taste in anyone’s mouth, and that being said, I know a lot of businesses that did really well because they did crowdfunding, and it was almost like, a really smart way to get your marketing our there too. So I didn’t think about that, I just went straight in with my credit card and said, “let’s do this!” That’s why my wife doesn’t work with me, because she’s like, [groans]. She just holds on for dear life. Thank god she’s not here, if she was going to be with me, she would just be there and would just be eyerolling the whole time. Historically, there’s always that couple. My wife’s just like that [sigh]. There would be a lot more sass going on right here[laughs].
REDDY-BEST: I think you talked about sustainability and ethical business practices, already, but I don’t know if there’s anything else you would want to add to that?
SUSAN: There’s nothing more that I would like to be than made in the U.S.A. because I feel like people really want it, but it’s like, man! I’m so proud of the people that do it, but as a businesswoman, I’m like, “let’s see if we can do this for a reasonable price,” I don’t feel like it’s unethical. I just feel like you have to be smart and check out factories and make sure these people are good people. Obviously, there’s no sweatshops involved, but you can do that by finding out who makes the Gap’s clothing. I mean our internet is lovely, because it tells a lot, and you can see who makes this brand’s thing. Every single, piece of clothing out there has a an RN number, and that number is the factory’s code, so you can find out where everything’s made. There’s ways to go about it. You want to be as ethical as you can, but being made in the U.S.A. doesn’t necessarily mean that.
REDDY-BEST: Like it’s an interesting thing to think about because ethically, because it’s this interesting balance because other folks who might be producing here are not serving the lower-income community, and the folks who don’t make as much money are definitely not purchasing those products, you know?
SUSAN: I’ve told people about other brands and stuff, and they’re just like, “yeah [groans]. I can’t afford that,” and so it’s like, “I got you, I understand.” I mean there’s something to be said about using a local manufacturer, especially in your own town. I know there are a couple brands that are Brooklyn-based and are using factories in their town. That’s rad. That’s like a direct impact on your community, and you can talk to those people and you can visit them, and you can see what is happening, but yeah, I looked at the broader picture. My mind always goes to the next generation, because it’s going to take a while for fashion to catch on, or a brand to catch on and, I feel like, younger people – teens and 20 year-olds spend more money on clothes — well not more money, but they’re buying a lot. That’s what they’re really interested in: fashion, fashion, fashion, and when you get to my age it’s like, “meh?[chuckles] Do I have to take off my sweatpants?” So, the millennials and the next generation of people are definitely more open to this gender freedom, so I was gearing my brand towards that, like, those who are 25 years old and younger. I want my brand to be for someone who can’t afford to spend a ton of money, or doesn’t even want a really fancy suit, because not everyone wants a really fancy suit. Some people, I know, tons of humans that, like I said, don’t want to get out of their sweatpants, and you have to go to a wedding, and you’re like, “ugh, I don’t want to dress up,” and it’s like, “those are my people.” My people are the ones that just want to kick it in a flannel and have something that fits, and if you have to go to a wedding, you can button up, and throw on a clip on tie and you’ll be fine. Put your beer in a koozie because you’re classy, those are my humans.
REDDY-BEST: I love it.
SUSAN: Strapping, it’s so stupid.
REDDY-BEST: What has been most successful, in your opinion, for anything related to your business?
SUSAN: The most successful thing is honestly just those human interactions. I haven’t set the world on fire with my brand. Oprah’s not calling me to do an interview. I’m not on Shark Tank. Ellen has not called me and said, “Hey Susan, can you fill my wardrobe?” I’m not setting the world on fire financially. I know that there are a lot of people, and I’ve seen them in person, that have given me hugs, that have written me cards, and so the most successful that I’ve had is that, I’ve touched humans lives that needed it and that was my whole goal. My goal was to have something out there that wasn’t there, that someone could afford, and when someone buys one of my shirts and it fits, they usually buy the whole collection, because they’re like, “30 bucks awesome! Let me buy every color, because I finally found a shirt that fits, so being able to touch a person’s life has been the most successful thing. Financially, I have a gift shop now that has other people’s brands.
REDDY-BEST: I think that’s really cool; I can’t remember how we found you. If it was from research on the internet or from Thuy.
SUSAN: I mean, I am the number one gift shop in Sacramento. I am known as the queer store, which is really weird, so I’m like, “rad.”[chuckles]. That’s our life in here in Strapping. We’re such a small community. It’s funny. The queer fashion world is so small and niche, and like we all know each other and love each other. It’s a kind of a cool little community, and we all do different things, things that so different, and it’s great, because now, when I have people that look for stuff, that I don’t have I can connect them to other brands. I have had Thuy come here four times. I’ve been opened for ten months and I’ve had Thuy here four times, that was to do suit-fittings because there are humans that are asking me for it, because they’re like, “more, more, more! Please more!” So knowing each other — the same people at Kirrin Finch all the time, too! When I have business people out here buying custom suits, I’m like, “Hey, there’re some really beautiful dress shirts, called Kirrin Finch. Go on their website and get some stuff. Get some pocket squares and they do!” So, we’re a small little community within ourselves, so I’m not surprised that Thuy said “hey,” but yeah, my brand is not that successful, honestly. Unfortunately. But that’s okay, I’m adaptive. I’ll serve my little community here in Sacramento and have my online presence, be that [sighs]. Yeah, we all love each other, no one’s in competition with each other, which is great. We shouldn’t be in competition, even with small businesses around me, here in Sacramento. I don’t want them to be competition. I want Target to be my competition. I want someone giant, who’s not going to lose anything having me around. I want to push their buttons. I don’t want to push someone out of the market who’s trying to do the exact same thing as me, because we need them, to be vocal. My store is not making this big splash, but when one of us does, that’s awesome, because it’s only going to drag the rest of the community out, to be like, “Hey, by the way, these all exist as well.” So, yeah, no, we’re very tight knit, and we’re all in the same struggle and some of us are doing it better than others. We all share ideas and struggles and successes, as well. So yeah, “what are you most proud of, so far?” I mean, like I said, the human interaction is the thing I’m most proud of and I’m really proud of my wife for letting me do this and not saying, “no, nah.” I mean as far as my clothing brand goes, I’m really proud I was able to succeed and get a product made that was in that price range because it was really hard! It was not an easy task and the more I learned about fashion as I was going and manufacturing, the more I realized it was a really tough task to have something made that actually came out, with the right look and size and feel, that was under that $30 mark. So that was tough, but I did it! [chuckles]
REDDY-BEST: Was there anything that was really surprising to you?
SUSAN: I think I was most surprised by the pattern-makers, because I see pattern makers and the people that make clothing as artists, as well. It’s a skill, but it’s also that a pattern-maker especially, is a very talented human who can kind of visualize and measure and do other stuff. There were a lot of people that were really confused by the concept, and that was like, “Really?” I think I’ve talked to other brands and they’ve had similar experiences, but it was almost like, “Oh, was this a novelty costume kind of thing?” it’s like “No, it’s a normal shirt. It’s not that hard. It’s a masculine cut for a female.” We can do the opposite, and I wish that somebody would do that, like, a feminine shirt for a man’s body. I feel bad for that side of our spectrum, because there’s so much social garbage when it comes to men being feminine, even those European guys with their feminine clothing… there’s so much more psychological problems with that and I’m hoping that whoever’s watching this a hundred years from now, that that’s fixed, because, for god’s sakes, you can be a straight male that’s feminine! It’s okay! Or you can be a gay guy that’s femme, or where ever you are — bisexual, wherever you are on the spectrum of sex, and be feminine it’s okay. It’s not a big deal. God, I feel like as women we’re like, “yeah, man! Masculine whatever and women are tomboys!” It’s okay to be a tomboy, but you can’t be a “sissy boy,” and that just makes me sad, so I’m hoping I’m not that human because I can’t be the champion for that movement, because I don’t know enough about feminine clothing, or men’s bodies, but I hope that’s the next interview you do [chuckles]. That that’s part two, part deaux.
REDDY-BEST: I just booked, We Are Mortals. I just found them recently. It’s interesting, because historically men, typically, regardless of their sexuality, do not try appear more feminine because it reduces their power, due to the patriarchy and system of oppression. I’m really interested to talk to We Are Mortals, because it’ll be interesting to hear what they have to say about that.
SUSAN: Cool! Yeah, of course. I mean, because who doesn’t love Prince? Everyone loved Prince, and Prince was very sexual. I think he was straight, he never came out or seemed to be anything but straight, who knows! He was the epitome of like, “I’m here, I’m Prince,” and women go freaking ga-ga! I know so many straight women, and gay women, and men who are just like, “Oh my God, Prince!” He’s like just dripping sex, and he’s so feminine. If you watch his early videos, he’d wear women’s high cut leotards; he’d wear the French cut up to here; and crazy shoes and make up; and people were just like, “Oh!” He’s like, five foot nothing! He was like four foot eight! I don’t know how tall he was, but he was just oozing sex and for some reason just a regular, average joe did that, just down the street, people would have a fit. It’s so weird! It’s so weird, anyway. I’m queer so I’m not the person to ask, but I would love for a straight dude to talk about this. I would love to see what he says. He’d be like, “[stutter] I like Mom’s high heels.” I’m sorry, I’m off the subject. We went to Prince somewhere in there.
REDDY-BEST: You have talked about this a little bit, and I’ll ask again, just in case there’s anything else to add, what are, or were, some of the larger and smaller struggles?
SUSAN: The biggest struggle is really getting my name out there. I didn’t realize that I thought it was that hard. I think this is a healthy way to go into business, where you always have this idea that you’re just going to go in and everyone’s going to get the concept, and they’re going to love it and then they’re going to be like “What! This is amazing!” So my biggest struggle was hitting that wall. I would go to boutiques, and they would straight up say, “I don’t know where to put you, because everything’s in such a category. I have my men’s side; I have my women’s side. I don’t know how to explain this to my customer.” I would be like, “But it’s so easy, you just…” and I’m like “You’re going to be on the forefront, it’s going to be amazing!” I had one store in, that is based in the Bay area, that is called Therapy Stores. I used to work for them, a while ago and they would give me so much love and support and let me do my thing, but they never purchased stuff to put in their stores. They would give me pop-up shops until I was blue in the face. I could come every day if I wanted, but they needed a human there to explain it. I think that’s biggest thing that’s given me that Charlie Brown like, “Oh shit, that’s not going to work, shit!” feeling, because my whole concept was something affordable and mainstream, and being like that thing that breaks the seal. I didn’t want it to be something that is just available on my website. I was thinking, “this is going to be carried in Target, or this is going to be carried in whatever reasonably price store there is out there, or whatever boutique’s in the area,” and then boutique owners would always say, “wow this is rad, but I don’t know how to sell it.” That was the most disappointing thing, realizing that America’s just not America, and that the people are not ready for it. It was almost the realization that you have to do it yourself, and [chuckles] that’s hard! It’s hard when you’re peddling $29 shirts to make a living, when you’re like, “yeah,” [groans]. It’s like being a door-to-door salesman. I’m like, “Here’s the shirts for you!” So I’m doing well here in my shop, because I’m not relying on my shirt and I’m getting the word out to my town, and my town has been very supportive. I have people that come get my shirts all the time, but there’s a point where you get every shirt in the line, it’s like, “well, so yeah.” There’s my disappointment: mainstream society.
REDDY-BEST: It’s like, “When will it be ready?” That’s what I’m wondering.
SUSAN: I don’t know, and when? People are so…well you know, you know that in fashion things are so much in categories – “this is menswear, this is this, this is that.”
REDDY-BEST: Macy’s literally has a different store for men, a different physical location that is literally on a different block.
SUSAN: It’s true! So, it’s like, where do you put me? Put me in the alleyway between the men’s and the women’s store, in the gender-queer section. There are brands, and I am so proud of them, but they’re starting to make those gender-neutral shirts, but they still don’t know how to market them, so they’re talking about them like, “here’s your boyfriend’s pants, here’s your boyfriend’s shirt, now you can wear it,” but at least they’re starting to make them and they actually are really nice cuts. They’re not quite as masculine as mine. It’s like Ellen’s line, and I’m going to go back to Ellen DeGeneres, and her line, if you look at it, “Ed by Ellen,” is still really feminine, and it’s nothing Ellen would wear, so it’s kind of comical to me, because she knows, as a businesswoman, as a freaking “bazillionaire,” that people aren’t ready for it. They love it, they love her, they love her name, and they might want to wear a shirt like her, but it’s going to be a feminine cut, so Banana Republic is like, “Hey, we understand there’s a gender-neutral thing, but we’re still going to make the placket on the left, and we’re still going to make it your ‘boyfriend’ shirt, not your shirt.” I see that, and I’m like, “ugh, when are you guys going to wake up?”
REDDY-BEST: Yeah, well I mean, those kids you are serving are young, you know what I mean? So maybe by the time, they have spending power?
SUSAN: No, I agree with you.
REDDY-BEST: I’m 32, and when I was their age, I didn’t even know what queer was, and I grew up in New Jersey, just outside of Philly, and I didn’t know like what Queer was! I didn’t know any of the options. I was like, “there’s one kind of gay.” The only person I knew was like my field hockey coach and I did not look like her.
SUSAN: “What’s this lady?” but I mean, even in my world, the same thing. I’m 38 and it was the same thing. All I knew were the ones that were obvious, like, “this is a butch woman, this woman, is not butch —- what is she?” I think that’s why kids are coming so much earlier now. Obviously, America’s a little bit calmer, they’re not throwing stuff at you if you’re gay, well… not everywhere. Also, the internet has opened your mind to being like, “Oh, I can be feminine and be gay, or I can love women and I can be totally super lesbian, and super femme. ” My wife is ultra-femme. Okay, not ultra-femme, but she’s very feminine, and she’s straight passing, which is what they call her, and it’s always been really hard on her because people always question her sexuality and I think that even when I was young, I was always a tomboy, so it was like, “okay, I’m gay!” [chuckles] but I think if I were to be really feminine, I would be like, “Oh, am I gay?” Because all you saw were the tennis players, and we’re not going to name who, with the mullet and the glasses and then your PE teachers that were really rough and tough… I love masculine women, I love butch women, obviously! I’m like “soft-butch.” I wear a little makeup, but I was like, “Ugh, is that who I have to marry?” And they’re all 60 to 100 years old, I was like, “aw, they’re all going to be old.” I’m sorry to the women — I love you, you’re probably watching right now and are like, “fuck you!” I’m sorry – you’re lovely, but it messes with people who are trying to figure out their sexuality when you don’t realize that you can be bisexual, or you can be kind of all over the place. It’s okay. I’m happy that spectrums are coming, because even when I was growing up queer, you were either a “Lipstick Lesbian” or “Butch,” and I never fit either. I’m obviously more masculine, so people would just be like, “so you’re a butch lesbian,” and I’m like “Oh, I don’t- I don’t…” and then you try to bro up with them, with all the other butch lesbians, you’re like “Hey!”[spits] and it’s like: I never fit that! And you always thought that these pretty girls just wanted these those guys, those dudes, and it was really hard. So, I’m happy spectrums are happening.
REDDY-BEST: So that’s all of the questions, was there anything that I didn’t ask, that would be important to note, something would be important to talk about or that I didn’t emphasize enough?
SUSAN: No. I mean, I think you hit all the questions. I’m really intrigued to hear about what the findings are, and then what’s the version of tomboy or gender-neutral for men, because I would love to see the opposite, because I don’t have that in my head. I know what it’s like to be a female that likes masculine clothing and kind of plays with that line, but I would love to know what it is for men, but no, you hit on everything! I guess just “Freaking don’t go into queer fashion!” That’s all I have to say. Be Michael Kors and sell tons of purses to ladies. It’s horrible [chuckles], and it’s hard. I think that’s my only thing for whoever’s watching this: queer fashion is hard because, you have to get the queers on board too. They get comfortable going to whatever brands are already out there, like I go to J.Crew and I get my man sweater and I’m fine with that, and so it’s like, “Try out a queer brand! Just try it and support your community!” That’s it.[chuckles]. That’s it.