It's a suitable tale of metamorphosis: a tailoring shop for businessmen in Brooklyn transforms into a bespoke company in full bloom thanks to its gay and transgender clientele. The agent of change is Daniel Friedman, a 37-year-old American-Canadian -- who himself is straight.

Friedman had no apparent bent for tailoring, but lead poisoning -- apparently from paint he used to decorate his university room -- forced him to give up his dream of becoming an architect. Within several months, this slight, hyper-energetic man became unable to read or write. But because he loved suits and design, he decided in 2011 to open a tailoring shop, Bindle & Keep, in Brooklyn.

The clientele were mainly Wall Street financiers who came for their fittings in Brooklyn, while the garments were sewn in a small shop near Bangkok. "When I started the company and wrote a business plan, I thought these were the guys who needed suits, they had the money for them and were always looking for new opportunities to find a new custom tailor," he said.

Then, at the end of 2012, Friedman hired a new apprentice, Rae Tutera, who runs a blog popular with the gay and trans community, and everything started to change. Tutera, who is non-binary transgender -- identifying neither as male nor female -- wrote about the tailor shop, and the first of a new wave of customers began to trickle in.

"At first we did not know what we were doing," Friedman admitted. At the time same sex marriage was still banned in the United States -- it would be legalized in June 2015 -- and there was little public discussion about transgender issues. He quickly realized that sensitivity would be key. "We do what all custom-suits companies do: We take measurements of the body, we build a suit. The difference is instead of discussing, 'Hey, what's the style that you want?,' we talk about, 'How do you want to feel?'"

Many gay and trans people struggle to find the right fit of clothes -- with the effect of making them uncomfortable in their body, he said. "Probably 50 percent of everything that we do is about empathy." "There is a therapy element to this and a psychological element that we include in the manufacturing of the suit that a lot of other companies might skip over."

'Thankful that you exist'

In November 2013, his new clientele sparked an article in The New York Times. "At the time none of us in the company thought it was a big deal, it was just, like, make people happy and the Rolodex of customers grows and we will survive," Friedman said.

But the day the article appeared, he said, "I checked my inbox and there were about 300 emails from all over the world." Among them was one from a mother in Paris, who wrote: "I suspect my child might transition soon and I am just so thankful that you exist because it means my child will be OK." "That's when I knew this wasn't just a business, that we hit a vein and a very important wedge... in the evolution of societies all over the world," Friedman said.

Ashley Merriman, one of his clients, agrees. The lesbian chef at a trendy Manhattan restaurant discovered the shop this summer when she was looking for her first custom-made suit for her wedding. "When it came time to get married, I was really dreading getting dressed, and that's when I came here, " said Merriman, 40, who has dressed in men's clothing for more than 20 years.

A photo posted by Bindle & Keep (@bindleandkeep) on

"I finally found something that fits... the experience was great from A to Z. It certainly changes the way I feel... now I am so much more confident," said Merriman, who is five feet, 11 inches (1.8 meters) tall. Merriman praised Friedman's "magnanimous" approach, including asking intimate questions key to a custom fit, such as the use of binding to compress the chest.

"Daniel is not part of the community but to have done all this work to work for us... that's really a big heart... for him to learn the language," she said. That appears to be the view shared by thousands of clients -- including hundreds for live as far as Australia, Europe and Japan -- who vote with their feet and their wallets at Brindle & Keep.

After struggling to begin with, Friedman now employs seven people and says his annual revenue exceeds 1 million dollars. He is preparing to launch a branch in Los Angeles, and eying the Chicago and Canadian markets. Brimming with enthusiasm, Friedman hopes other businesses will follow his open-armed example.

"We are demonstrating that you don't have to be a member of the community to serve the community," he said. "If other companies in other fields can see what we do, they will see it's really rewarding and it's not that crazy and it's not that hard!" (AFP)

 

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