To be queer is to be in a constant state of self-discovery — about who we are and who we love, naturally, but also about what clothes make us feel most like ourselves. Personal style is inextricably tied to identity, and both are as much about the journey as the destination: All those drastic haircuts and experimental outfits and ill-advised trends are essential steps along the way. For queer designers, they are both embodying and creating that identity for others.
“I think as queer people, no matter how wonderful and accepting of a community you have, we’re always exploring and experimenting, whether that’s in order to fit in or in order to stand out,” says the designer Daniella Kallmeyer.
She recalls a quote from the LGBTQ+ activist Alexander Leon: “Queer people don’t grow up as ourselves; we grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimize humiliation and prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us and which parts we’ve created to protect us.”
Fashion is one of the best tools we have to express ourselves, find community, and communicate without needing to say a word. For many young queer people, fashion is also an escape — a place where individuality and creativity are celebrated, rather than spurned.
For Pride Month, TZR asked seven favorite queer designers to reflect on how fashion has helped shape their identities and what queer style means to them.
Becca McCharen-Tran, Chromat
“As a lesbian, when I stopped centering the male gaze in my life — when I realized that I didn’t care what men thought at all and I didn’t have to appeal to men ever, romantically or otherwise — that definitely changed the way that I dressed. I feel like there’s a certain way of wearing your hair or putting on makeup that is sort of vested in the male gaze, and I really enjoy more severe hair and makeup. I remember getting a lot of feedback from male classmates, like, ‘Oh, you’re so intimidating.’ But I just don’t care.
I think as a young fashion designer, what you wear is your calling card. It’s how you tell the world, ‘I’m a fashion designer and this is what I do and this is what I love and this is what I make.’ And now, 10 years in, Chromat is a little more well-known where I don’t feel like I need to be performing my job at all times, so I’m a little more low-key. But when I watched Euphoria and saw Jules, the young fashion designer, the way she does her makeup and wears really cool, experimental things, that’s something I’m trying to reactivate in myself. Because I think 10 years in, I did become a little jaded. I just wear T-shirts and pants and just focus all my creative energy on making the clothes. But now I do feel like I want to get back into it.
I feel like I still am always so excited to meet a lesbian or trans person that is a fashion designer.
When Jenna Lyons came out… that was very exciting for me because I just didn’t see that. I felt like lesbians were kind of the polar opposite of the queer spectrum that you get in fashion. Lesbians don’t care how people perceive them; they don’t care necessarily about looking cool or looking sexy. It’s sort of a rejection of so much of the culture of fashion.
“Continuing to expand this idea of what is deemed desirable or whose bodies are celebrated and whose are hidden, that’s something that is informed by being queer and being surrounded by queer community.”
My wife, Christina, just bought her third pair of Birkenstocks, and to me, that is lesbian living. We’re always making jokes about cargo short lesbians and how we’re basically retiring into that genre. But I do think cargo short lesbian style is so true to that rejection of the male gaze and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think it’s awesome.
I’m doing a collaboration right now with the filmmaker Tourmaline, who’s a trans woman of color. She approached me about wanting to make swimwear for trans girls who don’t tuck. So we’re making swimwear bottoms that have more room in the front, and of course, matching bikini tops. I think continuing to expand this idea of what is deemed desirable or whose bodies are celebrated and whose are hidden, that’s something that is informed by being queer and being surrounded by queer community.”
Curtis Cassell, Queera
“I feel like I’m queer first and gay second because queer is what I wear myself every day. I believe in a level of transcendentalism in fashion: Some days I want to look like a boy, some days I want to be ultra-femme, and I think you can have that duality and everything in between. So what I do as a designer supports that. Binary people can get clothes anywhere else, so I don’t want to make binary clothing.
In mainstream fashion, even when it’s boundary-pushing, it’s a PR stunt. It’s like, ‘Ooh, this designer put a boy in a corset.’ And it always feels like a circus. It never feels like a genuine representation of a real person… I have had a couple of people be like, ‘Oh, you dress for attention.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t dress for attention. I was dressing for other people for the first 18 years of my life to hide myself. Now I’m able to fully express myself without any shame or embarrassment or hiding from anyone or apologizing.’ It’s self-representation. It’s not flashy. It’s melancholic and romantic and dramatic, but it’s never just for the attention.
I think the real pivot point for me was when I was 25 and I bought a pair of 4-inch white Baby Spice platform shoes. They reminded me of when I was in fifth grade and all my girlfriends had these wedge Skechers and I wanted a pair, but my mom was like, ‘No, those are for girls.’ And so when I saw these shoes, I was like, ‘You’re 25. You can wear whatever the f*ck you want.’ And ever since then, I’ve been buying little things like this sparkly silver bag or this Spice Girls clutch or I got my ears pierced. It’s like the Infinity Stones from The Avengers — I feel like I’m collecting these gay items that I wanted for my youth and becoming powerful.
I never studied fashion. Fashion became my medium. I used to work at a wedding venue, and we would all talk about the brides and grooms and what they were wearing and what we wanted to wear for our weddings. But I worked with an all-gay staff, pretty much, and the first question was still, ‘Do you want to wear a suit or a dress?’ And I was like, ‘Why is there such a gap here? It’s literally black and white.’ That’s when I was like, ‘Oh, this is my project. I need to make a space for queer people within bridal.’ Because it’s so binary, it’s so traditional, it’s borderline archaic. I didn’t even like the term ‘bridal,’ which is where the name ‘Queera Wang‘ came from. Because it was an homage to Vera Wang, it implied bridal without saying it. It was kind of like a sassy, gay drag name.
I don’t use the colors black and white at all because I don’t even want it to be like, ‘This is the bride. This is the groom.’ Burn it all down. Bridal is patriarchy. We need to reinvent this stuff.”
Daniella Kallmeyer, KALLMEYER
“My identity is reflected in my ability to go from high glam to soft butch without question that I am the sum of my parts.
To be queer is not about what we wear on the outside — for me, I am attracted to the way people posture. Whether it’s how someone slouches her pants when her hands are in her pockets or casual confidence in a dress. It’s Harry Styles in a lace shirt and Billy Porter in a ball gown. Most days I’m in an oversize blazer because as an artist I feel comfortable in a uniform, but the exercise and privilege to be entirely oneself on the inside while changing how we look on the outside is an ongoing practice. And like fashion, having permission to change how we feel as we educate and evolve. Nothing is fixed. In a way, fashion is a beautiful metaphor for identity.
Was it fashion that influenced my identity? I think it was much more that my identity influenced the way that, as a designer and as a creative, I experimented with fashion and rejected certain norms and experimented with clothing that was from a different time or not necessarily made ‘for me.’
I was always interested in suiting on women. I was incredibly attracted to images of women throughout history that were strong and played with this idea of nonbinary clothing, like Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich.
I grew up very involved in theater and performance and I was a competitive figure skater, so costume was very much part of my life and my world. But it wasn’t really until I was in high school that I realized that fashion is not the same as costume. And especially now, I feel like I strive to make clothes so that we wear them and they don’t wear us.
I think that people think of the queer aesthetic as being very eccentric or colorful or punk rock. And at the time when I was coming out and building my career, there wasn’t a lot of place for something that was youthful, refined, and professional without making me feel overly feminine, which for me felt like costume and like I was putting on a mask of fitting in. So I experimented in so many ways — I wore cutoff tank tops and wore the fit of my jeans differently. There was a period of time when I was coming out when I shaved part of my head.
All of these things were not only for me to be comfortable in myself, but they were also, in a way, signaling. I think when you are straight-passing — meaning that you can walk down the street or into a business meeting and people just assume that you’re straight — you want so much to be accepted and known and seen. And so we try to pick up these small visual signals in order to be part of the world that we fit into the most while also fitting into the world that we are already part of.”
Jacques Agbobly, Black Boy Knits
“I’m originally from Togo, West Africa. As a designer, I’m someone who does unisex clothing, but I’m always thinking about it from a womenswear lens because I grew up with a lot of women in my life who inspired me. I would always revel in the way that they dressed and I wanted to be like them and dress like them. But as a Black man growing up in a society that had very strict gender assignments, that was not possible. And so a lot of the clothes that I make allude to traditional womenswear details, but I love to put them on people who identify more on the masculine spectrum.
I do a lot of ruffling, I do a lot of florals, a lot of handwork, beading, embroidery. And knitting, specifically. I recently launched my knitwear brand called Black Boy Knits. I’ve always been interested in launching something that highlights that I’m a queer Black man knitting, which isn’t something that you often see. It’s still considered taboo.
Beading, weaving, all these sorts of crafts were associated with the women when I was growing up, so I never felt like I could engage in them. But I always loved them. When I’m beading or when I’m knitting, that’s when I can process a lot of things that are happening in my life. That’s when I feel like I can take a break from the world and just focus on this.
I guess in a way, discovering fashion helped me better understand myself, whether culturally or in terms of sexual identity or gender identity. Through making clothing and through creating these fantastical ideas and dreams and aspirations that I had growing up, I was able to discover myself.
I graduated from Parsons School of Design a year and some months ago, and my community is the people who are in the studio with me every single day. I’ve surrounded myself with a lot of queer Black folks — people who will always work together … so if one person needs help finishing something or figuring out how to do some specific thing, it’s one of us who will lend a helping hand. Part of my practice as a designer is always making sure that I’m continuing to support the people within my community that may not be getting the same opportunities as me, so we just create this cycle of support for one another.
Queer designers have always been here, but because they didn’t get the support that they needed financially, we just never got to know about them. Especially queer Black designers, there haven’t been a lot of us who have gotten global recognition or success in the same way that white queer people have gotten. I would definitely love to see more queer Black folks getting funding opportunities and mentorship opportunities because we do exist but we’re not going to grow unless we get that support.”
Kelsey Randall, Kelsey Randall
“My aesthetic has always been pretty flamboyant and over the top. I’m completely inspired by queer music icons — always with the Bowie inspo and Freddie Mercury … that kind of thing. I’ve just always looked at rock stars as my aesthetic. For me, growing up in the South, fashion was a way that I could just be myself and stand out from the crowd, even though I wasn’t necessarily comfortable vocally stating my own queer identity at the time. Fashion was a tool to just be like, ‘I’m different. I’m not going to fit into this conservative, preppy mold.’
I moved to New York when I was 18 to go to Parsons and study fashion. It was a queer community, but it was a queer male community that was completely dominated by gay men. It took so long for me to even meet other queer women because I wasn’t exposed to it in the fashion community I was in. I first started my line six years ago this August, and I remember in these early meetings with potential investors, everyone wanted to know, ‘Who’s the Kelsey Randall woman?’ They want it to be so defined, and I would go in and say things like, ‘Well, the Kelsey Randall person is as unique as they want to be.’ People didn’t really understand that … people just could not wrap their heads around that there wasn’t a target demographic.
It’s just, to me, so close-minded and boring. I really feel like I gained the confidence in the last few years to break free of that and just be way more willing to seek out inclusivity, whether it’s size inclusivity, gender, ethnicity — across the board. Because that’s the kind of world I want to live in. For me now I realize it’s more about designing these really special, unique pieces that, even though there might only be this one person for this garment, at the end of the day, it’s going to be something that makes them feel incredible and unique and different.
A lot of the women that I design clothes for, they’ve really embraced a super feminine look as being a very powerful one, especially on stage. They kind of eschew this idea that female rock stars need to be grungy or masculine to shred on the guitar. It’s been great working with women who have embraced this idea of, ‘No, I want to completely play my instrument out there wearing ruffles and pink and totally embracing this feminine energy.’”
Kingsley Gbadegesin, K.NGSLEY
“Fashion raised me in a way. It taught me how to show up for myself, and there was a certain growth and consciousness that came with that. It also enabled me to become a business person, helped sharpen my critical thinking, and gave me joy that knows no bounds. It’s hard to explain — how so many nuances of who I was, am, and hope to be are wrapped up in the world of fashion. In many ways, in the essence of who we are and what fashion makes possible for people, it’s a language unspoken.
I didn’t really have queer role models growing up. My role models have always been women. Strong women, independent women, women who, when they spoke, moved mountains. They had a presence about them, something of a weapon I’d later find out to be fashion as well. It’s the way they showed up for themselves and didn’t seek or need the approval of anyone else that broke open new possibilities in my own way of living. They were humble, yet proud. Classy, but so sexy. Tough, but soft by way of strength.
To be really real, so often these days I am in Nike shorts, an oversize tee, and sneakers. One thing people tend to forget is that I’m a team of one. I’m very hands-on because customer experience is everything. From packing our online sales to meeting with pattern makers, working with my production offices, and running samples between editors, I’m always on the go.
However, in my work, in the styling of my pieces — you can see parts of who I am and the communities I’m a part of. This is less about me and more about the ways I believe clothing can empower people to be their truest selves. And I’m very excited about the release of Collection 1, Act 1. You really get to see my personal style, my personality, and my beliefs reflected.
My work is as much about identity as it is about how it makes people feel. How it makes identity more than an internal reflection. How it can make it real.
There is a certain feeling clothes give me. It’s very emotional. I can show you everything I am without saying a word. Clothes have always been like armor, a confidence boost for facing the outside world. That’s what I hope to bring forth and make possible for others through my work.
One thing I’ve noticed with queer youth today is that they’re not afraid to show up fully as themselves. I admire that so deeply. I wish I had the courage, space, and opportunity to fully show up for myself when I was a kid like the youth of today have. Something I’ve already seen as they embrace my work is that they’re unabashed to show up for themselves and it’s truly an honor to share space with them because it feels like we are being more fully seen and we can more safely and openly share dimensions of what it means to be THE GIRLS.”
Sheena Sood, Abacaxi
“For me, fashion is one of the best ways to express myself, my identity, my mood, my culture. Some people can express themselves more comfortably via words, but in a way, fashion is just another language, and it can be easier for me to use fashion to express something instead of saying it out loud.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. In my high school, I didn’t really fit in. I wasn’t athletic and I went to a big sports school. I was one of the few brown kids. So there were a lot of ways in which I was othered. I think fashion started as a way for me to fit in, but as I started to be known for my style and my outfits, I took note that people were responding well to that and it became a mode of self-expression. I guess that’s when I realized the power in telling stories through style. I didn’t have the same confidence then that I do now, but that’s how it started.
I didn’t come out until later, but I was queer in a lot of different ways, regardless of whether or not I was out.
Around that same time in high school, Frida Kahlo became a fashion role model for me in the way that she incorporated her heritage and traditions into her dress during a time when it wasn’t popular to do that. And she embraced her queerness through her style as well. Obviously, everyone thinks of her eyebrows first, and she embraced that quality in herself. I see her as someone who expressed her identity through what she wore and the way that she dressed herself.
“I was queer in a lot of different ways, regardless of whether or not I was out.”
I’ve always had an obsession with color and if you look at my work, that’s one thing that unites all of it. I think that’s really tied to my heritage, actually. Color is in my blood. But there’s also something about my obsession with rainbows. They’re all over my work in some way or another.
I’ve been really inspired by [the gender-nonconforming writer and performer] Alok Menon and their de-gender fashion movement. Their message is basically that clothes don’t have gender, which is true. We assign gender to them: This is women’s, this is men’s. But the clothes are genderless. It’s the person who wears them who has gender. As Abacaxi’s clientele is growing, and as my range of designs is growing and changing and expanding as the brand gets bigger, I hope to attract more clientele of all genders.
Within the South Asian community, the representation you see is not necessarily as diverse. You don’t see as many out trans or queer people. So I think that a lot of people in my community are excited to see a queer brown designer.”