I recently sat down with Chris Brogan and Kerry Gorgone of The Backpack for this live interview!
See what I had to say in this exciting conversation about mentorship in the Queer Community, how to introduce Trans and Gender Diverse youth to non-surgical affirmation options, feminism in the world of fashion production, and so much more!
Here's the transcript (edited for clarity):
K: Rae Hill is the founder of Origami Customs. They're a lingerie and swimwear brand that caters to all body types. I am thrilled to have them here today because the brand is incredibly inclusive. Even my own teenager, who has a different body type, owns some of their products. I'm just fully thrilled to have them here. And yes, I have a unique body type too...Alright, well, let's drag Rae on again, I'm so excited to have you, Rae!
R: Hey, excited to be here!
K: Unfold the story of Origami for us. How did you decide, you know, what I need to do is make Underpants?
R: Basically, Origami Customs is a custom handmade line of lingerie, swimwear, and underthings made to fit everyone's body. I've been doing this for 12 years. It started differently when I was a scuba diver living in Honduras. Over the years, it has evolved, and I wanted to create something that affirms the gender diverse and trans community, which is my community as well. With my background in making swimwear and lingerie, I realized that a significant part of our community was being left out. So, I've been focused on that for a long time. We are based in Montreal, and we have a small team of skilled craftspeople who sew everything. We recently launched a new collection of swimwear, and everything is made for everybody, regardless of body type. I love it so much.
C: First off, you just said that your people are sewing in Montreal. So, you choose not to sew in places like Kosovo where people can work for very low wages. What influenced this decision?
R: It was a significant factor in starting this venture from scratch. I wanted to discuss the ethical considerations involved. In capitalism, there are various approaches, but we believe that capitalism should go beyond just making money. We can do business with a heart and support our community. Therefore, it was an obvious choice to start at home and train individuals with valuable skills. I aimed to hire those who were often overlooked for mainstream jobs with upward mobility. Additionally, I wanted to ensure that queer and trans individuals in our community received healthcare benefits and a livable wage. This decision is also connected to the global feminist movement, as I couldn't outsource production to places where women of color might not receive fair compensation for their work. From the very beginning, I personally made everything, and as the brand grew, I sought help from the people around me and within my community. Our goal is to be a sustainable and ethical brand, although the term "ethical" can be overused. We strive to do our best while acknowledging that we still operate within the existing system. Sourcing materials from Asia is a necessity, but we make other decisions along the way that align with our values.
C: I invited you to the show because there seems to be a conflicting narrative in the media and on social platforms. Some try to portray trans, non-binary, and genderqueer individuals as a small minority, yet your successful brand, thriving for over a decade, proves otherwise. Could you share your thoughts on this?
R: Absolutely! This brand has grown beyond my wildest dreams since its humble beginnings when I was making bikinis for scuba divers in Honduras. In recent years, there has been increased acceptance and visibility of trans and gender diverse people in the media. This has led to more individuals exploring their gender identity and expressing themselves authentically. Surprisingly, during the COVID-19 pandemic, while many online businesses struggled, mine experienced exponential growth. It became evident that people, for the first time, had the opportunity to stay at home and feel comfortable exploring their gender. They had some extra resources to support ethical brands like mine. It's encouraging to see more brands like mine emerging, but when I started 12 years ago, there were few options available. This demonstrates that there is indeed a market for gender-affirming clothing, not just for gender diverse individuals but for anyone who feels marginalized by mainstream fashion. Many people struggle to find clothes that fit them off the rack, and there is a genuine need for personalized options in the fashion industry.
C: I was thinking about swimwear, particularly the challenges faced by gender non-conforming individuals. Can you discuss the difficulties and solutions you provide in this area?
R: Swimming presents a unique set of challenges for individuals, both in terms of personal comfort and the public nature of the activity. For gender non-conforming individuals, these challenges can be particularly daunting. Traditionally, binders were not designed for swimming, and their construction did not prioritize safety in water. When I designed binders, I focused on creating garments that could be worn comfortably in daily life. I wanted to eliminate the limitations and warnings associated with traditional binders, such as time restrictions, discomfort, and difficulty breathing. Therefore, I developed a line of binders that can be safely worn while swimming, exercising, and allowing for proper breathing.
C: Kerry and I both have trans kids, and my kid identifies as non-gender. They've worn a binder for a million years, and the only time that it's a little tricky is when we go out to the lake or the beach. The rest of the time, they present themselves as a classic non-binary individual. They wear male typical clothes and dresses, whatever they feel like wearing. However, the water poses a different challenge.
R: Swimming is an interesting experience because it allows us to connect with nature and our communities. It's a way for many people, especially gender non-conforming individuals, to regulate themselves, feel good, and enjoy their time, particularly in the summer when we want to be outdoors with friends. However, it can also be a terrifying experience, as you're exposing yourself to strangers seeing you half-naked for the first time. For this reason, swimwear for gender non-conforming individuals needs to provide the right support and ensure people feel good. Traditionally, binders were not designed for swimming, as they weren't safe and lacked the necessary construction. When I designed binders, I wanted to create a line that people could wear in their daily lives. I didn't want to send out products with warnings and restrictions on usage. I wanted binders that were swim-friendly, allowed exercise, and were comfortable to wear. I aimed to design binders that could breathe with the wearer, avoiding pain and breathing difficulties.
K: When my oldest child transitioned, I jokingly told them, "Welcome to being a woman. Shoes hurt, clothes hurt, your hair hurts."
Rae, I want to say something: you're already one of the best guests we've had. You speak very well about your topic, and you're right on point. You know everything you're saying. I, uh, sorry, did you just say "they speak good"? I speak good, be good. Please be good. But one of the things I was thinking about is that, in a way, because of the nature of your business and probably in other elements of your life, you've had to represent. Do you know what I mean? Like, you don't just have to sell a product; you are representing a bunch of people. You've said an expression a bunch of times in this that I struggle with. I say the wrong thing the wrong way many, many times. You said something about exploring their gender. That's interesting to me. What other kinds of education do you slip in between the sewing stitches?
R: Yeah, that's a really good question. And like I said, I'm in my 12th year of doing this. When I started, there wasn't anyone on the market like me at all, and no one else was doing custom gender-affirming stuff. But it has been a collection of knowledge. Like I said, it all comes back to my community. I get feedback from the people around me, from my customers, and I try to hear what people are saying about the products and their experiences. As the world evolves in terms of our trans and gender-diverse narrative, I'm trying to be a person who can amalgamate that knowledge. I'm not just disseminating it through offering different types of products, but also through offering guides and information. That's why I really love doing things like this and talking to people. I've been speaking at different universities and colleges, and that feels really cool for me. I can talk about why this is important from a fashion perspective. So this brand could also be called "I am a failed sociologist." I came into this from a sociology degree, thinking I probably can't cut it in this world, but I'm really good at sewing. So how can I use that skill set to actually affect people through this avenue that feels more accessible? That's why it's been a huge part of what I do, trying to get information to parents of trans young people. There's no information out there, especially when it comes to safety in processes like tucking and binding and gender exploration. People come to me for those resources now, and it feels important to be someone who has been around long enough to be able to speak to that. Now we work with a network of NGOs around the world who are giving away our products for free. So it's not just a clothing brand; it's also this fantastic program where people can get gender-affirming garments without paying for them. We do that through working with those NGOs who are fantastic at teaching people what they need to know.
K: I want to talk more about that. First, my teen found you and then came to me and was like, "Can I have money to buy stuff?" I was like, "Tell me more about the NGOs. How do you decide who to work with?"
R: Um, at the moment, I work with anyone I find, and that might have to change in the future. We've got a network of over 30 NGOs right now. Some of them we've been working consistently with for many years, the biggest one being Point of Pride in the States. They're a wonderful organization that donates binders and gaffs to anyone who needs them. You just fill out a form and get one for free. So if you go on my website and say, "I want this thing, and I don't have money. You can actually just get it for free, which is great, and it's a fantastic way of operating within capitalism. I really love that. We've got NGOs from a lot of different spaces, ones that work with refugees, people with HIV/AIDS, and people working with homeless individuals, especially homeless youth. There are many transgender siblings who unfortunately find themselves in these situations, living on the streets in different cities where they struggle to access gender-affirming resources. Due to various reasons, many of these NGOs operate out of universities and colleges, primarily in the United States. As we witness cultural shifts surrounding transness, the need for access to these resources is expected to grow. This program has been running for about half of the lifespan of my company, and it has become a significant part of what we do. We're actively trying to increase funding and strengthen our support for these NGOs because it's more important now than ever.
R: Regarding options for people buying from us, we do offer a donation option where individuals can contribute to specific programs we work with. However, any support, including purchases from our website, goes back into working with these organizations. We aim to ensure that people can access our products in whichever way suits them best. Even if someone can't afford our products, I encourage them to buy what they can afford from other sources. It's important to prioritize what is accessible and relevant to them. While we may not be the most affordable option due to our commitment to ethical labor, we strive to strike a balance by collaborating with NGOs. People should work within their means, and there are alternative avenues for support. For instance, they can approach their school associations, such as their gay-straight alliances, or community organizations to advocate for the purchase and distribution of binders in their community. This approach has gained popularity, and it's heartening to see individuals who previously couldn't afford our products now supporting us when they are in a better position to do so. It creates a cycle of support.
R: It's important to note that our content also serves a purpose beyond the products themselves. Even if someone can't afford our items, they can still benefit from the information we provide on how to use them safely. Our goal is to help individuals feel better in their bodies, gain confidence, and access spaces they previously felt uncomfortable in. We're always available to provide information and support.
R: As for hate mail and negative comments, I used to receive more of them in the past. However, as I have become more focused on serving the trans and gender-diverse community, I have managed to weed out a significant portion of those individuals from my social media platforms. I have built a supportive community of customers who are genuinely kind and understanding. Even when we experience delays or challenges, they show great kindness and concern for our well-being. The strength of our community is incredible.
C: One other question I was thinking about was that you said that we decided to focus specifically on transgender, non-conforming, non-binary, etc. I know that the rainbow sometimes falls apart a little bit when people have conversations because there are still all these, you know, almost internal forces. [Laughter] Alright, pretend I finished asking my question. Is that part of what you had to decide?
R: Can you be more specific?
C: Um, gay males, it turns out, really love underpants? I found that out absolutely by mistake in Columbus, Ohio, wandering in the store looking for a belt. Yeah, they were like, "Hello!" and I was like, "Where am I? This is like Narnia anymore!" And they're like, "You need so much help!" For me, it's reasonably clear. I identify as his head because I'm just like, "What is all this?" It was awesome. I didn't know. I wear Hanes, you know, so like that's me. I guess what I was saying is that I think I've seen arguments from some of those crowds about where trans people fit and all that sort of thing. Did you have that same fight in the underwear and underthings in lingerie world, or did that just miss you?
R: Um, I mean, yes and no. Like, I think I try to be very broad when I started out, and I tried to make styles that would encompass a lot of different queer subcultures. And I think that was ambitious, and I think I did a good job for where I was then, but it's been more important to hone in. And honestly, that's worked really well for me, and I think I get some of the support. Some of the other acronym letters have a lot more money, which is fantastic for me because a lot of those people are in positions of power at some of the organizations that I work with, for example. So, you know, some of those people with a little bit more privilege can come in and say, "Oh, I actually appreciate what you're doing, and we can call that in, and I can actually help facilitate that." And the ones that don't want to be a part of what I'm doing, that's super fun because, you know, we found our niche, and that feels really nice, and yeah, we're sitting pretty.
C: Do you mentor other people who want to make a career out of something that they like doing but they haven't? Like you were on the beach, right, sewing bikinis for people occasionally. At what moment did you decide that could be a business, and how do you help other people recognize that moment?
R: Oh, good question. When I started, I had no idea that this is where I was going to end up. I was like, "I'll just start an Etsy for fun," and now I'm here. I absolutely love mentorship, and I really do want to be that. Right now, I feel like I am, not for my employees, and I'm teaching them a lot of the stuff that I've learned over the years, and they're starting to do some of the design and pattern work that I've been doing for the last 10 years, which is a wild place to be. But yeah, it is important to pass on that information, and I think where my heart lies also is just in the education part of it right now. So, I really want to focus on being able to mentor people in the business side of, like, the why, how to start a company that's more ethical, that's the best that we can do. And how do you start to pull apart, like, what aspects of a company which make it "ethical" or "unethical, and I'm starting to offer people more business advice on that side of things.
R: There are so many people creating various types of gender-affirming garments, which is great. Many of these people and brands possess exceptional sewing skills and continuously innovate with new creations. However, what seems to be lacking is the transparency about the ethics of these businesses. Although I don't claim to be the sole expert, I am proud to be able to start figuring out this aspect.
R: I recently heard something that made me realize there was an important theme I hadn't been acknowledging or commenting on. It's crucial to help people understand that not only do we create underthings but we also operate an ethical capitalist business. That's what I wanted to share with you, Kerry. Our business model works, even though we give away a lot of items for free to NGOs and ensure fair wages for our employees. I want people to pay attention to this aspect because many might think it's not a profitable approach. However, theoretically, it does generate profit. I know we're doing well, but it's challenging. It's about working within the systems we have because we can't exist outside of capitalism. It's about seeing the heart in every piece of clothing we make and understanding that I'm not about making a buck; I want to make a difference for other trans individuals. From my personal experience, I can tell you it's going great, and it's incredible to hear how it has affected you personally.
C: Oh, and there's one more thing we forgot to mention in our preparation. At the backpack show, everyone gets a chance to add something to the backpack. It could be a physical item or something metaphorical, like an avocado or hope for the future. Kerry, do you have any suggestions for a physical item? How about an extra set of teeth? You never know when they might come in handy.
Rae, it's your turn now. What will you add to the backpack?
R: Well this is actually the only thing it prepped for this interview. I've thought about this a lot, and I believe empathy aligns with the theme we've been discussing today. It forms the foundation of my chosen path, as I consider each person's experiences and their interactions with me and my company. That has always been at the core of what I do.
C: We received some heartwarming comments from our viewers. Joanne expressed gratitude for being a Good Shepherd in the journey towards inclusivity in the gender spectrum. It's fantastic to hear about it. Chloe also thanked you, Rae, for all your efforts and for sharing them with us. People are so kind. So, go ahead and support Rae's work by purchasing some undergarments. It's truly amazing to witness how the world has changed.
Even though my grandmother wasn't a gender non-conforming individual, she could have benefited from your clever ideas on how to enjoy the beach.