A year at Both&
Three things came together to inform the genesis of Both&: emptiness, desire, and inspiration. I was twenty eight years old, nine months into medically transitioning, and two months post top surgery. It was the summer of 2020, and I was living in my childhood home while my parents were on the east coast, helping my sister with her newborn in the thrumming mania of COVID-19s first blush. I was also single, I had left my prior, presumed career path of academia, and I had no idea where I would live next, what I would do, or who I would be. I was unanchored.
I remember the spring of 2020 to be abnormally luscious in Boulder. The air was bright and fresh, and I would wake early, take my coffee onto the front porch, and enter the unstructured maze of the day, writing, reading, doing some online research about potential career paths, and completing the few hours of freelance writing I had every day with a restless reluctance. I was intrigued by UX research, and took a few certificate courses through the International Design Foundation. I ordered books on design thinking and content strategy. I vaguely imagined myself moving to L.A. at some undefined point in the future, when my chest no longer felt like it was made of rubber bands stretched to their limits and the pandemic was over. I would get a job at a successful start up, be paid more money than I had ever dreamed of in academia (which didn’t set the bar high), and be single, as Finn, with my shiny new body and a career that could afford health insurance and a humble but cute apartment. I felt, in many ways, that my twenties had not been adulthood, but a kind of a preamble in which the gravitational, subconscious pull had always been on my identity. It wasn’t a question of happiness — I had been happy, fulfilled, even — throughout those years, bouncing from selling wine to a PhD in Classics to apprenticeship as a carpenter to an MFA in fiction to my first stab at the start up world with an online philosophy platform, always with a partner, always hungry and delighted by the world.
But in retrospect, it was as though Finn was a constant mote in my eyesight, that even as I lived and was happy as Becca, much of my actions and decisions were dictated by a gnawing, third presence. Transitioning, for me, was the act of first allowing that voice to grow deafeningly loud, to take over the entire landscape of being, and then to watch it fade away entirely. It became, somewhat counter-intuitively, not the presence of something new, but the absence of what used to distract. Sitting on the porch in the unfiltered Colorado sunlight, my body new and strange and familiar all at once, there was suddenly space in me. It was in this space that I read a used copy of Ferriss’ infamous 4 hour workweek. About halfway through the book, there was a chapter in which he discussed quickly testing out the passive income potential of simple ideas. One of his examples was of an apparel venture, in which someone imported some French shirts, jacked up the price, sold them online, and saw that there was market. Riding one of my waves of inspiration, I googled ‘trans swimwear,’ and then ‘trans apparel.’ I couldn’t find a pair of swim trunks that would fit my body the way I wanted, and my conclusion — oh so naively, and oh so importantly — was, how hard can it be?
I can break Both&’s development into three, neat stages. The first, and longest thus far, was one of exploration and research. From the late summer of 2020 through to April of 2021, I had no idea whether Both& could do what it hoped to. I didn’t have a background in fashion, or in business. It was my first time building a company, and I felt as though I were walking around a warehouse in the dark, with no idea of what I was supposed to be doing or watching out for until I bumped into it. There were only two things I was sure of: first, that whatever we created needed to be beautiful. Instead of disavowing aesthetics and the highest standards of branding, it needed to win at them. Second, and most importantly, it needed to be evidence based. Both& would never be successful if it designed in a vacuum.
What started as intuition in both these arenas soon proved itself in the field. My research endeavours began humbly. I had three transmasculine friends, and I asked them whether I could interview them. These first interviews were long: spanning over an hour, I asked each of these friends about their experience with every category of clothing. I asked what brands worked the best and why, what was still missing, and how their sizes mapped (or didn’t) onto cisgendered sizing.
Their response was clear: what exists doesn’t work well. Some brands are okay some of the time, but they can never trust in the shopping experience, or that sizing and fit will be replicated across time. Conversation leads to conversation. My friends had friends that I spoke to. I posted in Facebook groups and emailed LGBTQ support centers. But things really took off when we launched our Instagram, in October of 2020.
The genius of my co-founder Mischa de Stroumillo’s photography, paired with the graphic system, typography, and colors that another close and brilliant friend, Liron Ashkenazi-Eldar created, led to a flood of interest.
I built a survey with two friends whose backgrounds were in psychology, social research, and UX. We ran the survey, I kept interviewing people, and we began to compile the research, cross-referencing qualitative and quantitative data. We asked, for instance, what sizes a person bought in a given garment category, and then where on their body that size fit or didn’t fit.
In my early interviews, the garment that came up most frequently as a pain point — somewhat to my surprise — was t shirts. From a technical perspective, t shirts are a simpler design than other categories, but they’re also foundational. People wear them year round; they are a kind of cornerstone to a wardrobe.
I wish I could say that our design process was as slick and sexy as our Instagram, but the reality was far from it. Here I was, an eager, optimistic founder, who had stumbled upon a problem I felt could — and should — be solved, and what I had was a bunch of research, my own experience, and the t shirts in my closet to use as reference. Our first collection was a patchwork of all these things: I literally picked apart what worked for me and others (shirts that are boxier, have a longer backs than fronts, have heavier weight fabric, narrower shoulders, etc.) and pieced them together into three designs. I didn’t know anything about the world of manufacturing, sourcing fabrics, or MOQs. I didn’t know what it means to be sustainable in fashion beyond the marketing I had been sold myself as a consumer. I didn’t know how much money I would need, or how long it would take, but I knew at this point that I was on to something, and that what we were trying to create could make a difference in people’s lives. That was motivation enough to carry on, to dive headfirst into the messy act of creation.
I was also fortunate enough during this phase to be introduced to someone who would truly alter the course of Both&’s trajectory: Amiram Assouline. Amiram is a titan in fashion: not only a designer, but someone who has been operating across all the different verticals within the nebulous and fractured realm of fashion (product development, sourcing, fit, production, merchandising, the list goes on and on) for over two decades. Amiram and I immediately hit it off, and formed a quick friendship and budding partnership. He saw the need for and potential in Both&, and he put together a team of experts to step in and takeover everything we needed help with: in essence, we are able to go to him and his team with our research and ideas on fit and fabrication, and they are able to source, develop, and produce them. In retrospect, it’s clear to me that the barrier to entry to the fashion world is unreasonably high, and that if it weren’t for Amiram and his team, we would be stuck making minor adjustments to what already exists, rather than be enabled to create a whole new fit and sizing system from scratch.
The second stage of Both& began in April of 2021, when we opened up preorders for our first ‘mvp’ test collection of three shirts. Again, I had no reference point as to what good numbers at this stage would be, but now that I’ve spoken with other fashion founders, I realize that we did extremely well in that preorder campaign. It certainly was successful enough to warrant us continuing on, and raising a small pre-seed round to fund the manufacturing of capsule I, and the development of capsule II.
The summer of 2021 brought on a whole new set of challenges and excitements. We were now ‘real’ in a way that we hadn’t been before: there’s nothing quite like the feeling of opening your email and seeing a notification from Shopify informing you that someone, somewhere in the world, has just assigned a monetary value to your creation. (i.e. you just sold a shirt). Even more importantly, the community feedback and flood of emails, dms, and testimonial pictures and videos bowled me over (and continues to keep me going on the hard days). I had assumed our first round of shirts would be a beta product: good in some ways, but really a test that we could evolve into a better, more final product. The reaction from the community disproved that. While there were minor adjustments we could make (for instance, we’ve changed the rib on our collars to hold their shape better, and we’ve found a slightly softer, more breathable cotton), the vast majority of feedback was not only positive, but overwhelmingly so.
It was during this phase that all sorts of new collaborations and ideas began to flourish. We started a Both& abroad series, featuring the incredible work of Leon Fernandez in a Both& Paris takeover in August. We were then approach by a creative studio in NYC who wants to do the same, as well as photographers in LA, Perth, and Providence. A short film about me was shot and directed by Lydia Garnet in London this summer, and will be entered into film festivals this winter.
With the launch of our second collection this week, we enter our third stage: raising a seed round, and growing Both& out of a ‘testing product-market fit’ phase into a growth phase. I don’t have much to say about this stage yet (as it’s only a few days old), and so I would rather circle back to where I began, about a year ago, with an idea and a cart load of passion and insecurities.
I said at the start that Both& was birthed from emptiness, desire, and inspiration. If the start of an idea is defined by spaciousness, by the distance between where you stand and where your longing dictates the horizon to be, then the daily dedication to nurturing an idea is embodied through a respect for the mysteries ahead, and an awareness for the terrain you have already traversed. Put another way: there are days when I’m neck deep in a Shopify return label error or become aware of some seemingly insurmountable climb ahead (go raise money for the first time in your life) and it feels like I’m walking through an enormous spider web. But then there are days like these, when I sit down at my desk with my coffee, and I take even a moment to consider how far we’ve come. I picture my cofounder, Mischa, driving to one of her dozens of photoshoots outside, in winter, in the UK (due to COVID-19), so we could share stories from the community. I picture our first fittings over zoom, with all of us squinting and doing our best to understand what tweaks needed to be made. I picture the first time Tyla put on one of our shirts and stood in front of the mirror, staring at himself and touching his flat chest.
This is what it means to hold an idea, to nurture it, to love it..