Dec 2, 2021
Why I Built Both&
Finnegan Shepard Founder of both&
It all started with throwing some dresses out the window.
When I was four years old, I cut off all my hair and threw my dresses and skirts out the window. My mother responded by standing in the doorway and looking at me for a long time. Finally she said, “okay, you can choose whatever you want to wear from now on.”
Twenty four years later, that conversation is still foundational to my identity. The most obvious takeaway is that I have been deeply loved and accepted from the very beginning. There is no overstating the importance of this, especially throughout my transition.
However, what I want to speak about today is the fact that this interaction also marked the beginnings of my interest in clothing as a signifier of self. When I threw my dresses and skirts out the window, I felt that I had shed what ‘made’ me female, and that maleness would come rushing in to fill the void. Of course it didn’t quite work like that.
When we say no to one thing, we also need to say yes to something else. We need to choose.
In simple terms, now that I had an empty dresser, what would I choose to fill it?
Why clothing matters
Where I grew up, caring too much about clothing wasn’t cool. It was never explicitly stated, but I felt it as an undercurrent in social dynamics. I believe there were two reasons for this.
The first was the association of clothing with the ills of mass consumerism. The second was that to care too much about how you looked was to be ‘shallow.’ It was judged as a mark of vacuousness or arrogance.
But maybe the reason we can be so defensive and judgmental about clothing is precisely because of its importance. If we think the body is what represents us and that clothing is merely what is covering it, then we get to withhold ourselves. We get to choose to reveal ourselves. But if we accept that clothing is an extension of ourself, then we are naked again. As we walk through the world, who we are is on display to anyone that looks.
This gets especially interesting and complicated when gender enters the mix. Since that day with my mother, I’ve worn male clothing without exception. It has felt like the true extension or signifier of myself. The result hasn’t been that the world reads me as male. (That didn’t start to happen until I began to medically transition).
But the ability to choose my clothing, to have an intentionality in the self I presented to the world, always provided me a kind of safe haven. There was a painful dissonance between how I experienced myself and how the world read me (lesbian, tomboy, etc.), but I also felt a form of pleasure in the notion that my real self was hiding in plain sight. Here I am, I thought. Look.
So much of being trans, for me, has taken place internally.
For better or worse, I’ve experienced it as a seemingly endless conversation with myself. Clothing is the opposite. It’s the easiest way to have a conversation with the world. It’s the space where I can dance around the edges of myself and test out what feels true in a public rather than private context.
Now, let me be clear on this. Clothing can’t ‘fix’ dysphoria, or solve any of the innumerable challenges that come along with feeling that who you are on the inside and who you are perceived as on the outside aren’t aligned. No single thing can solve that — in fact, I don’t think it is something to be ‘solved.’
But clothing certainly shouldn’t add another challenge. Clothing should feel safe, liberating, and fun. It should empower us to feel like ourselves.
Nine months after I began to medically transition, I googled ‘clothing for trans men’ on a whim. I was disheartened by the results. All of the top hits were things like packing underwear or t-shirts with trans pride graphics printed on.
There’s nothing wrong with these items in and of themselves, but they weren’t what I wanted. I didn’t want items to help me signal my transness.
What I wanted was clothing that would fit me, but wasn’t about my gender identity.
This got me to thinking about my experience shopping over the years in a fashion world that is built off the binary. Marooned between male clothing that rarely fit well and female clothing that repulsed me, I had felt perpetually othered. On the rare occasion I found something that worked, I was thrilled. It was like I had won a fight. But it shouldn’t have to be so hard. I began asking myself some questions.
Why did it feel like I had to choose between fit and style?
Why couldn’t I shop anywhere with a baseline trust that the clothes were designed around my body type?
Why wasn’t there a company making high quality, stylish clothing not built off a binary sizing system?
As I mulled over these questions, the idea for Both& was born.
In classic entrepreneur style, I began with an idea and absolutely nothing else. I didn’t even know if it was actually a good idea. Maybe I was alone in my challenges and assumptions around how they could be solved. I figured the best place to start was to talk to all of the trans and nonbinary people I knew, to figure out whether the idea resonated with them, too.
I began to aggressively conduct the most homegrown UX research campaign possible. I texted three friends of mine who are ftm, and they kindly agreed to do zoom interviews with me. At the end of the conversations I asked them to connect me to anyone else they knew who would be willing to chat. I posted on forums, asked all of my cis friends to connect me to any other trans or nonbinary people they knew, and emailed LGBTQ centers and organizations. The UX tree started sprouting branches.
Through these conversations, I learned four things:
- Every single person I spoke to shared my experience of struggling to find clothing that fit well.
- The vast majority of folks I spoke to struggled with a common set of pain points.
- I was confident that there were design solutions that could target these pain points.
- I couldn’t build Both& by myself. I needed a team.
As I mentioned above, one of the great blessings of my life is to have been so consistently loved and accepted. Another huge one is to know a bunch of very talented people.
As the idea for Both& began to take a more material shape, I picked up the phone and started calling my friends. I was a bit hesitant at first. Sure, I was passionate about the idea, but that didn’t mean anyone else would be. The start up world is notoriously volatile, and frequently eats up months — if not years — of hard work without any guarantee of success.
To my delight and astonishment, everyone I spoke to got hooked on the idea. I talk to friends with backgrounds in UX and psychology, graphic design, finance, photography, fashion, and product design, and within weeks we had cobbled together a small, highly creative, highly inter-disciplinary, highly-committed team.
We are in the early days of Both&, but if there’s one thing that excites me about this project, it’s that the idea behind it elicits such engagement in others. This goes for our team, but also for the Both& community at large, which is growing every day. As word spreads about what we’re doing, people have begun to contact me asking to do a zoom interview and share their experience, or have volunteered to do photoshoots with our artistic director. (To see our photography, follow us on Instagram @bothandapparel).
I think there are three reasons people are so eager to get involved. The first is that we are all aware of how important it is for the trans and nonbinary communities to have their voice heard (in all arenas). In the arena of design specifically, we are a demographic that is consistently marginalized, othered, or ignored. Our needs and wants rarely come first, or are even considered in the process of design.
The second reason is that perhaps because our needs and wants have been so consistently ignored throughout history, we understand the power of community and sharing information. Each of our stories can contribute to a wider network of knowledge and empowerment. (This is why conversations with our community are, and always will be at the heart of what we do. If you are willing to share your experience, please click here).
Finally, I like to think that both the team and the community are drawn to Both& because they believe in Both&’s vision, and the values behind that vision.
On the one hand, Both&’s vision is simple. We want to do what thousands of companies try to do for cisgendered people all the time: provide high quality, sustainable clothing that fits well. We just want to do it for a different demographic.
On the other hand, the way we are trying to do that is quite unique. All of this comes down to our vision, and the grassroots way we are going about building it.
First and foremost, we want to create a brand for the trans and nonbinary communities that is tailored for and by them. That means building trust and a sense of being seen. Part of how we hope to accomplish this is through complete transparency in our process and a dedication to evolving based on feedback.
Our designs all begin from our conversations with the community. We then come up with a number of potential design solutions in one category of clothing, test them, and iterate. Our ultimate goal is to create something that works for everyone, and we believe the best way to get there is to never assume what we’ve created is perfect. We are always open and eager to tweak designs.
A huge flaw in the fashion world today is how ineffectively sizing and fit is communicated to customers online.
As I speak to people over zoom, time and again I hear the same complaint: “I never know what size I am,” or “I never know how something will fit until it arrives.”
In an age with ever-expanding technological capabilities, why are we still using a sizing chart with numbers and words that don’t mean anything to most people as a way of communicating how clothing will fit? Why aren’t we being more honest in how clothing will work or not work for folks with diverse body types and preferences in style?
One of the big differentiators in Both& as a company is that we aren’t just creating a new product. We are trying to completely rethink and redesign how the shopping experience can, and should be. The foundation of that is transparent, honest communication.
Slow but steady
The problem with building something entirely new is that you have to start from somewhere, and that somewhere is often quite limited.
As a trans man, it felt most appropriate to begin with what I know. The result is that Both& is beginning with ‘masculine’ clothing, in one category of clothing at a time. We want to ensure we have done the best we can on one thing (t-shirts, trousers, button ups, etc.), before moving on to the next. This may be a bad business decision, but after much discussion, we feel that we will be able to best serve the Both& community if we start small and steadily expand.
This also means that we are not yet serving members of the Both& community who are seeking feminine clothing, but we hope to change this as we expand.
Finally, our vision is built upon Both&’s core values.
These values include an open and continuous dialogue with the community, commitment to high quality, sustainable fabrics, supporting the wider trans and nonbinary communities by promoting GoFundMe campaigns and running a Pay it Forward campaign.
If it isn’t clear by now, the underlying theme of Both& is that there’s no strict divide between us as the ‘company’ and you as the ‘consumer.’ This is a collaborative, grassroots project, and it will remain that way. If you like what you’ve read, the number one thing you can do to help Both& succeed is to join our active community. Please share this article, follow us on Instagram @bothandapparel, subscribe to our newsletter, and visit out website to share your story.
Finnegan and the Both& team