New York designer Gogo Graham creates garments by the trans community for the trans community.
Gogo Graham is all about the girls. The 24 year-old New York designer's 5th collection, made in collaboration with photographer Serena Jara, features twelve looks each designed specifically for, and worn by, a different trans woman. While transgender models are hardly new in fashion, they have become a hot topic in recent years thanks to Bruce Weber's all-trans campaign for Barneys and diverse runways at Eckhaus Latta, Chromat, and Hood By Air.
Graham and Jara's project stands out as something distinctly different. They're uninterested in the sort of sentimentality or typecasting often present in the representation of trans people. The selected models, varying widely in age, race, and size, are members of Gogo and Serena's community, and are asked to be no one but themselves. Wearing Graham's designs (which are available as custom pieces and on lend for editorials), they form an eclectic band of individuality. They're radiant, and they're in control.
"Normally the job of a model is, in my experience, letting someone use your body," says Jara. "We wanted to make sure that [the models] had a lot of control. I give them a cable release and let them take the picture themselves; having control over that situation in addition to having a trans woman be the designer, and a trans woman be the photographer. We don't have to just be the models, we can be anything we want."
By sharing the roles of image maker, model, and designer amongst themselves and their chosen family, these two young artists highlight the importance of a community representing itself. We sat down with Graham only days after her project's completion to discuss everything that makes her and the work she's doing so important.
How did you get started in fashion?
I went to the University of Texas, with hopes of studying biology. I was doing the whole pre-med thing; my major was evolutionary biology and I was studying organisms and evolution and stuff, but I switched halfway through. When I graduated I thought, 'I'm gonna move here [to NY] so I can find a job.' I started working with costume designer Zaldy, and that was fun. We were doing all this funky stuff. First I was helping to make clothes for a J Pop band, then we were doing Ru's looks on Drag Race, for the little runway part or whatever. It was fun but I realized, 'This is not it.' So I started working in this factory in midtown and that's how I learned everything I know about pattern making, correcting things, and doing fittings so that it actually works on people's bodies. It's so easy to make cool looking things that are totally useless. I want to make things that people can wear, and wear again. That's sometimes the hardest thing.
What was your inspiration for this current collection?
The whole idea started out with Serena and I talking about how there needs to be representation of trans women created by trans women because that doesn't happen very often, especially in the fashion industry. It's always been like "here's what trans models are" and they're gonna be the ones to tell you what that is, and you just have to swallow it. That's not okay. So we thought, "Who're some cool girls we know?", and emailing our friends. I was practically throwing boots at their window. Trying, in a very direct way, to be like "this is exactly what we're doing. Trans girls wearing stuff that they like. Stuff that is photographed by trans girls and is simply unlike anything that's already available to us. We don't have options in fashion. We have to just look for stuff, and that stuff isn't made for us. This time more than any other time I've been focused on seeing if I can make a collection that the models who are wearing it actually feel themselves in. I realized that I know how to hide things and accentuate things because I do that for myself, so I could easily do that for other girls too. It was really amazing because I would like talk to them and show them something I made and everyone was excited by it. They were all really fuckin supportive and I just love all the girls.
Do you feel like you're operating outside of the fashion industry?
Kind of, yeah. I'm not going to go to some factory and be like, "Can you make 100 of these?" Cause that's just not realistic. I find these random ass scraps of fabric that are scorched in the garbage and I think, "Ooh, that's a cute bikini!" It's all technically deadstock stuff, so that means that these single pieces are it. That means it's not fashion, 'cause the fashion industry is about reaching a bunch of people making them want a thing; having it be a cool trend and exploiting labor to get tons of it made.
How do you feel this project differs from the way that trans women's bodies have previously been used in fashion?
Being portrayed by cis people is inherently exploitative no matter which way you spin it. Those girls usually don't have any choice in anything that's going on, but they're getting paid so I don't know. I'll never blame a girl for anything, and trans visibility is so important. Whenever professional models are in stuff it's usually like, "Let's see how you can be someone else," but [for this project] all of these girls just lit up. You can tell in the photos, too. Everyone's feeling themselves. All the girls really took over in that way.
Text Mars Hobrecker and Leah James
Photography courtesy Serena Jara