Where Are All The Queer Girls in Fashion?

Fashion Week is entering its final days for this season, but the party never really started for gay, bisexual, and queer women.

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Oct 2 2015, 1:00pm

Merika Palmiste and Rain Dove at VERGE. Photo by Alyssa Meadows

As an 11-year-old, I chopped my hair off after seeing a woman with a pixie cut in the front of my mother's box of hair dye. By the time I hit my teens, I'd gotten into my punk phase and come out as bisexual. But even as I desperately yearned to be the next Vivienne Westwood, I identified an unease with queerness that simmers underneath the surface of the fashion industry. At the age of 16, I could think of no queer-identifying women in fashion—and five years later, the situation hasn't changed much.

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While gay men rule the roost (think of A-list designers such as Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, or Karl Lagerfeld), their female counterparts are nowhere to be seen. As Paris Fashion Week enters its final days, I decided to hunt down the queer women involved with the industry in London and New York. I wanted to talk about what it means to be a part of the LGBTQ community in the scene of today—and, also, to ask where the hell all the girls are.

"I think in terms of the general, mainstream fashion world—so like blogs, or London Fashion Week—we [queer people] can't actually look at it," said Krishna Istha, a performer who identifies as transmasculine and queer. During London Fashion Week, the 21-year-old directed an independent LGBTQ fashion show for Wotever World, an organization that puts on queer art and culture-focused events. "You can see the stuff that's being shown and take inspiration from it, but you can't actually look at something and go, 'That's what I want to look like,' because you don't see yourself in it. I think that's why we're so innovative."

Models at VERGE, New York's queer fashion week. Photo by Katya Moorman/Karen L Dunn

The underrepresentation of queer women who identify and present themselves as femme, butch, and every other definition in between, has not gone unnoticed. In New York, the alternative response to traditional Fashion Week took off in a big way this season. From trans designer Gogo Graham's well-received collection for transgender women to seeing a much higher number of gender nonconforming models like Rain Dove on the catwalk, NYC has a growing community of LGBTQ people looking to redefine the fashion and beauty industry and reclaim their space.

"New York Fashion Week is very exclusive," Anita Dolce Vita tells me. The 39-year-old lesbian is the editor-in-chief of DapperQ, the website that hosts VERGE, New York's queer fashion week."When people say it's very gay—they usually mean it's focused around cis, white, gay men who are producing very binary clothing. There's a whole group of people who are not included in that: People of size, people of colour, people who are outside of the binary. I thought we would create a space for a larger group of people to have a conversation about style." After debuting its first show in 2013 to a packed New York City bar, VERGE has attracted the attention of cultural institutions like the California Academy of Sciences. It showed a second season at the Brooklyn Museum this month, which was attended by industry favourites such as Elliott Sailors, the androgynous female model who began her career in womenswear before switching to menswear.

The mainstream fashion industry is and has been co-opting queer without providing any sort of context.

Transforming queer women's choices into marketable and mainstream fashion is certainly nothing new—from Yves Saint Laurent's debuting the Le Smoking suit in 1967 to Style.com presenting "lesbian chic" as the hot new trend of 2012 , a certain type of masculine femininity has been presented as trendy for a long time. "A lot of people scoff at [the idea of] androgyny as more than just a trend—they don't realize that it is essential to some people's identities, whether it is or isn't a hot thing," says Dolce Vita. DapperQ ("the GQ of the queer world", as she defines it) focuses on masculine-presenting queer women or queer folk who choose to dress in a more masculine light, as a way to offer a place where these people feel represented.

"The mainstream fashion industry is and has been co-opting queer without providing any sort of context," she says, pointing to the assimilation of voguing and New York's underground ballroom scene into pop culture as one example. "It's really important that the queer community, who have been at the forefront of the style revolution, actually be the ones that are presenting it and discussing it."

The front row at VERGE, which took place at Brooklyn Museum. Photo by Katya Moorman/Karen L. Dunn

Though queer visual codes are still important as signifiers of identity for many women, the cliché of the flannel-wearing, snapback lesbian has been widely criticized for reducing sexuality to a few key wardrobe items. "Even within the LGBTQ community, my queerness has been questioned because of the way that I present," says Dolce Vita, who classifies herself as a femme. "I tried my hardest to dress more hipster, a little more masculine. [What] I learned now going through this journey in fashion is that I really embrace my femme style. I feel that femme is radical and deserves its space within the queer fashion conversation—I believe that it subverts traditional beauty standards. For me it's been such an empowering part of my identity to fully embrace my femininity and my queerness."

What about the creative process? Beyond appearance alone, does being queer affect how women in the fashion industry are viewed? "I think it is really insulting when people of the industry are, to a certain level, shocked to hear that you are a gay woman with in fashion and designing clothes for others," says Imogine Brown, a 24-year-old London-based menswear designer who identifies as a lesbian. "There is a very negative idea of our sense of style."

Straight people don't have the gay sensibility. They don't know what we're going through to enter the persona.

What someone does behind closed doors, open doors, or half-drawn blinds shouldn't affect how they are treated by society, of course. But it still forms an integral part of an identity that instructs their experiences of the world. "I think it [being queer] plays a huge part in my thought process and consequently within the way I design or create," says Brown. "I create men's clothes that are an extension of me; things that I think would look cool or feel comfortable opposed to being a straight woman designing for men. I think you can see a huge difference in the work of straight and queer women designing menswear and that's down to sexual attraction."

"Straight people don't have the gay sensibility. They don't know what we're going through to enter the persona," says Stav Bee, a performer and self-identified dyke who has been an integral part of the London club and street scene for the last few decades. Bee spoke of her fashion journey at Wotever World's recent 'Queer Experiments: Fashion' event. "To drag ourselves up. To wear particular clothes, to have a particular budget. They don't have that sensibility, they're heterosexual. I don't want to differentiate, but of course it's different. The upbringing is different, the experience is different—the books that we read, the films we see, the people we talk to are totally un-ordinary. We are queer people."

Behind the scenes at VERGE. Photo by Katya Moorman/Karen L. Dunn

Dolce Vita says that a lot of queer women of the past tended to be more suspicious of fashion, but senses a shift in how younger people relate to style. "Whilst some previous generations might think of as being very consumerist and superficial, what I have seen as a trend is that communities that once shunned are actually now embracing it and feeling empowered by it," she explains. "On DapperQ, a lot of people say 'I actually never liked because I never found a place to express my before,' or 'I never found somewhere that allowed me to express my gender identity.' Now I think the queer community is really embracing style—not that they haven't in the past, but different aspects of it, unlike before. More so like a social movement."

But Dolce Vita believes that mainstream fashion and queer fashion remain at fundamental odds with each other. "Fashion is always trying to outdo itself as an art form, but at the same time it limits itself by trying to sell to mass market. And part of selling to mass market is to create this illusion of exclusivity," she explains. "Queer style is very inclusive and very broad."

My answer to that was LGBTQIA+ people are just like everyone else: Style preferences vary wildly.

One of the people who is looking to make mainstream fashion more accessible to queer women is Jeanna Kadlec, the 27-year-old owner of Bluestockings, billed as the world's first LGBTQIA+ lingerie store. "Lingerie industry professionals had these ideas about all lesbians being butch women who only wore sports bras and boxers," Kadlec explains. "But what folks wear underneath doesn't necessarily correspond to their external presentation: this was my first lesson in my market research—I did tons of surveys. The handful of people I talked to in the industry while in the market research phase were very confused about how I could make a business out of serving queer people. My answer to that was LGBTQIA+ people are just like everyone else: Style preferences vary wildly!"

Kadlec says that her customer base is mostly made up of "queer women-identified, genderqueer, and non-binary folks who play with feminine presentation", as well as transmasculine people. "LGBTQIA+ communities have been incredibly supportive," she says, "so have radical feminist outlets. It's been tremendous." The mainstream industry, has been less welcoming, though Kadlec remains undeterred. "The lingerie community has been a mixed bag—bloggers who tend to be more progressive have been super positive; the industry generally has ignored Bluestockings. Which is fine."

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While some queer women choose Kadlec's route and work within the parameters of mainstream fashion to eke out their own space, others want to break free of those contraints entirely. What both sides share is a firm understanding that authentic and unapologetic representation is essential.

"It's not fashionable to be a gay woman—it's a way of life. Kissing your girlfriend or lover on the street—no one is going to give you a pat on the back for that. It's not easy," concludes Stav Bee. "So when you see the magazines—even interesting magazines—portraying girls [in a queer way] and it's not real, it upsets me. Because we've fought very hard for our identity; we are still fighting very hard. Just because things are a bit easier now doesn't mean the fight has stopped.

"I want to see more queer, gay people, lesbians, trans people, everyone—to do more fashion, to do more styling, to actually take that and push it. Of course there's a lot of gay people in the fashion world, but they play the game. I want to see people pushing the boundaries."