BY LIZ GOLD
Mary Going wants to undermine the gender binary. And she intends to do so by designing clothing – specifically, “men’s” suits for women and transmen.
Of course the term “women” is used loosely, as her company, Oakland-based Saint Harridan, states on its website, “we who are attracted to the clothes at Saint Harridan use many different words to describe ourselves. We use words like stud, butch or boi among many others. Some of us embrace the word woman, others like man, some prefer neither or both.”
Dress, for those at Saint Harridan, is a personal form of activism – sometimes, risky but often requiring courage and conviction. And Saint Harridan’s market (which has its own lighthearted folklore explained on its website) is a marginalized group of women who want to wear men’s clothes and transmen who can’t find clothes that fit. That in itself can be sad and heavy, Going explains, (therefore the fun folklore. Read it, it’s cute).
For Going, the idea started from her own personal experience of not having anything to wear for special occasions and professional jobs. It was 2004, just as Massachusetts passed their marriage law, and she was selling her previous business and contemplating what to do next with her friend, Tina Tarr, a graphic designer who worked in the same building. She wanted to go to Massachusetts and get married, but didn’t have anything to wear.
“I avoided dressing up because I couldn’t dress that far out of my gender,” Going said. “So I deliberately picked fields where I could dress like I wanted to dress.”
That year Going researched the fashion business but ultimately determined she didn’t know enough about fashion, the fashion industry or the lesbian aesthetic to move forward – and she also didn’t think there were enough people to serve to make for a profitable business.
But that was the beginning.
In 2010 Going went to business school (she recently got her MBA from the Lorry I. Lokey Graduate School of Business at Mills College) and the idea to create a clothing company kept bugging her.
“It became almost an obsession,” she said. “I was thinking about it all through business school but researching it for the last nine months.”
Even so, Going didn’t have a concept of the clothes she wanted to make – she didn’t have an art or design background, only experience in business.
“That’s what I perceived to be my greatest weakness but as I move forward I think it may actually be a gift. What I have been able to do is let go of the aesthetic,” she said.
During her research she realized that the problem was beyond the lack of masculine cut clothes for women. It was bigger.
“There’s a whole group of people who identify outside of the feminine part of the gender spectrum who aren’t getting heard in anyway, who aren’t being listened to, who aren’t understood,” Going explained. “It came to me that is indeed part of the problem and the solution I came up with, while focusing on clothing, has to incorporate listening.”
As a result, Going is incorporating the first core group of models into the design process for the Saint Harridan launch – as well as using experts where technical expertise is required.
“The fashion garment manufacturing process is complex, but from an aesthetic perspective, from a personal representation, we really want the voice to be part of the process, giving people what people want and not just what do I want in terms of a cut for a collar – but ‘what’s my experience, how do I want to present.’’’
That said, Going has had a lot of response so far to this first initial group of models. As these folks will need to attend eight to 10 meetings in person, Going is looking for people within the Oakland area. Approximately four to six models will be chosen (this is what Going can afford budget-wise) and they will get to keep the suit they help design.
While the whole process is still being finalized, Going will start with interviewing all the people who applied to be models – which includes taking measurements – to bring in a diverse representation of sizes. Ultimately, the goal is to come to a Saint Harridan “10” or “12” or “14” so there is uniformity to the size. The suits will not be custom made – and this is very intentional.
“I have to make these clothes so they can be everywhere, Going said. “I can’t make them so expensive people can’t buy them or so people have to come to our stores. I want to spread it.” Going continues, “I want to go to Wells Fargo and see somebody dressed outside of our collective expectations of our gender. I want to see that everywhere. To do that we have to do it in a way that makes it accessible, which means off the rack and doing it affordably. It probably won’t be the cheapest thing in the world but it’s not my goal to create an Armani $2,000 suit. It will be an excellent high quality, socially responsible article of clothing at the lowest price we can do and still maintain all those quality points.”
From there, the models chosen will be brought together in a focus group of sorts, where they will have the opportunity to talk about their experience with clothing, bring their own clothing in to share what they like, what they don’t like and what they wish were different about certain pieces and styles. Then the design process will begin. Together with the technical crew, a garment will be put together, the models will give their feedback, tweaks will happen and it will be put online to Saint Harridan followers and fans for additional input.
Going said she’d love to document this process – especially the focus groups – and is looking into bringing a filmmaker onboard to help produce some video of the journey.
Most of the people involved – aside from those in the technical design that need to be outsourced- are volunteers. Going and Tarr, who is now her business partner, have been funding the process personally and are currently seeking investors.
“We are funded by the people who are working for no fee,” Going said. “They are funding us by not making us pay.”
The design process is slated to begin in August and the clothing will eventually be available for sale on their website – with hopes for a store in the Oakland area in the near future.
“I haven’t entertained the idea of wholesale because I’m not convinced the clothing will end up being treated the way I want it to be treated,” Going said. “I don’t want to find a Saint Harridan suit on a model with heels and make up. I also want to control customer service – so when people want to buy a Saint Harridan suit they get treated respectfully and with dignity.”