When a friend asked us to tag along at her consultation with Brooklyn-based suiting company Bindle & Keep, we said yes because we love playing dress-up — and helping others play dress-up, too. But we had no idea how vital a service Bindle & Keep really provides. Although founder Daniel Friedman says, somewhat self-deprecatingly, “at the end of the day, we’re just making suits,” these handcrafted suits are transforming the outlook, perception, and confidence of some truly remarkable people. People who were previously ignored by the fashion industry altogether.
We sat down with Daniel to discuss Bindle & Keep’s unique position in the marketplace, the brand-new documentary following a few key clients (it had its premiere at Sundance; you can catch it on HBO this summer), and his connection to Lena Dunham. Learn how an ethos of empathy drives him and his company, and raise a glass of Woodford Reserve in toast.
FLAVORWIRE: Tell us a little bit about Bindle & Keep, what your specialty is, and what makes your business proposition unique. What is it that you offer, specifically?
DANIEL FRIEDMAN: Well, we’re a custom suit company. A lot of people call us an LGBTQ tailor. We’re not. I think by calling us that, people are pigeonholing us, and dating us. What we’re really focusing on is custom suiting everyone. Without bias. If you have a body, you can be suited. Everyone’s body is unique, and so we work with those unique challenges. And that’s what makes us so inviting to communities that were, until now, ostracized to some extent by a very binary clothing industry.
That’s why we have so many clients in the LGBTQ community. It’s a safe place. Not because we’re saying “We are from the queer community and we won’t judge you,” but because we’re saying, “We’re not gonna judge you, because you’re a human being. And we can suit you no matter how you like it.”
This is capitalism at its best! If companies would just open their market, and treat everyone like their money matters, they will give you their money! [laughs] It’s such a simple concept. And the truth is, you end up with a very cool, and very rewarding customer base.
FW: I know you just got back from the Sundance Film Festival, with a documentary about Bindle & Keep that Lena Dunham produced. Can you tell us about the film project?
DF: Yeah, the documentary is called Suited , and focuses on our LGBTQ clientele.
The documentary follows five people coming in to get suits. And in the process of getting suits, you learn these amazing stories about their lives. The documentary is very focused on gender fluidity – and what’s it like to struggle to feel… I don’t want to say confident, but just to feel like your body or the way you want to present yourself is in line with the way you feel about yourself.
My colleague, Rae Tutera, says something like “The goal is to look stronger than you feel. To act braver than you feel.” Because that’s what clothing is all about. Basically, what the documentary is focusing on is the struggle of “people in clothing.” This isn’t fashion anymore. This is about the psychology of clothing. The psychology of how we look at ourselves.
But the people who had such an emotional response to it were not limited to those communities. It’s amazing that really everyone was so moved by it. And I think that has to do with – the stories and the experiences the individuals go through are very universal. They affect people from all walks of life. It has nothing to do with gender or gender identity. It has to do with feelings. And feeling right in your body and feeling right in the world… We all struggle with that.
FW: So it sounds like a lot of your process is helping people discover who they are or be true to who they are. How are you able to stay true to who you are, or keep that passion, that vision throughout?
Daniel Friedman in his studio in Brooklyn, Friday, February 05, 2016. (Photo Credit: Natan Dvir)
DF: Well, I have my own struggles… But I’m still discovering who I am, and so are most of our clients. We don’t know who we are. We are confident in where we are, or who we are right now, but we’re all evolving. That’s the “bindle” part of the name of our company. We’re all in transition on some level. And we’re all discovering. That’s just part of the journey.
If you had asked me five years ago, I would give you a very different answer. I surely wouldn’t say that I was going to find meaning in my life by helping others find meaning in their lives, regarding their bodies.
I don’t know what’s true to me. I do know that I find that I have pretty low self-esteem, and don’t feel that I have a lot of value. So one of the ways I prove to myself that I have value, is working really hard to help other people. There’s a lot of drive behind that.
FW: Getting into the nitty-gritty: How do your suits get made? Are there differences between your process and the “traditional” bespoke process?
DF: The only thing that’s progressive that sets us apart from other suiting companies, is that we are driven to suit everybody. Other companies, [when they start with a consult], will sit you down and say, “Where are you from? What kind of suit do you want?” And we’ll sit down with you and say, “Let’s talk about your body. Let’s talk about how you feel about your body. How you feel about your bum? Let’s talk about the difference between an androgynous suit for a woman’s body, and an androgynous suit for a trans or cis-male body, or if you might be starting T (testosterone). Let’s talk about if you’re getting top surgery. What does ‘masculine’ mean?”
For a customer, getting down to the semantics of how they see the world is the only way that we can understand how to make a suit that works in their version of the world, that fits their purview. So the company’s ethos is that you can’t suit people unless you understand how they see themselves.
And that’s what sets us apart. Our process isn’t much different from any other suiting company. But the fact that we listen… Empathy is our main driver, and our main template when it comes to making suits.
FW: And how long does it take, start to finish for a custom suit?
DF: About 7 weeks. During wedding season, which is what we’re entering now, it can take about 9. Not because it actually takes any longer, but because people start panicking. Peace of mind is a powerful thing. We don’t want people to be anxious right before their wedding, and people don’t tend to give the same amount of time for a custom suit as they would a wedding dress — but they should.
FW: Do you have a favorite item or suit that you’ve created, and if so, who was it for?
DF: You know my favorite suit, I’m gonna say it: I really like the suits I made for both the Dunhams. I really like Lena Dunham’s pink suit – I made her a few. And Grace, who’s in the documentary. I made her an awesome, awesome suit. Like a heavy blue flannel, almost high-waisted, really strong, really awesome suit. And you know, I take credit for it, but clients are the ones who design it. I’m just listening to what they want. I just guide them to their vision.