NEW YORK – It’s hard to believe, upon first meeting Daniel Friedman, that this slight, bespectacled “straight white Jewish man from a proud Zionist home,” as he describes himself – who, at 36, looks like an adult version of Harry Potter – is the unofficial tailor to New York’s queer community. Friedman, who lives in Brooklyn’s upscale Park Slope neighborhood, and is the star of “Suited,” a new documentary film produced by Lena Denham and Jennifer Konner for HBO, has been in the forefront of a genuine revolution in custom-tailored clothing.
With the longtime collaboration of a transgender activist and blogger named Rae Tutera, Friedman’s bespoke company, Bindle & Keep, is continuing the tradition of designers such as Coco Chanel and Andre Courreges by reinventing the made-to-measure suit as an item earmarked primarily for women, transgender people and anyone who wants to challenge the binary gender division of “man” and “woman.” Besides hundreds of queer brides and grooms, Friedman’s clients include Laverne Cox, transgender star of the television series “Orange Is the New Black,” Jessica Williams from “The Daily Show,” Hollywood producer Amy Kaufman (“Sin Nombre”) and Dunham’s younger sister and queer activist Grace Dunham, who is one of the clients seen in “Suited.” The film, which premiered at the Sundance Festival this winter, will be broadcast by HBO in June.
The film’s optimistic narrative – about the rise of Bindle & Keep from a small firm specializing in designing luxury suits for Wall Street bankers to a company that stands for social activism and works mainly with lesbians, queers and transgender people – follows the familiar pattern of the American dream and connects easily to the LGBT revolution in recent years. Although the movie focuses on the stories of a few satisfied clients and ends with a wedding and a fashion show, Friedman’s own story is far from hewing to the plot of a classic Hollywood happy-ending movie. In fact, during a conversation I had with him recently in a Park Slope café, it gradually emerged that his life is more like an episode in the medical drama series “House.”
“My grandparents were Holocaust survivors who escaped to Canada and the U.S.,” Friedman says in a quite voice in an interview held at a Park Slope coffee shop. “I was born in Toronto to a. “I was born in Toronto to a modern-Orthodox Jewish family. I grew up going to very Zionist Jewish day-camps. When my family moved to Ohio, they became even more religious. I ended up going to a black-hat yeshiva in Jerusalem for one year after high school, and fell in love with Israel. It was still before the second intifada, so we could do whatever we wanted.”
He grew up with four brothers and always felt he had to prove himself. His father was a lawyer and his mother, a chef by training, a homemaker.
“I’m not sure how I ended up making suits,” he laughs. “It wasn’t a simple route but a very long and broad one. I grew up trying to prove my self-worth. When you grow up in a large family, it’s very hard for you to stand out from the crowd. I always wanted to be an architect. That was my passion. After Israel, I went to McGill University and I transferred to the University of Michigan to finish my undergrad studies. Then I moved to Arizona for a little while, and was designing hippie architecture: sustainable, green houses. In 2006 I moved to New York and went to Columbia for a master’s in real estate development ... and was finishing up my thesis. The world was at my feet. And suddenly, in 2008, I was writing a paper and I could no longer read. It just turned off. I couldn’t read what I wrote, and I couldn’t understand anything that was written.”
Friedman thought he might have suffered a stroke or a particularly serious panic attack. His brain recognized words on the page but was unable to make the connections between them: “The doctors checked my brain, and told me everything looked fine. But my ability to read and write never came back. It’s a never-ending nightmare.”
For a time, he recalls, “they thought it was Lyme disease. I spent like a year connected to an IV PICC [catheter] with antibiotics, but I wasn’t getting any better ... [Eventually,] it was actually an Israeli doctor who figured it out. He said, ‘Let’s just check your metals, because you should be feeling a little bit better from all the antibiotics.’ So they checked my metals a few months ago, and I was in the lethal range for lead poisoning. I had lead-poisoned myself. I have permanent brain damage from it.”
No one had thought to test Friedman for this, because, as the doctors told him, he “hadn’t grown up in a home where the paint was peeling.” Ultimately, the story was reconstructed.
“My parents in Ohio have a very old home,” he relates. “It was built in the late 1800s, and it has window shutters. And when I went to Philadelphia, I thought it would be really cool to bring some of those shutters to my apartment. They had this beautiful patina of peeling paint. I thought it was a really antique, farmhouse shutter thing. They had grates, slats in the window shutters, and I attached hooks to them and hung my pots and pans on them. They were constantly flaking into my pots and pans.
“So I’d been eating paint, and paint dust, for years. I started to get sicker and sicker, and I guess eventually, after a late night writing a paper, my brain just wasn’t able to fight it off anymore. It feels like you have part of your brain broken. When I start to read, that part of my brain turns off. I take a lot of medicines, but the brain damage is irreversible.”
Do you feel like you are able to accept your situation now, or are you still in the process of mourning those abilities?
“There’s a level of acceptance, of course, but there’s always mourning. I entered a very dark place when I lost my ability to read. Sometimes I felt like Job. I used to walk around New York City thinking, What did I do to deserve this? Why would God punish me like this? I became obsessed. I couldn’t get a job. All this schooling, everything that I worked for, I couldn’t do.
“If you can’t write, you can’t learn. You can’t come up with new ideas. The way we make new ideas is by taking this information and that information, and we put them together and synthesize it as a novel thing. Audio books are not the same as reading a beautiful sentence that really touches you. I’ll never be able to read a book and be so influenced by it that it changes my life. When you read a book you go into a different world, and that world is so valuable. If you can’t read, where do you go? It’s a very lonely place I’m in.”
‘I’m going to own it’
Friedman’s problems were compounded by the fact that his family thought he was making up the problem, and spurned him. “I come from a family that is like, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why are you such a victim? I don’t understand why you can’t read.’” But after coming to terms with the fact that he would never be able to work in the profession he had studied for, Friedman decided to try his luck at designing men’s suits.
He knew someone in Ohio who owned a company that made suits. “I always liked clothing,” he says, “the architecture aspect of everything. So I started a suit company. I had no money and I didn’t know how to stitch, but I had ambition and survival skills. I was like, ‘I come from a family of Holocaust survivors, so I can overcome this somehow. I can get through this.’ I don’t remember if I heard this from my grandmother, but I have this image of when people got to the camps in the trains they would be asked, ‘What do you do for a living?’ They’d say, ‘I’m a philosopher.’ ‘From now on, you know what you are, you’re a carpenter.’ ‘I’m not a carpenter.’ ‘You’re a carpenter, don’t ask questions.’ And you know – they become carpenters. So that’s kind of like what I did: Now I’m a tailor, and I’m going to own it and I’m going to figure it out.”
Friedman’s condition ruled out a return to school or taking professional courses. The only way was for him to start stitching and learn the trade by trial and error. He launched Bindle & Keep in August 2011.
Initially the company enjoyed modest success. Friedman sold relatively expensive suits to brokers and bankers. At some point, he started to offer discounts to LGBT couples who wanted suits for their weddings. One day, to his good fortune, Rae Tutera, a queer activist who writes a popular blog called “Handsome Butch,” asked him if he could do a made-to-measure suit for her. That process, which included numberless conversations, measurements and consultations, was so meaningful to Tutera that she devoted an ardent article to Friedman in the Huffington Post.
“I didn’t own a suit until I was 25,” she wrote in the piece. “In fact, I’d never even tried one on until I had one custom-made for my body. I knew immediately that it was the most extravagant thing I’d ever done for myself, and later I realized it was also the most practical and revolutionary thing I’d ever done for myself. It was extravagant because bespoke menswear from a tailor in Manhattan’s east ‘50s needless to say comes at a cost (the kind of cost one puts on a credit card); practical because no off-the-rack suit will ever fit my (petite, queer, transmasculine) body; and revolutionary because not only did this suit revolutionize my relationship with formal menswear (which I anticipated), it revolutionized my relationship with myself.”
Subsequently, Tutera and Friedman started to collaborate; since October 2012 they have been working together as partners. Tutera, who also owns Willoughby General, an up-and-coming general store in Bed-Stuy, is a clothier for Bindle & Keep who specializes in LGBTQ clients.
“Rae taught me the sensitivities, and I taught Rae how to make suits, and together, with that synergy, we rewrote the book on what it means to make suits – not for the LGBT community, but for everybody,” Friedman explains. “I don’t consider myself a megaphone for the LGBT community. We do men, we do women, we do women who ask us to be gender-blind, we do women who ask us to be very gendered, who want their hips exaggerated and want their curves. We are not saying we’re doing it for the LGBT community. That’s dated, that’s an old model. We are a company that serves everybody, and it just so happens that by serving everybody we created a safe place for the LGBT community. Because capitalism is the great equalizer. That is the positive element of capitalism.”
But isn’t there always tension between creating something inclusive and celebrating self-expression, and then charging $1,000 for a bespoke suit?
“Our prices start at $800, and we do payment plans and try to help people. A suit is a luxury item; it is not something that will save your life. It’s not food, heat or shelter. It’s an aspirational item. We’re not saying that everyone has a perfect right to this even if they have no money. We’re trying to show that it’s inclusive in the sense of our philosophy – in the sense that because I’m making a suit for you, it’s your suit. I want every company across the country to look at us and understand that you can be a straight-owned company and you can have 90 percent of your clientele be women from the LGBTQ community.”
Buying a suit from Bindle & Keep is a multistage process that requires a mental as well as economic commitment. New clients meet with Friedman or one of the staff for a session that can last from 30 minutes to two hours. They are asked about their life, their background and their fashion choices. They are then undergo precise measurements, which can take several hours. Only then does a process of sewing and fitting begin, which can last several months, during which they will be invited to try on their suit repeatedly until they are satisfied with the result.
Friedman himself describes the process as a type of therapy. “I’m not queer myself,” he notes, “but I’ve struggled and I’ve had my own challenges. And I’ve learned that the most important thing in helping somebody is listening. So that’s what we do, we just listen, and people tell us what they want. We don’t talk in terms of sexuality in our company, we think it’s irrelevant. Who cares? It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters, the only thing, is that people feel good about themselves. One thing I tell people all the time is that I can make you a gender-blind suit. Lots of people take issue with that wording. I don’t have the language that’s always the most politically correct. What’s good about it is that it allows us to be on the same page. When I’m making you something to make you feel really good about yourself, you give me a pass because you know that the endgame for both of us is to make you feel good.”
You talk about blurring gender distinctions, but historically suits are an item of apparel identified with masculinity, authority and power. They’re the modern equivalent of the knight’s armor in the Middle Ages.
“Yes, men’s suits are armor. You’re completely shielded and you have no soft, rounded spots that are vulnerable. More feminine clothing tends to emphasize sexuality on some level, like the curvature of the hips, the hourglass of the upper waist, the true waist, the size of the shoulders, the outline of the thighs. A lot of our clients don’t want that. They feel like they want that armor, when the only clothes available to them make them feel not protected, but extra-vulnerable, more exposed.
“So they come to us and say, ‘I want a men’s suit.’ To me a ‘men’s suit’ means nothing. What is masculinity? I don’t even know anymore. What’s the architecture of a men’s suit that makes it a men’s suit? Look at Superman comics: giant chest, tiny little waist. That kind of body figure is the paradigm of masculinity in our culture. If I put a suit like that on some of our clients, with the chest graduated like that and the waist cinched in so tightly, they would say, ‘Oh my God, this is the most feminine thing in the world.’ Which is nuts. The fact that we’re putting on a suit that doesn’t factor in gender doesn’t mean that we’re not factoring in triggers. We flip the relationship and bind the chest a little tighter, and a little bit more room in the waist. And people feel so much better.”
Whether it’s therapy, art or fashion, it’s hard to argue with the financial success of Bindle & Keep. To date, Friedman has made more than 4,000 suits, and last year he met with dozens of new clients every month. Now there’s the documentary, too, directed by Jason Benjamin, though Friedman says it’s not about him but about Tutera and the company’s clients.
During the film’s 80 minutes, Benjamin follows six clients, among them Aidan, a transgender boy of 12 from Arizona whose grandmother has persuaded a rabbi to preside over a bar mitzvah (as opposed to a bat mitzvah) for him; Derek, a transgender man who is marrying his male partner; Everett, a transgender aspiring lawyer from Georgia who is coping with a conservative family and looking for a suit that will make a good impression in job interviews; Social activist and writer Grace Dunham, who terms herself “androgynous” and wants a suit that won’t allow people to determine her gender easily; and Melissa, a writer and taxi driver who has decided to order her first-ever suit to mark her 40th birthday. All the suits on offer are traditional pants and jacket ensembles.
When I met a second time with Friedman in the Bindle & Keep studio in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, a few days after he returned from the world premiere of the movie at Sundance in Utah, he told me he was surprised at the intensity of the response there. “The reactions were mind-blowing,” he said. “It’s way bigger than making money, it’s real. We hit a nerve. People were crying. They came up to me and told me about their own struggles. And that gives you a feeling that you matter, you exist – I have value now. And the whole time I was struggling and struggling to figure out who I was. Now I’m important, my life has meaning.
“But at the same time, the split continues. I still feel empty inside because my brain doesn’t function. I would easily give up my money and success to make things better. I would pay $25,000 or $50,000 if they could make it possible for me to read a book one time. One book, one time.”
If you could read only one book, what would it be?
“Short stories by Bruno Schulz, he’s my favorite author.”