Clothing is one of the many ways we express ourselves. We wake up, dress up, and move on with our day in our chosen costumes, which are supposed to represent our mood, our style, and how we want others to perceive us. But what happens when it seems as though clothes and accessories are simply not designed for a minority group?
For many gender-expansive individuals, finding clothing that fits is an uncomfortable experience, to say the least. Larger, traditional brands have 2 avenues—male or female, with both options based on societal gender stereotypes and Western beauty standards. But the mainstream market is underserving a particular audience—5% of young adults identify as trans or non-binary.
For 3 designers, enough was enough. From knitwear that celebrates queer and cultural identities to sustainable gender-neutral jewelry, these LGBTQIA+ visionaries share their stories from idea to launch to success.
Crowdsourced design for the community
Finnegan Shepard, Both&
With a background in literary fiction and ancient political philosophy, Finnegan Shepard’s (he/him) career in clothing and apparel is somewhat unexpected. “I really thought I was going to spend my life in academia. I thought that was the path. For a variety of reasons, that ended up not being the path,” says Shepard.
His brand, Both&, is a collection of high-quality apparel designed to “empower, outfit, and serve the non-binary generation.” What may look like a simple T-shirt to most is, in fact, a complete rework of fashion’s core blueprint, with each item designed for the needs of trans-masculine and gender-non-conforming folk.
After conducting interviews with people in the LGBTQIA+ community, Shepard compiled data to design a new silhouette outside of the binary. From altering proportions and adding a frame shape to relieve body dysphoria around the hips to selecting an ultra weightheavy cotton for maximum structure, Both&’s products create a sense of ease and gender joy that’s been long awaited.
In the summer of 2020, Shepard had the initial epiphany moment while recovering from top surgery. “I was living in my parents’ house. I’d left academia. I’d been engaged, but that had ended. It was lockdown. In every different vertical of my life, I was unmoored. Everything felt like a question mark. I was sitting on the front porch and remember thinking that as soon as my chest healed, I’d go swimming topless. I Googled ‘trans man swim trunks’ and wasn’t excited by what I saw.”
What started as a curious, small-scale business experiment soon turned into a labor of love. Now 3 years in, Both& has expanded on an international level, closed a $1 million seed round during a turbulent time in the global economy, and connected an otherwise forgotten community.
“I think that’s what my background really qualified me for—as a writer, somebody who’s really interested in story,” Shepard says. “I think people could tell in our photojournalism and our Instagram, long before we even had products, that we weren’t building community because it was a marketing buzzword. We genuinely wanted to talk to other people and understand the experience and how that informs the design decisions we make. We still do so many community-oriented things that are pretty hard to justify to investors. It doesn’t increase conversion rates, it doesn’t lead to spikes in sales, but it feels really important.”
Both&’s newest collection: The brand’s most recent campaign—a play on nineties advertisements—looks to rewrite what masculinity in fashion can mean in 2023. Working with photographer and film director Lydia Garnett, Both& lined the streets of the world’s fashion capitals with black-and-white posters. “I figured, why don’t we just say it? Trans masculinity is the new masculine. That’s what people are terrified of,” Shepard says. “That was the conceptual jumping-off point. Let’s take this iconic moment for masculinity in fashion, but let’s reshoot it with trans models.”
Jewelry for everyone
Al Sandimirova, Automic Gold
In 2009, Al Sandimirova (they/them) moved from the Russian republic of Tatarstan and landed in the US as a refugee. With no education, unable to speak English at the time, and no legal working rights, Sandimirova managed to find an undocumented job working in a gold refinery. After facing severely poor and degrading workplace conditions, Sandimirova took a chance on themselves and began selling scrap gold, and later launched Automic Gold, a gender-neutral jewelry brand that surfaced like a diamond in the rough. Based in New York City, the label creates everything in-house, with a focus on inclusive sizing, reclaimed gold, and serving the community and its allies through custom options. Sandimirova tells us how they got here.
How did you turn your idea into what it is now?
“My goal was never to be an entrepreneur. Growing up in a communist country, I never really thought about business like that, but it’s such a big American dream I’m living now. I started buying jewelry from the scrap in the refinery, renewing it, and selling it on eBay. I then went on to sell jewelry from around 10 different designers—but I realized that it was nothing that I’d personally wear. At the time, I was very, very feminine. I wore more diamonds and studs. I came out the same year I started the brand, and thought that I wanted to make something which was both masculine and feminine.”
What’s the process of creating a new product?
“We make everything in-house. Production is in one room and shipping in the other. I make a prototype, wear it, sleep in it, and make any adjustments. I wear it for a couple of months and, if I like it after that, then I’ll take a photo and list it on the website.”
What role has the queer community played for your brand?
“It’s been amazing. People come to me with the most terrible stories: gay couples who get refused in the [jewelry] store. People looking to buy [jewelry] for their partners but not be able to find something that isn’t stereotypically masc or femme. A lot of queer people want to propose and ask for my help to create a custom design. I say: you’ve come to the right spot.”
Why should we invest in queer businesses?
“If you buy from a queer business like Automic Gold, it goes into the salaries of the 15 employees who’ll spend it back in the local community.”
Sandimirova on the biggest misconception about creating products that sit outside of the binary: “That it’s hard to do. It’s harder to design something exclusively feminine or masculine. It’s really the bare minimum to design for queer people and to create inclusive designs in all sizes.”
Celebrating queer and cultural identities
Jacques Agbobly, Agbobly
In 2020, Jacques Agbobly (they/them/he/him) launched Black Boy Knits from their apartment—a wearable collection that celebrated Black, immigrant, and queer life through custom made-to-order knitwear. Taking inspiration from both their West African roots and their upbringing in Chicago, the label was selected as one of the finalists for the 2022 CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund.
In February 2023, they set out to create a new, grown-up era for the brand—relaunching as simply Agbobly, a nod to their Togolese heritage and family.
“I didn’t imagine myself releasing a brand straight out of college, but the pandemic forced me to do something to be able to survive. For me, a lot of my work is tied to my familial lineage and storytelling from my own perspective as an African immigrant migrating to the US at a young age. I’m taking inspiration from both cultures. I thought because I put so much of myself in my work, it made sense to lead with my name,” they told fashion magazine WWD.
How it started
Born and raised in Togo, West Africa, Agbobly’s collections are a celebration of queer culture and a rejection of the heteronormative ideals that have long dominated the fashion industry. His designs are playful, bold, and unapologetic, incorporating elements of traditional African dress with a modern, avant-garde twist. He experiments with gender and sexuality, blurring the harsh line between masculine and feminine and keeping a sort of childlike innocence to each piece.
How it’s going
Agbobly’s influence has since extended far beyond the runway and into activism. As an outspoken advocate for queer rights, Agbobly is committed to using his platform to promote social change. He’s partnered with organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the Trevor Project to raise awareness and funds for LGBTQIA+ causes.
What you can learn from Agbobly: Agbobly’s impact on the fashion industry is undeniable. He has inspired a new generation of designers to embrace their identities and create work that reflects their own personal experiences while challenging the industry to move beyond the narrow beauty standards that have long prevailed. He has shown that fashion can be a powerful tool for social change, a way to celebrate diversity, and a form of self-acceptance.
Both&’s popularity shows just how untapped the market is for non-binary apparel. But what makes this company so unique is founder Finnegan Shepard’s obsession with making the perfect product for an underserved audience, and conducting interviews with people from the community to find out what they need and (importantly) want to wear.
Finding jewelry that’s both masculine and feminine—or, equally, neither at all—is harder than it sounds. So, Al Sandimirova decided to make it. Their brand, Automic Gold, makes jewelry that’s beyond gender—for everyone. It offers rings in sizes 2 to 16, which Sandimirova says is way larger than the size ranges of other brands.
Jacques Agbobly is making a name for themselves within the fashion industry with their own personal experiences and identity woven into the fabric of the brand—a celebration of queer culture and their West African heritage.