Lena Dunham talks Suited: Fashion is a new way into [the LGBTQ] conversation
Jason Benjamin's new HBO doc looks inside tailor shop for gender nonconforming customers
Getting dressed is no easy task for some in the gender nonconforming community. The gender-defining decisions that go into simply selecting an outfit are at the heart of Suited, a new HBO documentary from producers Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner.
“It doesn’t occur to so many people that if you don’t have a clear heterosexual, gender confirming identity that there are parts of day-to-day life — like using a bathroom or getting your clothes — that just aren’t going to be as easy,” Dunham tells EW. “I love that fashion is a new way into this conversation.”
Suited delves into the world of Bindle & Keep, a bespoke Brooklyn suit company aiming to change the face of LGBTQ fashion. Director Jason Benjamin, a veteran Girls boom operator, shadows a slate of non-binary people as they work with the company’s clothiers to devise self-affirming outfits for various occasions.
Over the course of the 77-minute film, we meet six subjects across the identity spectrum, from a transgender teen looking for a Bar Mitzvah getup to a gender non-conforming cabbie hoping to land something formal for her 40th birthday party. Regardless of how they define themselves, Bindle & Keep’s clientele are all searching for the same thing: comfort within their own skin.
“I think part of what [drew us] to it was the universal nature of wanting to feel comfortable, wanting to feel attractive, and wanting to own your own body and your own identity,” Dunham says. “As a woman who doesn’t necessarily fit the beauty standard in Hollywood…I really related to the narrative of looking for something you felt comfortable in that would properly express your identity, especially when your identity didn’t feel like it necessarily matched the one that was being imposed on you.”
For more on Suited, EW spoke with Dunham and Benjamin about how fashion impacts identity, the transformative moment that hooked them, and how they hope the film will influence the LGBTQ community.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First of all, I want to be everyone’s best friend in this film. They’re all such genuine, beautiful people.
JASON BENJAMIN: I totally agree. I’m in love with all of them, I really am. We all became such good friends making the film. I think that’s kind of rare.
LENA DUNHAM: I’m so proud of them, and I’m so proud of Jason’s work and the relationship he formed with them. I can say this and he can’t, but there’s no group of documentary subjects more devoted to their documentarian. The vibes are really positive, and I feel so lucky.
There are so many ways to cover LGBTQ issues; what about this particular angle spoke to you?
BENJAMIN: I read an article in the The New York Times about the work that Bindle & Keep was doing, and [clothier] Rae Tutera was speaking about delivering suits to clients who have never had clothing that fits before, and just how exciting and charged that moment is. That was really what I was after. It really stuck with me.
I brought the idea of making a documentary to Lena and [co-producer] Jenni [Konner], and it grew from there, but it was really my interest in that one specific moment that attracted me to the piece. It was, to me, a moment of self-realization and self-empowerment.
Clothing is such a seemingly superficial commodity, but the documentary shows how it can hit so much deeper than that. Can you speak a little bit about how you translated that on screen?
BENJAMIN: Using the structure of the tailoring experience at Bindle & Keep was a way into these people’s lives. It was really a way to look beyond the fact that they were much more than just their gender. They were lawyers and nurses and many other things besides just gender nonconforming, which is where I sort of felt the dialogue was stuck for a while. I was really trying to look beyond just the trans aspect by using the tailoring structure.
Body image and feeling comfortable in your own skin was very much a part of the narrative, which is a universally relatable sentiment; anyone can connect with that. Was it an intentional touchstone?
DUNHAM: Not to speak for Jason, but he’s a straight married dude with two kids. He wasn’t the most likely person to be drawn to this story and make this film, and I think part of what did draw him to it was the universal nature of wanting to feel comfortable, wanting to feel attractive, and wanting to own your own body and your own identity. As a woman who doesn’t necessarily fit the beauty standard in Hollywood and has made the choice to have this career and then have to go out and support what I do and not show up in pajamas and flip flops, I really related to the narrative of looking for something you felt comfortable in that would properly express your identity, especially when your identity didn’t feel like it necessarily matched the one that was being imposed on you.
BENJAMIN: My magnetic attraction to that one transformative moment led to a discovery of many different things. One was the types of issues that people who are nonconforming have to confront on a daily basis, and part of that was me taking into consideration how I felt about myself. When I look into the mirror, what do I see, and what is that like for me? Were there any relationships between the subjects of the documentary and me that could help me feel empathy? Those were things that sort of just came up along the way and became part of the film because they were there. I wasn’t trying to fit them into a thesis — they were already part of the story.
What about these particular people’s stories struck you, and what did you think was powerful about how they fit together?
BENJAMIN: From the start, I think we all agreed that we wanted to get a lot of diversity, and when I say diversity I’m not just talking about racial diversity. We wanted diverse experiences in terms of gender, race, geography, even economics. I think we weren’t as successful with economics, because if you’re going to Bindle & Keep for a custom suit, you have to have some means financially.
DUNHAM: A huge part of the American trans population that’s often overlooked are trans teenagers. Many of them are homeless, and those are not the people who are necessarily going in for a custom suit. But that’s one of the reasons why we were excited that we got to do a contest with HBO to sponsor a young person getting a suit made who might not have the means to do it on their own.
BENJAMIN: All of the characters came to Bindle & Keep unprompted. They sent an email saying, “Here’s my situation, this is why I want a suit, here’s why I’m contacting you.” Once that happened, Bindle & Keep would forward me the email and say, “Maybe this is interesting to you,” and from there I would reach out. Once that process started, everybody said yes. There seemed to be a big desire from within the community to tell this story and to participate in being visible. There was a lot of enthusiasm from the subjects in the film.
Lena, your sister Grace is one of those subjects. Can you speak to how her experience shaped your outlook on gender nonconformity, and how it impacted your approach going into the film?
DUNHAM: I think my sister would say the same thing, which is that she’s had a very specific and in some ways privileged experience being a gender nonconforming person. She grew up in the New York art world. Even if she didn’t have a precedent for it in her family, there was an understanding of what it meant to be queer that so many people don’t get to experience in their immediate family and in their lives.
That being said, it was definitely a road for her to come to terms with the fact that she didn’t identify as female in a typical way. Her self-identification was different than what she might’ve imagined. I’m really lucky because my sister is a real activist soul and also hyper-intellectualized in this way that’s really allowed me to wrap my mind around some of the bigger intellectual concepts and really understand the language around identity in the gender nonconforming community. She was a good source for all of us, even if it was just looking over press materials. For straight, hetero people it’s very easy to unintentionally say something that might not honor people’s identities fully, and Grace is a really amazing educational resource.
On a personal level, I’m proud of her for being so staunchly in her identity. It’s a very unusual thing for a young person. I think she’s been very strong about it.
Was her experience part of what attracted you to the project when Jason brought it to you?
DUNHAM: Definitely. I think Jenni and I are always working from a personal place, and the fact that these were issues that we’d been talking about in our own families really clicked, but also Jason’s passion about it and his clear sense that this was going to be something emotional and remarkable to watch. It was very hard not get excited about it and want to help in any way we could.
How do you hope this film contributes to the LGBTQ community?
BENJAMIN: I hope that it helps people outside of the community to understand that gender is not really a binary, it’s a spectrum, and that we’re all somewhere on the spectrum; we’re a lot closer to each other than we maybe give each other credit for. I hope that it provides some sort of possibility model for young people and for parents to have a constructive way to deal with the people in our lives who are confronting these issues.
DUNHAM: I agree, and I also love that fashion is a new way into this conversation. HBO’s done an amazing job of covering things like the fight against HIV/AIDs and Prop 8, and all of that stuff is so deeply necessary to talk about it, but it’s also really important to talk about the more mundane aspects of the lives of people in the queer community. It doesn’t occur to so many people that if you don’t have a clear heterosexual, gender confirming identity that there are parts of day-to-day life — like using a bathroom or getting your clothes — that just aren’t going to be as easy. I like the fact that we highlight that in a sensitive way.
What clothing do you feel most yourselves in?
DUNHAM: Jason’s got a real uniform, and I’ve come to really admire it. I wish that I had one as clear. One of my favorite facts about Jason is that he collects shirts from tattoo parlors. He has a bunch of tattoo parlor T-shirts, but no tattoos. And then he wears, like, vans and jeans. My boyfriend said he looks like a modern Bruce Springsteen, which is a pretty high compliment. For me, my life goal is to be in a position where I can wear pajamas 24 hours a day. That’s what makes me happy. I’m just waiting to be 85 and be in a pajama community. Everyone’s welcome to join me.
Suited airs Monday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.