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Shapeshifters Is A Trans-owned Micro-biz That Also Gives Back

By: Chris Gilmore/Trans Headlines

How often have you come across the “One-Size-Fits-All” clothing labels? Are you one of us that doesn’t fit the societal mold and idea of conventional sizes? If so, don’t feel alone. There’s hope and, in this case, another place to consider for your transition-related accessories.

For trans-specific binders, in this case, Trans Headlines found Shapeshifters, a trans-owned business that is making strides in the custom-made binder world, directly from Vermont. Shapeshifters is, according to its owner Eli (they/them), a “four-person microbusiness” that saws and sells chest binders and sports bras directly from their Vt. Studio.

Simply stated, Eli is a trans business owner making “custom clothes” for trans people. The key to it, they say is through normalizing “as many varieties of clothing-based gender expression as I can possibly give a platform to.”

“We’re deliberately broad in our target market because people of all genders, whether trans or cis, might have uses for what we do,” they explained. “The more binding is seen as just another way to wear clothes, the less trouble (and discrimination) will come to trans men and non-binary transgender people who need to bind.”

The company differentiates from others in that they specifically tweak designs to accommodate for “body shape, physical sensitivities, medical conditions, and other customer needs.” All things, we at Trans Headlines, thought you should know about when you’re shopping for binders.

We spoke to Eli and they answered questions to further explain why they do it, what’s behind their model, competition, what affects trans businesses and people today and more, so that you, our readers, find out more about this revolutionary approach to binding.

 

Q: Are you a direct competitor of GC2B?

A: I’d say we serve different people than GC2B: they produce standard S/M/L sizes, and we custom-size. When they can’t fit someone, GC2B has been known to refer customers to us, and when we can’t meet a customer’s timeframe, we refer them to GC2B.

Q: In what year did you start your business? How long ago? Why?

A: We started 5 1/2 ago, in early 2014. Chest binders were considered uncomfortable medical devices and sold mainly by Underworks, GC2B [etc.] and many others weren’t around back then. I found that I was between an Underworks M and L sizes, so nothing fit. That’s why I made my own.

I experimented with effective compression, developed a design that worked, and layered teal scales on the outside to create what we now call a Poseidon binder. I felt stylish, powerful, and unexpectedly more comfortable than I had in any other undergarment. Crucially, I started to realize that if chest binders fit properly, they didn’t need to feel bad. This was contrary to everything I had read about chest binding, but the evidence of my own body was compelling.

I started selling Poseidon binders on Etsy in April of 2014. By the next year, the store had enough orders to move to its own website, and my wife Krista stepped in to help with production, design effective fits for all sizes, and co-manage the business. Five years later, we have our own studio space, three industrial machines, and two employees, and we’re still making chest binders on the fundamental principle that if they are sized correctly, they can actually feel good.

Q: What differentiates you from the competitors?

A: We make each binder in-studio, sizing and shaping each garment to the customer’s self-submitted measurements. Because of this we can offer a huge variety of custom options, both functional (zippers, racerback cut) and ornamental (hoods, sleeves, extra-long outer layers, skirts.) We also quite frequently make specific tweaks to accommodate body shape, physical sensitivities, medical conditions, and other customer needs.

I would say we are the go-to chest binder company for people who fall outside of, or in between, the usual size range.

We’re also proud to offer the widest range of colors, prints, and patterns on the market, including the most variety in skin tone range. Customers can even order a custom-printed fabric to get a garment completely unique to them in every way.

Q: Why are your products made of different colors and patterns? What do you aim to do with that?

A: When I started binding, the available color options were Black, Easily Discolored Off-White, and Ugly Beige. We deserve better. Trans people deserve better. Men deserve better. Everyone deserves to feel good in their own clothes, and for many people, this means looking like they’ve put serious thought into what they want to wear and how they’d like to look.

We at Shapeshifters aim to normalize chest binding as a regular practice that many people might choose for many reasons. A binder is a piece of clothing, and having a binder that suits your personal style is just as satisfying as having a nice shirt that you like to wear, or a functional and good-looking pair of shoes.

Q: How do you give back to the community? Are there specific non-profit (501c3) organizations you’ve given to?

A: As a company with a high price point, it’s extremely important to us to give back to folks in the community who may not be able to afford our regular rates. That’s why we give away one custom-made binder by lottery for every 50 sales, and one more for every Pay It Forward binder funded by donations to our Additional Giveaways Fund.

Our giveaways run monthly from the 20th to the end of each month, and entry is free to all.

In addition, we frequently send seconds and spare stock to a wide variety of LGBT+ non-profits, student groups, and events. This year so far we’ve donated stock to clothing exchanges at the 5 College Queer Gender and Sexuality Conference and Fenway Health’s Non-Medical Transitioning event; the Gender Health Center in Sacramento, Calif.; GRIS Quebec; the Gender Identity/Expression and Sexual Orientation Resource Center at WSU; and Youth Project Halifax. Soon, I’ll fill a donation request from a domestic violence shelter in North Carolina.

In rural solidarity, we donated a gift certificate this year to the first annual Pride Picnic in Viroqua, Wisconsin. And, of course, we collaborate with our local LGBTQ nonprofit, Out In The Open, as often as we possibly can.

Q: Who are your products for (trans, nb, cis men experiencing gynecomastia, the community in general, etc.)? 

A: This has been a question of some debate in the trans masculine community this past decade. Because chest binders were associated with suffering, to wear one was often claimed as a uniquely trans masculine form of self-sacrifice and pain. We, at Shapeshifters, consider it our core mission to decouple chest binders from suffering. One side-effect of this mission is to remove cultural barriers to chest binding; if it doesn’t hurt, doesn’t injure and, in fact, feels good, anyone might want to do it.

Our products are quite deliberately offered for everyone who might want to compress or flatten their chest, for any reason. This includes non-binary people, trans men, trans women who want to alter their presentation or style, gender-fluid people, cis women who want to alter their presentation or style, cis men experiencing gynecomastia, anyone with a large chest who participates in physical activities in which their chest hinders their movement, and, I’m sure, customers who fit in none of these categories, who buy and wear chest binders for their own reasons, which I may never know.

Customers with autism, for example, have written to us to tell us that our chest binders feel good to them. I believe them! And I don’t see a need to interrogate their gender or place in the Community in order to make them a piece of clothing.

Humans are wildly diverse; human bodies come in millions and billions of variants. Our products are for humans. We try to meet each customer where they’re at.

Q: How many people work for you? How many full-time? How many part-time? How many contractors?

A: Krista and I are full-time; we have two part-time employees. We contract out web services to two more, and our sewing machine technician makes three.

Q: What other services do you offer or plan to offer?

A: We offer chest binder tailoring, both for our products and for other companies. Every Shapeshifters garment comes with one free re-fitting, and beyond that paid alterations are priced at cost.

We converse at length with many customers via e-mail and in person, leading them through the process of getting a binder to fit just right, and also having a variety of feelings about clothing and gender. To this end we offer in-studio fittings for folks who can make it to Brattleboro.

We do as much education and outreach on safe and comfortable binding practices as we possibly can, on social media channels and on our store blog.

It’s my dream to someday cooperate with other local tailors and crafters of custom-fit clothing in a collaborative production space.

Q: Do you have a dedicated office or do you run your business out of your house?

A: Happy to say we’ve been in the Cotton Mill building in Brattleboro for two years. The Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation runs this building as an incubation space for small businesses in the area, and we’ve been fortunate to have them as landlords.

Q: Describe your business in 3 words.

A: Binders for Humans, unless you mean three disconnected words, in which case they are: Custom. Compassionate. Inclusive.

Q: Why the name “Shapeshifters?” Where did it originate?

A: We are both absolute nerds for comic books and fantasy media. The shapeshifter is a wonderful, transgressive archetype in fiction, crossing boundaries easily and fluidly without regard for rigid conventions. I was deeply invested in the Young Avengers and Runaways comics at the start of this decade, and the openly queer shapeshifter characters Hulkling and Xavin meant a lot to me when I was coming out of the closet.

Q: How are supply and demand? Is the current supply enough for your customers and prospective customers’ demand?

A: The fabric supply chain is challenging at the moment because of the tariff war with China. We’re making moves to shift our fabric production to domestic mills for pricing, stability, and environmental reasons, but it’s difficult to predict how things will play out.

As for in-studio supply, as I type this, our sewing machine technician is across the room, hand-filing a machine part to fix up a serger that, when running, will double our capacity. Micro-scale production is amazing. The tiniest detail matters. With this new equipment, I’m confident we can meet demand and reduce our wait times.

Q: As you reflect on the future of Shapeshifters and the current state of the nation as it pertains to the trans community, what are your thoughts on it all?

A: It’s hard to be transgender in the U.S. right now and in most of the world. We could not exist without the unending, dedicated support of our customer base and our transgender community. One wall of our studio space is entirely dedicated to the thank-you notes, cards, postcards and e-mails that people have sent us from around the world. There’s a world map on the opposite wall, with pins for sales in forty countries and in every state in the U.S.

And, every time some piece of legislation or new decree comes down the line to further marginalize us, every time transgender people are used as scapegoats in the national media for social problems, every time trans-related healthcare gets more expensive and less insured, I see the direct hit in my business’ bottom line. My community hurts, and saves their dollars, and can’t spare the cash to support my small-town microbusiness and me.

We’re doing alright, and I hope we’ll be doing much better in two years, but I want it on the record: the biggest risk to our business is government oppression. If we go out of business, it won’t be because there’s no market. It will be because the people we serve have been starved of resources to buy the things they need.

Sorry to end on a grim note. It’s that kind of year.

You can find out more about Shapeshifters and Eli’s vested desire to Pay It Forward and help their community via Twitter @shapeshifterscb, on Instagram and Tumblr at @shapeshiftersinc, and on Facebook @shapeshifters.binders. Also, to order and see some of their colorful and creative designs visit their website at www.shapeshifters.co/ or e-mail them at:  info@shapeshifters.co.