This is a transcript of the Nov. 26 edition of Working. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Jacob Brogan: You’re listening to Working, the podcast about what people do all day. I’m Jacob Brogan. This season on Working we’re talking to individuals whose jobs touch on various aspects of LGBTQ life. For this episode we talked with Daniel Friedman of Bindle & Keep, a bespoke clothing company based in Brooklyn, that makes custom suits for all bodies.
In practice, that means that the tailors of Bindle & Keep work with a lot of people who can’t get a perfect fit from your traditional off-the-rack suit. Many of them are women. Others are trans men, or gender-nonconforming individuals.
Friedman leads us through the work that he put in to getting the company off the ground, talks about how he started to serve that special clientele, and really goes into the details of making people comfortable with the clothing that they’re going to wear, comfortable in the environment where they get measured for that clothing, and all of that. It’s really cool work.
Then in a Slate Plus extra, Friedman talks about Bindle & Keep’s collaboration with the Innocence Project. Making custom suits for the recently exonerated. If you’re a member, enjoy bonus segments and interview transcripts from Working, plus other great podcast exclusives.
What is your name and what do you do?
Daniel Friedman: My name is Daniel Friedman, and I’m co-founder of Bindle & Keep, which is a custom suiting company for everybody.
Brogan: What does that mean, “a custom suiting company for everybody”? Who is your clientele?
Friedman: Well, ideally, we’ve designed this company so that our clientele is everybody. All gender identities, all needs, all body types, but in creating a safe place for everybody we have attracted a larger swathe of people, who until now are continually ostracized by the classic binary retail environment. They come to us to feel like their needs might be met.
Brogan: Yeah, because formal or traditional suiting is designed for very specific body types, designed to emphasis classic masculine and feminine figures in specific ways?
Friedman: Yeah. There’s a certain strategy for companies that focuses on the binary-gender approach. If you’re going to say something is feminine, first you have to define what that means, and then you usually try to appeal to the larger swathe of people that you can, because you need to make the most sales that you can.
We’re lucky, in the sense that, because we make custom clothing, we’re making them for each individual need, so we took advantage of that and said, “Well, instead of just saying this is feminine, this is masculine,” we asked ourselves what those things mean. Instead of prescribing it, we learned to design it through empathy, and so it’s responsive designing, instead of convincing someone this is what you need.
Brogan: When you say “empathy” and “responsive,” you mean that you’re listening to what people, themselves, what your clients, themselves, want to emphasize, de-emphasize, show or not show?
Friedman: Yeah, so basically, when people come to us, most of the people, especially just from the women, or trends, masculine people, even trends, female people who come to us, have a hard time applying words to the feeling that they want to have in clothing. Classically, you’d say, “Well, you have to come from that community to be able to help people in that community,” and our whole approach is that you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in gender studies to make people feel really great about themselves, and so—
Brogan: I do have a Ph.D. that was partially on gender studies, and I will say that it gave me no training in helping people feel great about themselves.
Friedman: Right, which is cool, because we want to be an example for companies to say, “Wait, we can actually work with this market, and we don’t have to know what we’re doing. All we have to know is that these people are people, and they have certain sensitivities, and they have certain triggers, and that’s what clothing really is.”
I didn’t realize that until recently, that clothing is not about fashion. It’s about how we want to feel, and so when you bring up the idea of curvature and non-curvature, and there’s all kinds. Myriad strategies to working with people’s needs.
We’re really looking for the idea that somebody comes to us. They need to feel a certain way. The clothing that’s available for their bodies out there, they don’t always make people feel their best, and so we look at what’s not working and what’s working. Listening to their needs, listening to their response. Their years of socializing. That’s always going to be with them, and we try and make that piece of clothing. It’s not always a suit. It could be a shirt, it could even be a skirt or a coat. Make them feel their absolute best.
Brogan: What was the inspiration for this approach to tailoring? You say that you’ve only realized some of these factors that are in play more recently, but were you thinking about serving this kind of broader clientele when you first set out to start making custom suits?
Friedman: Not at all. In fact, this was not even on my bucket list. It wasn’t in my cosmology. Clothing in general, but especially working and focusing our company to help people from the LGBTQ communities.
It was—I’d like to say poverty. I didn’t have a job. I started a company. You have to pay the rent, so you struggle. I often say that this is the good side of capitalism. You can’t afford to ostracize anybody. You have to serve as many people as you can, and yes, your bottom line is very important, and to do that you need as many customers as you can.
I was working as a tailor in this company, doing everything. I hired Rae Tutera to apprentice under me, to just learn what I’ve been doing, and Rae identifies as trans masculine, and we just went for a drink. We hit it off, and Rae started blogging that they were working for this company, and I think some of the readers felt, “Well, hey. If they’re open enough to hire you, maybe they’ll put a men’s suit on me, or gender-neutral suit.”
You just say yes when you’re starting out, and that’s what we did, and it just opened up the floodgates. Not by any prescription, but more because we were doing it and we were figuring out what the mistakes are, and then redoing it, and redoing it. Until we ironed a lot of the kinks, and it just became an institution unto itself on some level.
Brogan: Did you have a background in tailoring? How did this even get started in the first place?
Friedman: My background is architecture, and I don’t know how connected they are. People say it’s so direct, but it’s not. I think that the connection is that in architecture, especially when you study, you’re always trying to sell your ideas that don’t exist, to either a professor or a critique. A group of critics, and so you learn to preempt where people might give you that stink-eye slant.
In the end, the truth is I had to relearn everything. After grad school I experienced a neurological deficit that was unexpected, that robbed me of my ability to read properly, which means I can’t write as well, and so I had to find something in life to make a living that would not require me to do extensive reading. I realized that I can still work with my hands, and I can still design. I can still speak, and people would never be clued in to this massive deficit that I had.
Brogan: Had you been interested in fashion and suiting before that point?
Friedman: Yeah, I liked clothes. I liked custom suits. I thought it sounded like an easy business at the time.
Brogan: Did you live to regret that expectation?
Friedman: If I knew how much work would be involved, I wouldn’t have gotten near this. You know that saying, like, “Man learned to fly, because they didn’t realize they couldn’t”?
Brogan: Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Friedman: It’s like that. If you knew how daunting it would be to do this, it’s a good thing you don’t.
Brogan: I was in your studio the other day, in your offices, and one of the things, we’ll talk more about that in a minute, but one of the things I saw you doing almost effortlessly was taking measurements, from someone who was there to get a suit. I imagine that was not something that you just knew how to do. You didn’t have a background in tailoring, but you also probably had to learn these really basic things to even get started, right? Like what parts of the body to measure, and how to measure them.
Friedman: Mm-hmm [affirmative], and how to measure them, and how to do it in such a way that it respects people’s bodies, respects their needs and their sensitivities. You learn. Now it’s second nature, because we do it so, probably I myself might have done it 5,000 times before. It’s not like, “What are we doing?” It’s like my hands.
Part of that interview process that we do before we even get started in the measurements, talking about what the needs are and how people want to feel, that dictates how my hands do the measurements. Everyone in our company—it’s all second nature at this point, because your goal is to make them the most comfortable and the happiest you can.
The measurements, they’re very, very important. They’re probably the most important process, if anything, but the idea of getting fit, when people are getting fit. There’s two parts to this process. The first fitting, people are very interested in how they feel during the process.
Were we respectful? Do they feel like we’re going to cut them a great suit? Are they hopeful? Were we clear? Did they walk away learning a ton of new things about their bodies, about how they dress, how they should dress? The second part, that second fitting, all of that stuff is usually forgotten, and then what the most important thing is, does this damn thing fit me?
Brogan: The first fitting you’re finding out what kind of suit they need. The second one—
Friedman: When they try on.
Brogan: That’s when they try on the suit that you’ve made for them?
Friedman: Yeah, and there’s a third fitting, too, because alterations are part of the process. I usually tell people, just so they can relate, that you can’t write an essay or an article without editing. That’s just part of it. Every great book you’ve ever read is edited, and that’s part of the process of suiting too.
Once someone sees their body, and they see the suit on them, you usually then say, “OK, well, I didn’t really want it like that. I want it like this,” and so you have a datum to work with.
Brogan: I’d love to know just a little bit more about the foundations of Bindle & Keep itself.
Friedman: The name.
Brogan: Sure, you can tell me about the name. What is the name?
Friedman: The name is—
Brogan: Was it always called that?
Friedman: Well, yeah. When I started the company I was pretty much homeless. I’m not exaggerating. I had no money, I had no real place in New York. I was living on a couch at some point, so I felt I’ll wear this great suit, because it made me feel good, but I was really worried about my life, and I was worried about this neurological deficit that I didn’t have a lot of clarity on. I felt like I was this hobo living in New York, and so the idea of this bindle came from the bindle stick. Do you know what hobos would carry?
Brogan: Yeah. The little bundle on the end of the stick.
Friedman: Right, and so I guess it’s a British thing. It got turned into bindle, but the idea is that hobos were in transition. They weren’t lazy. They were looking for places to work. Someone of them were even looking for places to be more permanent, so the idea is that we paired bindle, that bindle stage, with the keep stage. The keep is the structural element of the castle. “Keep,” that’s where it comes from. The castle keep.
I was trying to get this company and myself to go from that bindle stage to that keep stage. Fortuitously, it turns out that a lot of our clients, when they come to us, are also in that bindle stage, and they want to get clothing, and they want to feel good about themselves also. To present in the world in a keep way. In a much more permanent way.
Brogan: How were you making the suits at that early point? Were you doing them yourself?
Friedman: No. We have a factory that manufactures all of our suits. We’ve been with the same factory since day one.
Brogan: Where’s the factory?
Friedman: We’ve just all grown together. In Thailand. So we have, it’s probably smaller than our office, and “we”—it’s three guys, and they make all of our shirts, all of our coats, and then what we do is we do all the editing. All the resizing in our studio, which wasn’t always like that.
OK. When we first had this company I had this old little 1986 Toyota pickup truck, and lived in New York too, so it wasn’t pretty. It was cool, but it wasn’t pretty, and I remember I couldn’t, I didn’t have ... I couldn’t afford my own rent. How was I going to get an office?
I would just go to people’s homes, and I would pretend, well, that was our service, which it was, but it was because we didn’t have any alternative. I’d park my car blocks away, so they wouldn’t see that I was actually coming in this notably poor-man’s truck, but it was an honest-man’s truck. It was just a great thing, and the hustle of just, I think I was telling you this the other day.
I used to have these garbage bags riding in my truck, in case it rained, so I could put all these suits in garbage bags. How many times I’ve driven around the city, with suits that I had to deliver on my lap. It was a real, I’d say it was a hustle of the finest capacity.
Brogan: Do you ever go visit that factory? Is that part of your job as—
Friedman: I don’t have to anymore, so what’s amazing is that we know exactly, we’re so in sync with what we’re doing, that, a) we can never leave our factory, because how do you explain to somebody I understand that the measurements that we have, that you need to cut a suit for, the chest is seven inches bigger than you would think it is? That’s because what we’re doing is we’re putting it on different anatomy.
That’s not always clear to everybody, so our factory gets it, and we understand, and we’ve just got this really great cadence and relationship, that I don’t want to ever go anywhere else, and this is just how we—
Brogan: Yeah. I imagine that was something that took time to develop even there.
Friedman: Yeah. It took time all across the board, because we didn’t know what we were doing. All we knew was that we wanted to make sure that everybody could be served, and at first we’re like, “OK, well, we’re going to make a man’s suit for you.” Then we realized, “What does a man’s suit mean?” A lot of the initial assumptions that we had made were turned on their heads, and then we got just saying it over and over. We learned to communicate through examples and analogies. One of the big things that we say is … So women will come to us who want a gender-neutral suit. I know “gender neutral” sounds sometimes not awesome as a word or term for people, but the English language hasn’t evolved as much as we need for the context of the clothing that we’re making.
We’ll use an example like, people will come to us and they’ll bring us a picture of, let’s say, Jon Hamm, and they’ll be like, “I want this.” The truth is that if we cut a suit, where we exaggerate the chest and cinch the waist, and 90 percent of the time our clients will say, “This feels extremely feminine,” which is strange, because if you look at Superman, giant chest, tiny little waist. That’s the paradigm of masculinity in our culture, so what we’ve learned, and we’ve learned to explain this, is that we turn that relationship on its head.
We bind the chest tighter, we give a little bit more room in the true waist area, which is the waist at the torso. The effect is the same, but that internal din of “Is this masculine, is this feminine? How does this make me present?” gets a little quieter, and that’s really what we’re trying to do. Most people go into a store, and they say, “Does this fit me, or does this not fit me?”
A lot of clients have one more level that they contend with, which is, “Does this make me feel masculine or feminine?” That’s gossamer. It’s vague, in terms of it’s more a feeling. It’s not necessarily a prescription of measurements, and so we have to navigate that. Just like they have to navigate that, and get the suit to make sure that they feel great about it, but also, that constant voice in our heads, that’s always throwing that doubt about the gender of the clothing that they’re wearing, it’s a little quieter. It doesn’t go away, but it allows people to enjoy themselves and the suits that they’re wearing.
Brogan: One thing I heard you talking with one of your customers about the other day was the question of vents at the back. Traditionally, two-vented suit, typical suit. You got this flap at the back. Single vent is going to be maybe slight more formal or stylish in a certain context, and other more masculine gender-specific custom suit makers, like Indochino, which is this big company in the space, will tell you that a ventless jacket is going to be just for tuxedos. In your case, you’re thinking about these things very differently. Does someone want to emphasize or de-emphasize their butt? You said “bum” to your customer, I think.
Friedman: Sometimes we ask, “How do you feel about your bum?” As invasive as it is, or weird, it’s also really important. So the way we look at suits, there’s no rules for us. I’m wearing a J. Crew boys sweater right now, and I love it.
Brogan: It’s a great sweater.
Friedman: Thank you. It cost, like, 15 bucks.
Brogan: It’s got a little bear on it. Some fish.
Friedman: Is that a fish?
Brogan: Down at the bottom.
Friedman: Is to.
Friedman: Well, bears do like fish.
Brogan: Yeah, it’s very ... polar-bear hunting.
Brogan: It’s the story that you’re telling. Anyway.
Friedman: Good for the weather today. It’s not, a huge thing for us is that we don’t care about roles. I tell people all the time, you can get tuxedo, get a vent if you want it. Some people think well, just because a tuxedo is not supposed to have any events, some people think that’s a mistake. People that, when you want to feel a certain way, you’re not running through what the prescription is.
Most of our clients are getting gay married, at least during the summer. That’s not a conventional thing, so who says that we have to subscribe to all these years and years of what’s right, what’s wrong, and for what? It doesn’t matter. The ultimate mission of feeling good is not contingent on obeying any rules, so what we do is we look at what a suit means.
I think I might have been explaining it then, a few days ago when you were at our studio. It’s a uniform. It makes people feel good. It comes from the military silhouette. That’s what a suit comes from. If you flap up the lapels it actually has the mandarin collar. You can see it if you look at a marine.
Brogan: I’ve done it here, for the audience at home, I just flipped up the collar of my suit jacket.
Friedman: The amazing thing is that once you realize that, you could do anything you want with clothing, and we’re just focused on how people want to feel, and our clients never care about what’s supposed to be or what’s not.
Brogan: Not to get too into the weeds about it, but to the extent that conventional formal and semiformal suiting is inspired by or derivative of the design history of military uniform, where it seems like your challenge here is to work within the constraints that medium imposes. There are certain things that you can do and not do.
If you take off all the buttons, it’s not going to quite work in exactly the same way that someone maybe hopes it will. If you put too many buttons they’re going to look sillier, than they might if their torso isn’t really long.
On the one hand, working within those structural conventions, but on the other hand, insofar as it’s a uniform also, letting them break free from uniformity. Letting them express themselves.
Friedman: I agree with you. I think what excites me about this company and what we’re doing, is that most of the needs that people have are for very conservative cultural needs. Business, weddings. Just these old institutions that people require a suit for, but the way we’re approaching it is really novel and progressive, and marrying the two, between this conventional and progressive approach, is, I think, what makes it exciting, and new again. In a sense. If it was all progressive it wouldn’t be anything.
Brogan: Yeah. Is there such a thing as a typical day for you?
Friedman: I’d like to say no, but I’m going to say yes.
Friedman: There are good days when everyone’s happy, and—
Brogan: All the customers?
Friedman: All the customers are happy. No major alterations, no mistakes.
Brogan: Do you spend much time handling the business side of things? Payroll, fabric ordering, submitting orders?
Friedman: I don’t anymore.
Brogan: No, you have people that do that for you?
Friedman: Yeah, at this point.
Brogan: That must be a relief.
Friedman: It’s a relief. Look, it’s all like I was saying on my way up here. Sometimes I feel like the owner, but often times I feel like the victim of this company, so there’s a lot. Anytime you can release all that, and pawn it off on somebody else, but in anything, growing a company, you have to learn to let go, and so I’ve learned to let go of a lot of the facets that are required to run a business.
Our days … Every day we have five or six, seven different people, with different histories and different needs coming in, so each client is so unique unto themselves, that the day is never the same. That’s typical at this point, that we have five or six different amazing stories.
We made a film—I guess it was two summers ago— and we just took five random clients. At least a sampling of our clientele, and we explored their stories, and it was all done through their need for suits, so they came to us. We were the hub, but it wasn’t about us at all. It was about their struggle and their accomplishments, and their journey.
We have that every day. If we took a sampling of our clients every single day, you can make a movie about each of them, and that’s what’s really exciting.
Brogan: Yeah, so we’ve talked a little bit about this already, but tell us more about that interaction with customers. When someone comes in for what you call “first fitting,” what’s the first thing you do? How do you start to set them at ease, or engage with them?
Friedman: Well, first, you always need to know where they’re coming from.
Friedman: No, I mean, sometimes. Literally is part of just the conversation itself, so it’s not so abrupt, but really, you want to know what, and some people are better at communicating than others, which is part of the challenge too.
Some people say, “This is my struggle. I’ve always wanted a suit. I can’t get a suit to fit me, because I have a bust, and when I go the men’s section I’ll get a suit, and because it’s designed for one body type and because I have a bust, I have to size up. Then my shoulders end up being gigantic. It throws my proportions off, because my face, my shoulders, are supposed to be proportional, and then instead of gender-neutralizing me it actually hyper-genders me, because it says, ‘Well, I’m not supposed to be in this suit.’ That’s what it communicates.”
People will approach us with a very elegant and beautiful description of their struggle, and then others will come and they’re saying they don’t even want to talk about it. They’re just like, “I want to feel awesome, and I don’t know what else to tell you.”
Sometimes you really have to suss it out. You have to look at what they’re wearing, and try and understand by very roundabout ways, of understanding how they need to feel, but some people are great. Some people walk in, they’ve got their ... Most of our clients are very educated. Usually, people who come to us for a custom suit are people who have their life together.
Brogan: They’re not cheap.
Friedman: They’re not cheap. They’re certainly not. They’re not free. We try and keep our prices reasonable, but what it is, is that people say, “OK, I don’t want to struggle with clothing anymore. This is something that I want to take control of,” and usually, someone who takes control of that is someone who’s taking control in all facets of their life, so many of our clients are extremely bright and extremely accomplished, and that helps, because then we can have very high level conversations about how they want to look. That’s one advantage I never expected, and I love that.
Brogan: One thing I noticed in watching you work through one of these first fittings though, is that you’re also doing education about suiting. Some of the things that you’ve been sharing today. The details about the structural history of the suit coming out of military wear, or how, which buttons to fasten, which is something that some folks might not come in knowing, if they’ve never worn a classic suit before. That you don’t traditionally button the bottom button or things. You’re just slipping these details in there along the way. Is that important to the work you do, or is it just-
Friedman: It’s essential, because what we’re doing is because 90 percent of our clientele are women or trans-masculine people, many of them, I’d say even most of them have never worn a suit before, so you can’t just be like, “No, I got it. This is what a suit should look like,” and that’s the end, and that doesn’t really make someone feel confident.
If you show them why a suit fits the way it is, if you talk to them about why they might actually be wearing their pants lower on their waist, and it might be because of a trigger. It’s not just the detailing of a suit. It’s why the suit is cut the way it’s cut. Sometimes even showing their own clothes, how it can look better if it looked this way or that way.
Brogan: The clothes they’re wearing that day?
Friedman: The clothes they’re wearing that day. What that does is we call it “mind-wiping,” in a sense, but you’re really reprogramming people. When people have never fit into clothes properly, the big problem is you want to preempt some of that shock, because now they’re going to get a custom suit that’s going to fit them, and all of a sudden it’s like, “Wait. This doesn’t fit me, because this is not how I see my body.” It’s like when you get your prescription changed a little bit. You think this is wrong. Even though it’s actually right for your eyes, so we call that the wearing curve.
We want to explain to people constantly, we never stop talking about the strategies and the way clothing fits, and the way it’s supposed to fit, and what we have to understand how it will pull. It is just fabric, after all. All of these things deprograms the mind, to be more open to accepting this new silhouette that they’re going to have.
Brogan: Are there other strategies or things you do to ensure that they’re comfortable and at ease in the environment?
Friedman: In the environment of the store, or in the world?
Brogan: Well, yeah. Sorry. In the context of a fitting.
Friedman: Everyone’s different, so it really just depends on the conversations that we’re having, so sometimes people just talk, just by listening to their stories, and just by letting people to finally go into a store and be heard, and we’re appointment only for a reason. When that person is there getting fit, they’re the only person in the world to us.
That alone is so powerful at building trust. I’d say it’s the most important thing, so once you’re there and saying, “Tell me about yourself. We’re here for you.” That alone, the guards start to drop, and people expect a certain feeling when they come here, so they’re more receptive to the opportunity for us to provide that.
It doesn’t have to be like, we do this little exercise beforehand, and now we’re on the same page. It’s not like that. People come and they just, once they’re … How often can someone go into a store, and the store just says tell us how you feel? We want you to feel. How do you feel about your bust? Are we going to perhaps be taking testosterone at some point? Is that going to affect the suit? Let’s talk about that.
Other stores aren’t doing that, and because we’re doing that, that sets us apart a little bit, and we’re doing it not because we’re curious or trying to make them feel good, but we’re actually trying to make sure that they feel the best in the suit that they get, and because it’s through that, the auspices of getting them to feel their best. That’s amazing at building trust.
Brogan: There’s almost a therapeutic quality to it I imagine, in some ways.
Friedman: 50 percent.
Brogan: Do people ever have strong emotional reactions?
Friedman: We’ve had a lot. Of course. Human. We feel that we have the greatest clientele, but we do have—a big thing about a suit is a lot of people will put a lot of weight on how a suit is going to make them feel, and a lot of our clients, not all, but some of them, many of them can’t help but feel like the suit’s going to fix their lives.
“Finally, I’m going to get something that fits. It’s going to be the panacea to everything. My whole struggle with gender and how I present in society, it’s all going to be great now.” And the truth is that a suit is cool, but it’s just one milestone on this lifelong journey, and sometimes that can feel anticlimactic.
I once had a client that took scissors and cut their suit up right in front of me, that took 10 weeks to make. It could be sad, and it could be ... We don’t know. The person that you were 10 minutes before you ever put that suit on is the same person you are 10 minutes after you put that suit on, and it’s not the elixir, so many, many strong … We’ve had people who just broke down in tears. You can only imagine.
Imagine you’ve struggled your whole life, and then you put the suit on and it doesn’t fit the way you want it to fit, or it doesn’t communicate the way you want to communicate. Inside you’re thinking, “Well, of course. What was I thinking? Of course, this isn’t going to work. Things don’t work for me in this realm.” And that’s a very painful feeling, and we are the mirror of that.
We’re on the front line, so the suits, sometimes we get a lot of the brunt, and we make mistakes all the time. Remember, we’re trying to decipher how people want to feel, and we can miss it. It’s not easy.
Brogan: You seem like a very empathetic person. Both of professional necessity, based on what you do and how you do it, but also, it’s just the sense I get from you. Do you ever have emotional responses when someone else does, and do you have to bottle up your own feelings and stuff?
Friedman: I think about it all the time. I don’t get emotional in the store with our clients, and I think that, sadly, I’m probably so into making sure that they are pleased, that it’s like a pilot getting over the miracle of flight kind of thing. You’ve just got to fly this plane, to make sure everyone gets down safely.
I’ve used this analogy before. When you’re in a battle, and you’re not really sure or aware of if you’re winning or not. Take World War I. These guys are in the trenches, you don’t know if the enemy is retreating or not, or if your comrades are gaining territory. You’re just trying to stay alive, and that’s really what the fitting to me feels like. All I need, all I want, is for them to smile and be excited.
Their emotions are constantly informing me, so I’m always thinking about how is that going to, how should that be translated into the suit? I’m not in the space of the struggle. I have my own struggles, of course, but I’m not so mired in their struggle, or that I think it would prevent me from doing my job.
Brogan: What are some of the other things you do in that first fitting, to figure out what someone wants? You have to talk them through details of the suit that they’re looking for, itself, for example.
Friedman: We talk about cloth. We talk about, there’s so many parts to making a suit. When we talk about, lots of people have specific needs, in terms of how it should fit. How it should look. They bring us pictures on Pinterest. To me, all of that stuff doesn’t matter, so someone comes and they want this color and this texture, I think that’s all lovely, but totally irrelevant to their happiness.
People are very focused at that first fitting on the cloth, or the color. To me, just because I’ve been to so many second and third fittings, once that suit comes in and people put it on for the mirror, they are no longer even thinking about the color. All they’re checking is how does this make me feel? If you have a dark blue, a medium blue, a gray, Prince of Wales, a herringbone, none of those are going to save you and how you feel. They don’t inform us on how we feel.
Brogan: What does inform us, though?
Friedman: The silhouette. The silhouette is everything. That’s how we look at ourselves. When you got up in the morning and you put on that really cool sport jacket that you have on, you weren’t thinking, “I look great today.” It’s speckled. You look at it. You look at the shape. You look at how it presents. You look at how it makes your face look. You say, “OK. Now, it’s nice that it’s speckled, but”—
Brogan: It is nice.
Friedman: You know what I mean? That’s a thing—
Brogan: For the listener at home, I am in fact wearing a speckled coat. OK, so that first fitting you’ve figured out what they want. You’ve figured out what their measurements are. You’ve done a lot of potentially very emotional work with them, about figuring out their priorities and such. Those measurements, those details, that all goes off to your factory in Thailand.
Friedman: Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Brogan: Ten weeks later, approximately?
Friedman: Yeah. Sometimes it’s earlier, sometimes it’s a little later. Depending on how quickly the whole ecosystem works.
Brogan: Shipping and everything like that.
Friedman: Shipping, because we’re ordering fabrics from Scotland or from Great Britain, or England. Sometimes from Ireland, even, and everything, especially during wedding season, the whole ecosystem is taxed. Then they go ahead and they make it, and there’s actually every single day we have a meeting about the orders that we put in, so my work day really starts at 11 p.m., because that’s when our factory starts working, so all the day’s orders need to be discussed before things happen.
Then we get it back in our store about 10, sometimes nine weeks later, and then we make, we send out emails to those whose suits are ready. “Come on in, and let’s have that second fitting,” and that’s really where the action is. The first fitting is fun. Everyone loves you in the first fitting. Second fitting is where the challenge is, because it’s like, “OK”—well, that therapy that we were just talking about—“Let’s see how that did,” and that our theory and the ideas get proved. You never know if it’s going to fit, because you don’t have this wax figure of every client in your office, that you can try the suit on.
Brogan: You don’t know until they walk back in.
Friedman: We don’t know, right. We wish we did, but you really can’t know.
Brogan: What happens if someone doesn’t like the suit? If it doesn’t fit right by their standards, their hopes, their expectations?
Friedman: We have a complete alteration center inside of our studio, so we do all the alterations there, but sometimes we have to remake it. It’s a lot harder to restore an old house than it is just to build a new one, so sometimes you just say, “You know what? Let’s just remake this suit.” Instead of having this go back and forth, and modify it, and modify it, and modify it. Doesn’t make sense sometimes, and we try and speed that process up on the second. We can prioritize certain things. People who have weddings, those are deadlines. If we have to remake it, we’ll then expedite that remaking process.
Most of the time it fits, but we are in the custom world, and the custom world is very much like, you’ve probably had this. Where you sit down to write something, and what was in your mind doesn’t really come out on paper the way you wanted it to.
Brogan: Literally every day.
Friedman: Right. Writing is like people … writers feel like it’s like pulling teeth, right?
Brogan: Sometimes, yeah.
Friedman: That’s how you know, it’s also in other realms.
Brogan: It’s always good to know. What are the kind of details that you’re looking at? Their response is one thing, but you’re also looking at how the suit sits on their body. Are there particular issues that you watch out for at that point?
Friedman: Sure. We look for shoulders. Shoulders are very important. Especially because they’re not adjustable. We take shoulder measurements very seriously. If the shoulders are too big, did you ever see Beetlejuice? Remember at the end when they shrink the heads?
Friedman: That’s what people can look like when their shoulders don’t fit. If they’re too small you can’t move in them. I’m usually more focused. When I see the suit looks good and it looks correct, and I love it, and I love it for them, and they’re not convinced, that’s where the massaging comes in, because we have to explain to them that you’re not doing summersaults in this suit. You do have a limited mobility in a custom suit. A lot of people who are getting things off the rack, that are slightly too big, they put on our suits and are like, “I can’t move the same way.”
Brogan: Especially if you have high armholes.
Friedman: Well, high armholes can give you a little bit more mobility, actually.
Brogan: OK, my mistake.
Friedman: Yeah. It’s the lower armhole, it’s like it lifts the whole suit. Like a flying squirrel.
Brogan: Yeah, I guess never thought of it that way. That makes sense.
Friedman: Yeah, but think about it like if you watched Downton Abbey or some of these, if you look at old hunting jackets, or World War II bomber jackets, they’re very small. They’re not too small, but they’re small. They have vertical pleats in the back, behind the shoulders, so people can lift their arms, for hunting jackets, so they can lift their rifle.
A clean back is really a beautiful thing for a suit, but that also means that you don’t have a lot of room when you trying to move your arms forward or up, so we have to explain that to people, or people will look at a cloth and say, “Why is it pulling by the button?” Well, it’s cloth, and cloth has to behave like cloth. It’s not stamped steel. That’s a huge thing, because wearing suits and understanding that the suit’s going to behave like a suit, and not like the picture that you have, that you took out of GQ, is really, really important.
Brogan: Right, and then there’s also that third fitting, which is that just about making sure that the alterations you’ve made in house work out?
Friedman: Correct, exactly. The third fitting, and there have been fourth and fifth fittings, but the third fitting is usually where they take it home and they’re good to go. Usually it’s small alterations here and there.
Brogan: Do you get people coming back for more suits down the road?
Friedman: A lot. I’d say about 30 percent. Look, some people would love to come back, but they’re not getting married again. The beauty of what we’re doing is that, a lot of our clients will go into a store, they can’t find anything that fits them. They find something that fits them and they buy 10 of them, because they never know. This fits you, go for it. Just get all of them, so whether clothing fits, and being able to purchase clothing that fits you again in the future, is the bane of a lot of people’s existences.
A lot of our clients have that struggle, so we keep everything on file, so now they can relax. Knowing that this suit that they love, they can get it again for the next 500 years, because they can keep ordering it. We keep it on file. They can edit it a little bit. They can make changes to it, but their template is on file, and they’re going to be like, “Great, so I can relax, and when I need something else, I want a sports jacket. I want a tweed sports jacket. I’ve always wanted that. Can you make it for me?” Sure. “Same fit?” Yeah. Sure, so that’s really nice. That’s the beauty of encouraging people to return, is the predictability. The consistency.
Brogan: What does it feel like for you, after going through this whole process, to see a suit finished on a body ideally, perfect?
Friedman: Feels great. It feels great, not because they have a suit that fits them. It feels great, because when someone’s happy it’s huge. It’s like writing something and then someone reads it, and it makes their life better somehow. That’s a very awesome thing, and it’s something that they’ve done studies on, about what makes job satisfaction high. They study job satisfaction.
I think the lowest or one of the lowest ends of the job-satisfaction spectrum is tollbooth operators, because they really, you’re just handing something out. You really don’t get to see the fruits of your labor, if there are any fruits of your labor. You’re replaceable on some level, and the other side of it is they actually think hairdressers, stylists—because you get to see someone’s reaction within an hour, whether they like it or not, even if they don’t like it, you get to see the results of your labor—we actually get to be in that really high job-satisfaction area, because we get to see directly the face of our efforts, whether they like it or not. That feedback is very healthy, and it feels good.
Brogan: That sounds great. Well, thank you so much for joining us on the show today.
Friedman: My pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.
Brogan: It’s been a pleasure for us too.
* * *
Brogan: In this Slate Plus Extra, Daniel Friedman talks about Bindle & Keep’s work with the Innocence Project.
Friedman: This is just a fascinating thing, we’re trying to build what we’re doing and expand upon it. We approached the Innocence Project last year, about making suits for anyone who gets exonerated, who spent 20, 25 years in jail, in prison. Max prison, for crimes they never committed. They’ve lost their youth, they’ve lost opportunities, and now they’re rejoining society and they can’t get jobs.
They don’t have the opportunities that they would have had if they were part of society for so long, so we are actually taking the lessons that we’ve learned from working with LGBTQ plus community and applying them to an unlikely market or unlikely client, which is people who have been in prison. Incarcerated for many, many years, and it’s the same thing. How people want to feel, and it’s the same.
Obviously, it’s not the exact same triggers, but the idea that people are so triggered, that people want to present in a certain way, and people want to rejoin society feeling good, and feel like they are part of something greater, is completely so similar. It’s actually really cool that what we’re trying to do is look for other markets that have also been ostracized, by society or by our norms, or by the justice system, and using suits as a way to help people.
Brogan: Can you explain what the Innocence Project is?
Friedman: Sure. So the Innocence Project is an organization all across the country, made up of attorneys, law students, researchers, law firms, government agencies, that reexamine convictions and look to see if those convictions were lawful and correct.
Brogan: How did you get involved with them?
Friedman: Just something that I thought would be, I just saw a need. I saw that was something that I thought would be really fun, and we could afford to do it, because we’re actually making those suits for free. We had a budget of $25,000 a year. We just changed that to $50,000-a-year worth of suits.
We had someone named [inaudible], who worked with us last year, who actually set up the first meeting, and did the first measurements for the first exoneree, and I believe even the second. Then we’ve taken that baton, and we’ve been doing it ever since.
Friedman: It’s amazing, and again, these stories are fascinating, and these people, when you spend your life in prison for a crime you didn’t commit, and you’re finally out, your perspective on life is so rare and so beautiful, and we can learn so much, because people really find meaning in their lives. You have to.
I can’t even, I feel like if every store—I don’t care if you make candles, I don’t care if you make shoes—focused on really participating in helping those, or serving those who have been abandoned by our society, a) you’ll make money doing it, but you will also be so much more fulfilled. Your company will be more fulfilled. Your brand will be more fulfilled. It’s just it’s a win-win all across the board.