Queer Trailblazers in DIY Blazers

G(end)er Swap supports gender-diverse folks with accessing clothing and community, empowering them to assemble a gender expansive wardrobe.

As queer individuals innovate aspirational ways of thinking, living, and loving, we also innovate new ways in which we present ourselves to the external world. Queerness inherently defies society’s neatly categorised expectations – and a way in which this has long manifested itself within the community is through fashion. Existing as individuals who have been historically erased and marginalised, many of us have a deep-rooted desire to be seen and to take up space. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the unique style of countless LGBTQIA+ individuals continues to inspire fashion designers and trickle down into mainstream trends.

But when so much of iconic queer style was built on a DIY punk ethos – with drag queens upcycling gathered scraps and Rebel Dykes covering thrifted leather jackets in political symbols and badges – the hugely wasteful and exploitative fashion industry is not representative. With research showing that gay and bisexual men, and bisexual women, experience greater material disadvantages compared to heterosexual men and women, respectively, the heavy price tag of high fashion feels more like appropriation than celebration. And while fashion brands have no qualms about incorporating gender-bending concepts into designs – and the market is finding opportunities for profit in a new demographic – GNC communities are still not truly represented or catered for by the clothing industry.

We’ve all seen the bold graphics splashed across Instagram that loudly state: “Clothing has no gender!” But, whether we like it or not, our bodies – and the fabric we adorn them in – are perceived as gendered, even if trends shift over time. Within a landscape of rising rampant transphobia, many find themselves policed at changing room doors for not fitting binary societal norms. And access to clothing that has the potential to bring gender euphoria is limited for the majority of trans and non-binary individuals, and can be fraught with anxiety and fear.

All gender-diverse individuals deserve the opportunity to boast a wardrobe as expansive as our existence.

Agender doesn’t equal androgynous, but it’s comforting for a hetero-normative mainstream to perceive non-binary identities as sitting neatly in between “man” and “woman”. And rather than adapting clothing proportions to cater to trans and gnc bodies, brands simply release yet another line of shapeless beige sacks and pat themselves on the back for a job well done. But the queer communitity has been forced to blend and to hide for far too long – to pass quietly by in the most inoffensive manner possible. And while not all long to drip head-to-toe in clashing patterns (a perspective I find unfathomable), all gender-diverse individuals deserve the opportunity to boast a wardrobe as expansive as our existence.

In a society that aligns social capital, career success, and even safety with binary gendered clothing, how do we truly de-gender fashion? And how do we hold accountable an environmentally harmful fashion industry while supporting gender-diverse individuals to rebuild affirming wardrobes, and to explore authentic expression?

From within a closet lined with two-toned drab conformity, emerges a community-led solution that “empowers gender-diverse folks with the creative knowledge and skills to assemble their own gender-expansive wardrobe”. G(end)er Swap is the UK’s first LGBTQIA+ clothing outreach organisation supporting trans and gnc individuals to access clothes and community through pop-up events, workshops, digital resources, and a community-led style archive. Run by founder Santi and co-director Oska, “the organisation’s approach is through a sustainable lens, which promotes upcycling, thrifting, swapping, and DIY techniques to create a personalised wardrobe instead of buying into mainstream fashion.”

We work to defy societal expectations of what one should dress like, according to your gender identity. Fashion trends perceived as ‘in’ or ‘out’ of style don’t exist in the G(end)er Swap world!

I spoke some more with Santi to delve deeper into the impactful work being carried out by G(end)er Swap across the UK and the EU.

Prishita: Hey Santi! Could you tell me a little bit about G(end)er Swap?

Santi: I created G(end)er Swap in 2017 at a time that I was questioning my gender identity. I started shopping more frequently in the men’s sections at Topman and oftentimes got denied access to the men’s changing rooms. When searching for queer clothing spaces in London, I couldn’t find any and often thrifted as a way to experiment with style: covert shopping experiences and cheap, too. Combining the solace I found in accessing thrift stores and my negative experiences in mainstream shopping spaces, I decided to create G(end)er Swap for folks facing similar experiences.

The purpose behind G(end)er Swap is to create safe spaces where folks can BE WHOEVER and WEAR WHATEVER (our mission statement!) – where they can experiment with different forms of self-expression and access gender-affirming items. G(end)er Swap, in a sense, is anti-fashion. We work to defy societal expectations of what one should dress like, according to your gender identity, which are messages often coming out of mainstream consciousness. Instead, we celebrate all forms of expression that are unique to every individual: fashion trends perceived as ‘in’ or ‘out’ of style don’t exist in the G(end)er Swap world!

With G(end)er Swap, I also provide consultancy to businesses and organisations to promote greater trans-inclusivity within mainstream and corporate environments, and to teach about, and foster, awareness of gender diversity through the lens of fashion.

P: What would you say is the need for this initiative in society?

S: G(end)er Swap was created in response to the barriers that trans and GNC people face in accessing clothes and style resources. For one, mainstream brands and retailers don’t provide comfortable environments for gender-diverse folks. For example, clothing sections and changing rooms are often heavily gendered. The way that garments are designed is also not made for trans and GNC bodies, which can lead to a lot more distress and dysphoria. When transitioning, finding an entirely new wardrobe can be very costly. For a lot of folks, buying a whole new wardrobe is not financially feasible, and it’s also difficult to shop for clothes if there’s no information available on how to select your personalised style in a gender expression that is new to you. G(end)er Swap responds to the latter issue by creating resources that aren’t prioritised or privileged in the mainstream fashion world. Lastly, finding transitional items that affirm someone’s gender can be very expensive. G(end)er Swap aims to provide these at a lower cost to create greater access to these items across lower income levels.

P: All such incredible and important work! What does community mean to you?

S: Community for me is an active term. One that involves a group of people creating a close-knit support system in which folks can thrive. When a strong community is present, there are no limitations in terms of what it can achieve: a strong community can be a mechanism for disrupting institutional spaces and influencing societal change. I also view community spaces as always changing – they evolve and respond to societal conditions. But, regardless of how it shifts and changes, community is always there as a response to a societal or cultural barrier, and provides comfort to those seeking to be understood and ‘seen’.

G(end)er Swap as a community organisation very much embodies the above. The organisation has evolved and grown due to the requests and needs of the community. Our networks have grown due to the number of community members who have volunteered their time and expertise, and allies who have donated clothes and funds. There has also been a wealth of knowledge brought by our community to support gender-diverse folks with gender-affirming style tips, style, and shopping hacks – both at physical events and online.

When a strong community is present, there are no limitations in terms of what it can achieve: a strong community can be a mechanism for disrupting institutional spaces and influencing societal change.

P: What a beautiful explanation of community. What have been some of your favourite moments since setting up this initiative?

S: Some of my favourite moments since setting up G(end)er Swap have been implementing the chest binder scheme in partnership with GC2B. GC2B reached out to me to start a free binder scheme in 2020 when the pandemic first hit. This partnership meant that we were able to support over 300 trans-masculine folks across the UK with chest binders. Since 2020, G(end)er Swap set up The G(end)er Shop: an online shop that supports trans folks with affordable transitional items. Chest binders are now available for a nominal donation to support our initiatives. We also started the binder sponsorship programme, which provides binders to various LGBTQ+ orgs across the UK and EU, including The Outside Project, Traveller Pride, Bilitis Foundation (Bulgaria), Dalston Solidarity Café, The Oasis Project (Nigeria), and more!

Connecting with and mentoring young trans people has also been a big highlight of my work. I am so inspired by the gender creativity that young people have, and it’s been a really nourishing experience watching them grow with confidence in the workshops that I deliver. Getting invited to deliver workshops at Outcomers Pride in Dundalk, Ireland has been memorable. Later in the month, I’m also hosting a workshop for Mermaids in Derbyshire.

P: What do you hope to achieve through this initiative? 

S: I hope to create safer (and gender-creative) spaces where trans people can thrive. Spaces where style resources are abundant and cater to all body types, expressions, sizes, and experiences. Importantly, I want to equip trans and gnc folks with enough resources to be autonomous in their style and shopping choices, and where a reliance on fast fashion and the mainstream is completely reduced. I also really hope to work with big retailers to create more trans-inclusive spaces for the folks who do want to use those services too.

P: And what’re your hopes for the future – both for your initiative and for wider society?

S: My hopes for G(end)er Swap is for support initiatives to expand outside of the UK. Even bigger plans for G(end)er Swap include building a larger team (at the moment it’s just two of us), a physical space to operate out of, getting involved in consulting the fashion world on their designs, and expanding our platforms to support trans designers and creatives.

My hope for the future is that society will be more accepting and understanding of gender diversity and that, as a result, more safe and inclusive spaces will be designed for trans and gnc folks. I also hope to see more diverse trans people positively represented in the fashion world and, beyond representation, have trans people lead in this field too. I am excited to see more (sustainable) clothing brands made by and for the trans community, and to see gender-diverse folks celebrated for being style trailblazers!

Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin
Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin

Our Politics Editor, Prishita (they/them) is a writer, editor, and LGBTQ+ community organiser. They’re currently a Trustee with Voices4 London and sit on the Advisory Board for Split Banana, a social enterprise redesigning relationship and sex-ed by bringing in the perspectives of groups traditionally excluded from the curriculum. Prishita has been published or featured in METAL, gal-dem, Hunger, and Dazed, amongst others. They also featured in ‘Soul of a Movement’, a film by British creative directors Carson McColl and Gareth Pugh that documents some of the British LGBTQ+ activists, artists and allies carrying the revolutionary fire of the Stonewall Uprising today.
Prishita‘s writing is represented by The Good Literary Agency, and they’re also a signed model and social human with CRUMB.

Enjoyed this story? Help keep independent queer-led publishing alive and unlock the BRICKS WORLD Learner Platform, full of resources for emerging and aspiring creatives sent to you every week via newsletter. Start your 30-day free trial now.