Where does one go for a good button-up shirt?
For the recently out Katie Cooper, this question proved frustratingly difficult to answer. "Really, the only buttons-up that fit me OK, not even really that well, are little boys' [shirts]," Cooper explained. " I went shopping, and I literally came up short at every store. At one, I felt uncomfortable being in the men's department. The women's department didn't really have anything. It's all like with the darts and a little more flowy, if you will. So I naturally navigated to the men's department, and there was like nothing that fit me. It swallowed me whole. They're not made to accomodate curves or a chest."
It wasn't just her. "After talking to some friends, we were kind of in the same boat," she recalled. "Like, hey, where do you shop, I'm trying to find some more button-ups I can wear, and they were like, 'beats me.'"
With the help of the whole LGBTQ community, Cooper hopes to solve the perennial button-up problem for once and for all. The Button Brigade is a clothing companybacked by a Kickstarter campaignthat promises stylish, short-sleeve gender-neutral shirts across gender and body size. On the campaign page, shirt schematics advertise "no chest darts," "no gaps" when it comes to buttons, "easy tuck" and "better fit for curves," all common pitfalls when it comes to button-up shirts not designed to accommodate an androgynous style.
Memphis-based Cooper is a graphic designer, not a fashion designer, but that's where the Windy City connection emerges. "Literally, everything is in Chicago. My fabric source is in Chicago, they're getting produced in Chicago, my pattern maker is there, and also someone who helped me digitize my pattern," she said.
Cooper's location also inspired her to solve her button-up dilemma via Kickstarter. "There's nothing here that resembles gender neutral clothing besides T-shirts," she said. "I'm just trying to make it more accessible, and kind of be a role model to other LGBTQ people who will maybe want to start their own small business. At the end of the day, it's just trying to encourage people that you can dress the way you want to dress, and you can live in the South and be yourself."
Ten percent of the profits from Button Brigade's first run will go towards OutMemphis to support senior programs. Cooper hopes to do an interview project with the Southern LGBTQ elders about their lives. "I want people who are buying these shirts to see where that money's going," said Cooper, who wants the company's donations to benefit specific projects.
Yet, she admitted that her location might also be a drawback when it comes to getting the project up and running. "It's been hard raising the dollars to get this funded, being in the South," Cooper said. "I grew up in small-town Kentucky, and I went to a Christian university. All of my outer circles are more conservative, and I've kind of like exhausted efforts in my personal circles."
She also is very cognizant that the community she's trying to serve may be the least positioned to buy her product. "I think as the business grows and I can put in larger runs I'd love to bring the cost down," Cooper said. "I kind of hate the fact that someone who could really benefit from this project can't afford it. It's been my biggest struggle, because I'm fully aware of it being it hard on some people's wallets, especially for a marginalized group of people. When I first started out, I was like, 'oh my gosh, all of this stuff is so expensive, I'm going to make a shirt that's cheap!' But getting into it, I'm not Old Navy, so it's hard to get the costs down. They're being made in the States and they're a small batch production. They're getting manufactured, but they're definitely not mass-produced, and that drives the costs up."
She's critical of mainstream companies' attempts to create gender-neutral clothing lines, most of which are still focused on kids. "I think it helps in some aspects, people getting used to the idea of gender neutral clothing, but as far as them actually putting some effort behind it, I think they're just slapping a label on it, calling it progressive. I don't think it's doing anyone any good," Cooper said.
And her shirts promise to be significantly different in style than the mainstream idea of a gender neutral shirt. "A problem I've seen with other companies is just taking menswear and marketing it as a baggier look and trying to pull it off, but it's still not a tailored, professional appeal," Cooper said, recalling her yet another experience with a disappointing button-up, this one too baggy. "I'm trying to look fresh, I'm not trying to look like a potato sack."
Cooper's not averse to trying to do more, eventually. "If everything's successful, I would like my next line to be long-sleeved shirts," she said. "Long sleeves are not hard to do because you're just adding to the sleeves. As far as everything else, that's a little more on the back-burner. It's really just going to depend on funding. Pants would be way down the road. I really want to tackle just one thing first and like make it perfect, rather than half-ass a lot of things.
At its final hours, The Button Brigade's Kickstarter is just under $20,000and the company needs $27,000. Even if failure is a possibility, it won't dampen Cooper's enthusiasm.
"I'm not giving up. It's less of a failure and more of just research," she said. "I've gotten a ton of positive feedback, I sent out a survey on how I can improve the product, and I'm probably doing a relaunch down the road, still this year."
A retooled Kickstarter would likely involved a scaled-back projectless fabrics, for instancemore geared towards creating the brand's first run, and perhaps even a one-day incentive with a shirt sold at cost to help those who might not otherwise be able to afford to donate.
"Ultimately, my main goal is to create conversations about gender neutral clothing, and just providing a shirt for someone that makes them feel like themselves," said Cooper.
The Button Brigade's Kickstarter can be found at www.kickstarter.com/projects/744708788/the-button-brigade or Thebuttonbrigade.com . It is open until 12 p.m. on Thursday, April 19.