Tanisha Hawkins has always taken her imageand her clothesseriously.
"I'm really passionate about being able to express your gender. If you see my closet, you'll be, like, 'Whoa,'" said Hawkins, the proprietor of a new clothing and image-consultant service, Dual Spirit Style, that helps gender nonconforming folks find professional menswear outfits that make them look good. ( The business launches Thursday, June 21. ) "It's kind of hard for me to sit in an office and work towards somebody else's dream that had nothing to do with me serving my purpose in the world."
In fact, Hawkins quit her day job as a document review attorney to focus on what she calls her "passion project."
"I don't have any formal fashion degrees or tailoring experience, I'm just learning it as I go. Going through law school, the most valuable thing that I learned is that I'm able to teach myself anything," Hawkins told Windy City Times. "This business is about helping people feeling comfortable in their lives. When you're going on interviews, meeting with clients, it's already an anxiety-producing thing, so when you're not wearing clothes that are for you, it just adds something that I think is not fair. People should be able to feel comfortable and genuine with how they're presenting themselves, especially if they're trying to sell themselves or sell a product."
Hawkins, whose corporate-employed father set the pace for her, style-wise, has had long experience prioritizing the perfect outfit. "I liked men's clothes. It started out with Nike and Adidas, something I could get away with, but then when I got older and had interviews, I wanted to wear a suit, and men's dress pants and slacks," she recalled. "Once I got a job, and got my own money, I decided I would try to make it look good and find men's clothes that actually fit my body. I remember when I got my first suit, I was 26, and it was the best feeling to actually have a men's suit on. Prior to that I was wearing women's dress suits. When I actually found a suit that fit me I was, like, 'This is greatI'm not going back.'"
Through many years of experience, Hawkins has learned to break down bodies and clothing designs by shape, a more inclusive and practical approach than sticking to gendered labels.
"When you look at the body measurements, they have different body shapes for 'male' and 'female' but it's just really measurements of what is your chest area, what is your waist area, what is your seat area, so it's not really different," Hawkins said. Since everyone has a different body, it's hard to manufacture clothes that work for all shapes. Dress shirts, always a challenge for dapper individuals with breasts, are a perfect example.
"The men's dress shirt has what I call the square body type or the inverted trapezoid body type, where people are trying to get that look from the shoulders going down," Hawkins explained.
Hips are another issue. "The waist is generally smaller than the hip, but your seat has to fit in the pants," said Hawkins. "If you have a size 34 hip but a 30 waist, then it's just not looking right, you're bunching up in the waist to accommodate the hips. With men's clothes, I find the hip and the waist ratio don't fit me, but with women's clothes, the rise is too close to the crotch area and everything's very tight and I don't really like that. It's just wanting something in between what they have. I think a lot of people need custom, even though I don't think that is affordable right now. "
Hawkins always felt a connection with the Native American concept of "two-spirit" but wanted to leave the term to its cultural context.
"For me, it's more about gender identity," she said. "I'm a female biologically, but when it comes to my mind and how I think, I feel like I straddle both genders. I'm kind of used to calling myself a she, but then there's two halves of me. Dual, that's representing two things. The 'style' is not only how you express yourself with clothing, it's not only how everyone's trying to perceive youand the first thing they see is one of the things they look to make an opinion of who you are and what you dobut also when you're able to dress and feel comfortable, that says something about you on the inside as well. It takes some inside work to be able to look how you want to on the outside if you're different."
Dual Spirit Style's ideal client is gender non-conforming, wants to wear professional menswear, and wants to put in the time and work into evolving their look. Hawkins' first priority is to figure out the clients' style, best colors and body shape. Then, it's onto measurements: Since many stores cater to people of a particular body shape, Hawkins finds knowing measurements essential.
"When I go into a store, and I'm looking for something for a small-framed individual, I'll say, do you have extra small slim-cut clothes, and that's pretty much how I can go in and out of a store pretty quick and decide whether something's going to fit me," she said. "Sizing is so different. One thing I'll do is know my chest measurements for a men's shirt or jacket, so I'll be like, does your extra small or small fit a size 34 chest. Some of the sales associates won't have much knowledge about what they're selling: some of them will, and that's a good way to tell if a store is even worth spending 10-15 minutes in it right off the bat."
With sittings for custom-made suits, sourced from Mississippi, Hawkins starts off with fabrics and details.
"The last thing I do is actually the measuring," she explained. "It's kind of personal, you know? I'm like going around your body pretty much everywhere. I'll take about 15 measurements. So that's weird to do with someone that you haven't even talked to. It's good to know what kind of style do they like, what kind of details do they like, have some conversation with them 30-45 minutes. And then by that time, they're excited about what they picked out, so they're not worried about someone they just met knowing what their seat size is." She also considers things like posture and body movement when it comes to fit.
Hawkins uses the image consultant title to describe part of what her business offers, such as style updates.
"I'm really getting into the custom clothier retailer business, but not everyone's in that price range," Hawkins said. "Really, the overall goal of the company is for me to serve the whole LGBTQ community, and that might not be someone who can spend $1,000 on a suit. If you're not wearing suits, or if you're not in the market to spend that much on suits, you can still work with me to find something that fits your budget and fits your style. That kind of goes into my philosophy of every customer can have a unique look. 'Professional' may not mean suits: professional is way more casual than it was 15 years ago. You might not even want to wear a suit to work, and you still need to find that balance of what's professional for your industry and clientele. That may not even be what I'm selling, but I'll still help you find that."