Finnegan Shepard, who is trans, underwent top surgery in April 2020. During the healing process, he began searching for a swimsuit in which he could proudly show off his new masculine chest. But the options he came across online were less than satisfactory. “Everything was really Pride-branded or super-functional, [and made it look] like I wanted to go rock climbing,” says Shepard, who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and was, until 2018, a graduate student focusing on political philosophy and creative writing. The swim trunks he had in mind were stylish and flattering, with extra room built in through the seat and thighs.
The idea for a clothing line expressly made for trans masculine bodies began to germinate. Shepard set up informational interviews with members of the trans community, questioning his contacts about their relationship with clothes to figure out what they wanted and needed in a clothing line. “I started with the three trans people I knew, and then asked them to introduce me to any trans people they knew,” Shepard, 30, says of the process that quickly ballooned into countless interviews.
He launched an Instagram account in October 2020 that he describes as “a kind of Humans of New York for the trans and non-binary community,” and set up a survey investigating other people’s feelings about clothing and fit. Thousands of trans and non-binary followers sent in their responses. A staggering 99.4% of them reported never being able to find clothing that properly fit.
So with $5,000 in savings and what he describes as “an enormous amount of chutzpah”, Shepard got to work building Both&, a clothing line for his community’s needs, from scratch. Early on, his crude approach to the design process involved patching together three separate T-shirts into a Frankenstein’s monster-like creation to attain the right combination of length, width and fabric. But when Amiram Assouline, a creative director with 30 years’ experience working at fashion brands such as Elie Tahari and Catherine Malandrino, came onboard, things began to smooth out. Assouline would serve as Both&’s creative director and co-founder. His buy-in helped facilitate connections with factories that perhaps wouldn’t have given such a small brand a second look.
“The reality is that most clothing is scaled to fit 5% of the population,” Shepard says. While separate categories exist for plus-size and maternity clothing, anyone else whose body isn’t served by clothing adhering to the lithe proportions of a fit model is typically overlooked. “I think a lot of people have an association with fashion as this shallow, consumeristic thing, but as a trans person, I think that clothing is one of the most powerful tools of translation we have.”
What was your initial vision for the clothes?
I just wanted to create high-quality, stylish essentials in proportions that actually fit trans masculine bodies. We’re a brand that is led by fit, not style, so that has really guided what we’ve designed. On trans men, typical T-shirts are way too long. They bunch at the hips and the shoulders are too wide. With swim trunks, they’re usually too tight through the thighs and too long. I’m sure there is a swim trunk out there that happens to fit my body, but the problem is there’s no good way to find it. Shopping for [trans people] is like a shot in the dark. You try a million different things and maybe one of them works so you hold on to that forever. [Clothing that] exists for women is very curvy and structured in this very feminine way, and what exists for men is long and rectangular and narrow. But whether you have medically transitioned, or taken hormones, your fat distribution and muscle distribution may change, but your bone structure never changes.
What challenges did you run into during the design process?
Design hasn’t been our biggest challenge as a brand: it’s capital. Raising money for a direct to consumer [DTC] company, for a market most investors don’t understand, with a first-time founder who’s trans and lives in the middle of nowhere is a challenge. Of course there were a few hiccups in the beginning: we got an initial prototype back from a factory and they just hadn’t followed our tech pack because they’d never seen a shirt in those proportions before. It came back and had been nipped in at the waist and had this super-feminized shape. But now the factories understand what we’re doing. We’re not one of those DTC startups who raised $5m in their first year. It’s been more like $10,000 here, $25,000 there. We’re looking for a couple more angel investors to come on board at the moment.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of founding Both& so far?
I don’t go a single day without someone reaching out to me to say, ‘I put on this shirt, looked in the mirror and saw myself for the first time.’ Honestly, the community feedback is what keeps me going. Building a fashion company in the middle of a pandemic with no connections in the industry feels like an uphill battle, and it’s those comments and reviews that keep me going and make me realize over and over again how important this work is.
What’s something you would like to achieve with your business that you haven’t yet?
On the roadmap for the next couple years, I see pretty rapid expansion into collaborations and partnerships with other brands. We’ve got the wardrobe of essentials out there, and now it’s about adding more flair, more style pops, more statement pieces through limited edition capsule drops. I think we can and should expand outside of clothing into other verticals – for example, footwear. Shoes don’t fit a lot of trans men, and it doesn’t require huge innovation, it’s just making men’s shoes in smaller sizes.