Job-related busy-ness has prevented me from posting much, but I had to make an exception when I had the opportunity to interview Karen Roberts, the founder of the butch clothing company Hautebutch!
As some of you know, a number of butch clothing stores have popped up in recent years… Sadly, some of these have failed financially. Others are still going strong, like HauteButch and St. Harridan, and I think it’s important that we in the community support them! This is ESPECIALLY true for HauteButch right now, because they've got a Kickstarter going that will allow them to start manufacturing a bunch of new lines if they reach their goal. They're 86.6% of the way there, with six days to go, and they've got some wonderful thank-you gifts: bow ties, wallets, shirts, and more.
Want to know more about why Karen started HauteButch? If so, read my nifty interview below.
BW: Tell me why you decided to start HauteButch. Great name, by the way!
KR: I decided it was important based on my own lack of fashionable alternatives as a professional butch woman, plus the expressed, shared frustration of my peers. Our fit and style preferences were not met in the mainstream retail arena and we weren’t necessarily welcome in the men's department.
BW: I think I know what you mean, but tell me more about your experiences shopping in men’s departments.
KR: In the past, I would frequent the men's departments at a few large, well-known department stores. I would have 8-10 different things on my arm to try on. Eventually, I guess the word would get out that I didn't "belong" there because they started cutting me off at the pass—guiding me to the women's fitting room on the other side of the area I was actually shopping in! A few times, I bucked the system and pulled a "Hell no, I won't go" move, but either way it didn't feel good. When I left the clothes from the men's dept in the women's fitting room, it was as though I had brought a communicable disease into the area. I felt as though I was desperately trying to give my money and serenity away to support a judgmental system. And if I asked for help to explore the men's garments, I would get the "look," like, "Are you for real?" I didn't like what that did for my self esteem.
BW: Totally. I've had good experiences and bad ones. I have to admit, though, I REALLY enjoy leaving men’s clothes in the women's dressing room. I feel like I'm sending a subtle message about the restrictiveness of the gender binary, as presented through my limited fashion options.
KR: I don't care for much in the women's section. I feel out of place unless I'm shopping for my wife.
BW: My partner mostly wears men's clothes, too. When the two of us are in the men's dressing room, we get some looks! I did my first men's suit shopping ever years ago with my butch buddy C. It helped to go with a friend. Now, even though I feel comfortable walking into men's departments (though not into men's stores, oddly enough), I have a tough time finding clothes that fit properly. Shirts are too tight in the chest, too long in the arms, and too big at the neck.
KR: You can rest assured that at Hautebutch, we've labored over fit and style. We are happy to conquer the fit challenges because our community is worth it. We want to offer you clothes that fit, look great, are made with superior quality—as a result, we're always asking for feedback as to what worked and what didn't so that we are remaining true to our integrity for the brand by collaborating with the community. I don't think Macy's, H&M or Nordstrom want or need to hear from you. This isn't a transactional-based relationship for us. It's our community; you're important to us. We exist for YOU.
BW: I can't wait to try on some of your stuff. Did you, personally, always identify as butch? As longtime readers know, I did not, and my coming out process included some big challenges.
KR: When I came out, it was during a tour in the military, I was 18 and had a more semi- feminine appearance, yet my personality still felt very masculine. When I look back, I know that I made those choices out if my own fear, family pressure and military rules to not be or look or behave as a lesbian.
BW: What changed?
KR: I flipped the tables because I fell for this cute firecracker of a femme from Boston. The more I chased her, the more she liked me. It was a funny situation but I was so enamored by her, that one day over a game of pool she said, "You would be soooo hot as a butch, Karen." Why did she say that?! I already felt "butch" inside but that gave me permission (so to speak) to throw out my tight jeans and pumps. (Remind me to send you a pic. Lol!)
BW: Happy Veteran’s Day! Thank you for your service. (And a shout-out to CB, VC, RFY, and other readers who have served.) You're not alone; I bet lots of butches have photos of ourselves trying to be "feminine." (Ooo, maybe I should have readers send in photos.) Shifting gears a little, can you tell me a little about how it feels to design clothes?
KR: When a prototype has materialized out of my thoughts, dreams and sketches, I'm mesmerized by how it occurred and I'm mentally editing it like crazy. Once the edits and revisions have been applied and I see someone in it for the first time or perhaps on the runway… My heart expands and there's some sort of maternal thing going on. I see my "baby." After that, I immediately want to see how the person wearing the garment carries their body in it and I ask them for honest feedback. I can oftentimes incorporate it into additional edits.
BW: In that case, you’re a lot more thoughtful about your models than a lot of people on "Project Runway!" How would you characterize the clothing you design?
KR: I'm drawn to clean lines with an interesting or unique detail somewhere on the garment that makes it special in some way. We make every effort to avoid frills, fuss and feminine accentuation, we strive to de-emphasize the chest and hip areas while bringing forward the masculine details and finishes that we want the garment to stress. Being aware that not everyone wishes to sport a button up and bowtie/skinny tie, or a classic men's styled suit, we look to blend the best of menswear and womenswear in such a way that the two complement each other, along with the silhouette of the individual wearing the garment. It may be that we are blending gender together in a way that appears less gendered overall. I believe that our clothes speak on our behalf before we utter a single word.
BW: Are there any new clothing items you’ve got in the works?
KR: Currently we are producing a handsome new collection of button up shirts and our Gotham jacket that were designed and crafted with the utmost care and sophistication. In the near future, we’ll be offering 2 gorgeously masculine tuxedo shirts which we’re very excited about bringing to market accompanied by military inspired vests and eventually a line of trousers. We also hold steadfast to the vision of producing our XX-HAUTE line that accommodates sizes 4X-6X.
BW: I get a lot of emails from butches who need a wider range of sizes, and it’s terrific that you're designing for them, too. Our community has a reputation for being hard to sell to. Any idea why butch clothing stores have closed?
KR: Every time we lose one, it hits me hard in my gut for several reasons. There's sadness and sorrow in the loss of another LGBTQI business that catered to our community. I believe in the "For Us, By Us" type of support for one another, and to see places like Tomboy Tailors and Fourteen close is a setback on a larger scale. I can see both sides of it because I have struggled and had to make hard decisions for the good of the company and our customers too.
BW: But it seemed like there was so much excitement around butch clothing companies for a while.
KR: Often we thought that if the people "LIKED" our clothes on Facebook or Instagram that they would buy it... Not so. For many of us, we've never done this before, yet have a yearning to do it out of necessity, social responsibility and pride. Unfortunately that's not enough. Each time that one of us gets picked off, we get further away from the big picture.
BW: Hear that, readers? For butch clothing companies to survive, we need to support them! So how have you kept Hautebutch going?
KR: Some months we really struggle, but somehow orders pour in at the eleventh hour and we can see our way a little further. My wife is retired AND works to support our household so that Hautebutch can be realized. We work side jobs to pay the bills AND to supplement the bills for Hautebutch when sales aren't adequate... Which makes for extremely long nights.
BW: That's dedication. Wow. So this Kickstarter thing is really going to make a difference to Hautebutch?
KR: It really is.
BW: What if someone doesn't have a lot of money? How can they support you?
KR: If someone doesn't have a lot if money, believe me—I understand—that us where I have been living for a couple of years! They can still support HB, even by a pledge of $5.00 to back the project or pledging $25.00 (and getting a Hautebutch tee!) which would help us tremendously. Every dollar, every comment, every share, has a vital impact on the outcome and we would really like to finish strong. It's important that we do.
BW: What advice would you give to someone trying to start a business for the LGBTQI community?
KR: I would firmly recommend that they start out with a team that could advise them, folks that are part of our community as well as those that are not. Having solid advice from both, I believe is crucial to the business decision making process. Have accountability partners or mentors. Come out swinging with a strong, realistic business plan and bring plenty of funds or an angel investor with you. Take classes along the way and plan to sleep later.
BW: Thanks for your time, Karen. You are truly a model in our community, and I really want Hautebutch to succeed.
Dear readers, please check out the Hautebutch Kickstarter page and learn more about this fabulous company.