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It’s been 50 years since the LGBT equality movement started in Philadelphia. So Billy Penn decided to look at the transgender experience in the city today, from data to personal stories to health challenges and anti-discrimination policies. This is Trans Philly.
Every fashion designer is in some sense an engineer. But Tyler DeSouza sees himself as an engineer first. He engineers femininity in nylon and silk for people who want the curves. He runs what he says is the largest catalogue of high-end clothing for crossdressers and transgender women in the country and possibly the world, Suddenly Fem.
DeSouza’s form of engineering is more like a re-engineering of traditional women’s formal wear. The bracelets need to be made to fit the larger wrists of a male (or assigned male at birth) customer. The dresses that he designs taper in at the top of the hip’s slope to create the illusion of a feminine curve. Some of those dresses even have leather sewn into the front in the shape of an expanding waistline (pictured above).
From his warehouse space in the basement of an apartment complex in Jenkintown, Pa., DeSouza, who identifies as a cisgendered bisexual/gay man, is guiding transgender people through what is, in many ways, a crucial part of their transition. Suddenly Fem is a service as much as it is a series of products. The website, Crossdresser.com, gives Suddenly Fem’s clients access to a host of articles about picking out the right wigs (depending on the shape of your face), wearing heels, finding realistic silicone breast forms for your body (they have a metric for what size you might want according to your existing chest size), as well as an array of other information one may need on the “Journey into Femininity.”
A primary concern for DeSouza in his design engineering is basic anatomy. Not only do his bras need to have pockets for the silicone breast forms, his gaffes (the underwear) need to accommodate the organ that his clients are trying to hide. “It needs to stretch and go tight in all the right places,” DeSouza explained. His website and catalogue feature instructions on how best to tuck.
“Most gaffes don’t pass the ‘leg cross test,’” he said. It is hard to strike a balance between discretion and comfort. He needs material that can “flatten” but not restrict movement too much (pictured below).
DeSouza’s mother, Laine Alexander, started the company back in the early ‘80s when she was working in a salon. When her husband left, she turned to her friends. Many of them, as a consequence of working in a salon in the ’80s, were crossdressing men. Alexander began a crossdresser consulting business out of her home. She started to informally advise her crossdressing clients and friends — helping them dress and makeup, and taking them out to local gay bars. Alexander began to realize that there existed serious holes in the market for men who wanted to become glamorous women for the night (at that time she was catering more to crossdressers than transwomen). Men would have to shop for very large sizes, which often ended up being pretty unflattering because the clothing was not designed for broad shoulders and the sleeves would come down too far on their wrists. So Alexander started designing clothing that could be sexy and glamorous but also fit a different scale and form.
The mother and son duo are still the principal designers for Suddenly Fem. Apart from a couple of employees doing marketing, accounting and web design, it is literally a family business, with two factories in the U.S. and one overseas. Last year the company saw its most successful year of revenue yet. DeSouza says that the more accepted the transgender community becomes, the more customers come knocking at his door.
But clothing for crossdressers and transgender women has been a tough product to market. According to DeSouza, 80 percent of his crossdressing clientele is straight men. He says that 15 years ago, Suddenly Fem decided that its ads in gay publications and in fetish shops were not reaching the primary consumer base. So the company tried to put ads up in sports magazines— go directly to the straight men. The magazines wouldn’t have it. “Why don’t you find a magazine for gay people?” they told DeSouza. “But we don’t have gay clients,” he wrote back.
DeSouza does not see his business as a novelty because he grew up around so many crossdressers and people in transition. It’s only natural, to DeSouza, that everyone have the option of buying clothing that is specifically tailored to making them feel sexy.
One marked difference in selling lingerie to cisgendered females versus crossdressers and transwomen is that, DeSouza feels, cisgender women are just looking to be comfortable in their clothes. But his clients are looking for a radiant feminine sexuality, and so DeSouza poses his primary model, Mercedes Demarco, accordingly. Nowadays, Suddenly Fem does most of its marketing online, which has given the company the freedom to advertise in ways that are most effective at reaching consumers. The company currently sells to customers primarily in New York, California, Illinois and Florida. Surprisingly, says DeSouza, a large percentage of the business comes from Texas.
At this point, the only retail store in Philadelphia that carries Suddenly Fem material is Passional on South Street.
What distinguishes Suddenly Fem from other services doing the same thing is that the company is not trying to drop the price point, or be in the business of “passing” (blending in to the dominant culture). The clothing is radically feminine. The clothing for passing or for a less feminine transperson can be bought at the GAP. Suddenly Fem sells, quite simply, formal and flared outfits for anyone trying to look feminine on a night out.
“I say that our stuff is for a special occasion,” he said. “Because every time you are wearing it it’s a special occasion.”