June 20, 2016 • 12:00 AM
When I called Bindle and Keep founder Daniel Friedman on a Thursday afternoon, he was in a car en route to Boro Park, Brooklyn, to meet with an Orthodox rabbi who was going to advise him on the forecast of his romantic future. “I asked my parents if I could see this rabbi,” Friedman said. His father had apparently once sought out this rabbi’s wisdom before having surgery. “I figured he was the right person to see if I needed some advising on my life, and marriage.” Friedman told me from his mobile phone that he was worried about revealing the nature of his work to this traditionalist, religious man. Bindle and Keep’s customers are predominantly transgender and queer-identified individuals looking for tailored clothes to accentuate their desired gendered characteristics. As the progressive firm’s founder—and now the subject of Suited, a documentary film airing tonight on HBO—Friedman feared the Orthodox rabbi would judge him for serving a predominantly LGBT population. But that wasn’t the case.
“I was hoping he would give me some kind of line like, ‘The heavens opened up and they said, “Do this.”’ But instead he just asked for a suit,” Friedman recalled. “He said that I focus on improving the lives of people, human beings—my profession is a good one. And then he even asked I make him a Hasidic Prince Albert-style coat.”
Bindle and Keep solidified its reputation as the gender-wise tailor of choice after a profile ran in the New York Times Thanksgiving weekend of 2013. According to Friedman, that story changed everything for the company. “We had a whole page feature and over 300 emails from people all over the world simply thanking me for existing,” he said. “Then I realized I tapped into something very important for our culture—that we had tapped a vein that wasn’t recognized for a long time and wasn’t being served.” Before the article came out, 30 percent of Bindle and Keep’s clientele identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer, Friedman estimated. After the article, the number jumped to 90 percent.
Rae Tutera and Grace. (Photo: JoJo Whilden/Courtesy of HBO)
“I don’t think anyone knew how deep this vein was,” Friedman said. “It’s a very serious thing that we are doing. By serving all people we are making a safe space for those alienated by the retail environment, for those who have no recourse, who were kicked out of changing rooms, forced into the men’s section when women, or when the fit is so wrong its a depressing and hopeless experience.”
Suited, the documentary, is produced by, among others, Girls creator Lena Dunham and executive producer Jenni Konner. Its director Jason Benjamin is a boom operator on Girls as well as on Orange Is the New Black. He remembers reading the Times article. “In that article [Bindle and Keep’s] Rae Tutera talked about delivering a suit to a client—someone struggling with an outward identity,” Benjamin said. He wanted to shoot that scene with a camera. And so he did, making a film that traces the stories of a handful of Bindle and Keep clients, including Aidan, a young trans man from Arizona who traveled all the way to Brooklyn searching for a bar mitzvah suit to fit his changing body and gender.
The film highlights the issues faced by a community of individuals marginalized by popular American culture and its gender ideals. And Friedman appears front and center, a compassionate cisgender straight male listener making suits for queer America.
A descendant of Holocaust survivors at Auschwitz and Majdanek, Friedman was raised Modern Orthodox in Toronto and Columbus, Ohio. He went to Orthodox day school and, every Shabbos, to his parents’ shul, with its mechitza separating men and women. With degrees from McGill and later the Universities of Michigan and Pennsylvania, he spent nearly a decade building a career as an architect. He went on to Columbia, where while pursuing a master’s in real estate development he suddenly lost his ability to read and write.
Friedman’s symptoms started in 2008 at the height of the financial crisis, and no one believed him. His doctors and his parents assumed his troubles were psychosomatic. “I was in debt,” he recalled. “I had no money, an unproven idea, and my trade was now useless. It was a jarring, traumatic, and even dangerous experience. If you can’t read and write—can’t read code, can’t work, can’t lose yourself in the world of books, can’t escape your own brain … Basically, my life was over.”
Only in summer 2015 did he learn that the culprit in his illness was a set of vintage window shutters picked up by his family at a yard sale many years ago. They dated back to the 1880s. “I brought them with me to Penn and hung my pots and pans from them in an apartment,” he said, “and they just dropped dust. That lead dust fell into my pots and pans and my food and it went into my bloodstream and into my brain.” For a time, his doctors had suspected Lyme disease, but the antibiotic treatments didn’t work. “‘Let’s just check your metals,’” he remembered the doctors saying. “And they came with a very high lead count.”
Friedman could barely read or write, but he still retained some of his gifts. “My skills in terms of design—design and communication intellect—weren’t affected,” he said. “So, I honed and sharpened these skills to make up for my inability to read and write. I knew a guy in Columbus, Ohio, who had a suit company and did well. I figured I could start a company.”
“It was just necessity,” Friedman said. “I had to survive.”
When he started Bindle and Keep, Friedman was a reluctant ex-architect who had once attended Ner Yakov, a black-hat yeshiva in Israel. His intention was not, at the start, to cater to an alienated community seeking clothes that fit in a world that often rejected their bodies. But as he puts it, when he was asked, “Can you put an androgynous suit on a very voluptuous female seeming body?” he said, “Yes.”
“There’s a link between his medical journey and the problems he has had and the incredible amount of empathy he has for his clientele,” said Benjamin, Suited’s director. “A lot of people looked at him with an incredible amount of cynicism for what was wrong with him. What happened to him in his own life, it’s my suspicion, yielded this empathy.”
Friedman meets with clients and designs the suits, which are then sewn and altered by a team of Polish workers. One of them, Piotr Gawronski, said that in Poland such a company could never exist because of the stigma against queer people. “Ninety-nine percent of people in Poland would say they never have met anyone from the LGBTQ community,” he said. Friedman concurred: “In Poland—you can imagine—it’s a Catholic country and not so progressive. Sixty-something years ago they were more than willing to deport Jews.”
Dorota Wiencko, Bindle and Keep’s seamstress, said (with Gawronski translating) that in her native small town topics like queer and transgender identity never come up. “No,” said Gawronski, “she never met a [transgender] person in Poland. Never.” But that doesn’t matter in America, Gawronski said. “We don’t pay so much attention if the clients are LGBTQ or straight. We care if the suit fits well, and that whoever the client is, they are happy.”
Friedman still has arthritis, headaches, and residual mental deficits from the lead poisoning. He reads and writes at a third-grade level. Yet he renovated his Park Slope apartment himself, and his wildly successful suit company in Brooklyn doubles as a type of therapy for his clientele.
“He turned being a tailor into something that is beyond just to cover your body,” Friedman’s father, Eddie, said. “He turned it into a psychological, emotional thing. He just took it to that level.”
“I couldn’t write this,” Friedman said, referring to the turns his life has taken. “It’s stranger than any fiction I could imagine. I think this is what makes life beautiful. I can’t imagine my life being any different, and I’m thankful for it.”
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Merissa Nathan Gerson is a writer and educator living in Los Angeles.