Atlanta’s Gentlewoman Clothing Dresses to Impress
The clothes may make the man, but when it comes to women, baggy men’s suits just won’t do. So when well-known Atlanta lesbian Tina Laster Crittenden decided to launch Gentlewoman Clothing, she did so simply because she needed a good suit.
The suits in a store’s women’s department, no matter who the well-known designers were, just wouldn’t do -- the jackets were not quite long enough or the pants were too low on the butt. Although Crittenden is a lesbian she doesn’t wear men’s suits, with their long jacket sleeves and baggy pants not meant for a woman’s curves.
Men’s suits and even most women’s suits "just wasn’t a good look for me," Crittenden said. So, in 2006 she began decided to end her search for that elusive, perfect-fitting pantsuit. True to her nature, Crittenden knew what she wanted in a suit and wasted no time making it happen.
And if clothes make the person, then there was no question about the name of her clothing line, the name would simply embody the demeanor of Crittenden and her friend’s philosophy about how women should be treated: gently.
"My friends and I pride ourselves on how we treat women," Crittenden said of the reasoning behind the Gentlewoman Clothing name. "We used to say we’re just gentle women." Most have assumed the name Gentlewoman Clothing is a play off the term, gentlemen, but it is not.
Suits have always been a part of Crittenden’s wardrobe. Although most people reserve a good suit for important, special occasions or professional events, she has been sporting pantsuits since she was 18. Back in the day, she was the only one in her circle of friends who wore suits.
"Suits, it was just the look that I desired," she recalled. Donning a suit with bold bow ties or neckties is still her preference today. Besides feeding her need for a nice-fitting, stylish suit, she noticed that there were other women besides her who were in need of a good suit -- one made just for them.
During services at an inclusive church she regularly attended, Crittenden noticed some women wearing unflattering suits, and it was mostly because the fits just weren’t right.
"When I thought about Gentlewoman Clothing, it was a need not just for me personally, not just in the (LGBT) community but a real need," Crittenden said. Wasting no time, she began securing money and developing designs for different suits, saying, "I feel women can look like women in a suit."
But there was just one problem: Crittenden couldn’t draw or sketch. To get her designs from her head onto a sketch pad, she enlisted the help of a friend who could sketch out the designs of the suits that she liked.
Once she had sketches, she was able to get a suit made. Crittenden’s inability to sew didn’t stop her either. She found a manufacturer to make her made-to-measure suits. The first suit didn’t come out quite as she had envisioned.
"When I got the suit back, it had some small issues, but over the years I’ve been able to pinpoint the things to get it the way I want the suits to be," she said.
She has surrounded herself with a good team of people including her wife and partner, Angela Laster Crittenden, to make Gentlewoman Clothing a success and to put out a good product.
"With Gentlewoman Clothing, I don’t want to exclude anyone," she said of her suits, that are for all types of women, feminine, straight or dominant. You can rock a Gentlewoman suit with a bow tie, necktie or corsage, she added.
Gentlewoman Clothing offers top quality tailored two-piece, three-piece, leisure, double breasted suits and tuxedos. Crittenden is also hoping to start making shirts. Just like men’s suits, men’s shirts are also longer in the arms and just not made for a woman’s body. This is another opportunity for her to fulfill her dream.
The Gentlewoman suits can be purchased online. Customers choose the suit type, select their fabric, input their measurements, pay, and in about five weeks they will receive their made-to-measure suit.
More women are beginning to find out about Gentlewoman Clothing. So far, Crittenden’s clientele have been mostly lesbians in their mid-thirties and older.
"Very seldom do I see younger women with suits on," she noted. "I was probably one of the unique ones at the age of 18 wearing suits. "It’s just a phase they are in."
A Growing Community of Lesbian Couteriers
Gentlewoman Clothing has also begun venturing into providing suits for weddings. Now that 12 states recognize same-sex marriage, more and more lesbians are taking the plunge and getting married. Some women are now looking for suit options beyond sizing down a men’s suit, and that is where Gentlewoman Clothing comes in. Crittenden is currently making suits for a wedding party in Orlando, Florida.
Although there are some other lesbian clothing designers on the market in other states, some making suits for dominant lesbian women mostly for weddings or other casual clothing, Crittenden didn’t seek any of them out for guidance or feedback. She simply knew what she was looking for and moved forward on her belief that every woman needs a good suit.
Crittenden was not familiar with other lesbian clothing entrepreneurs, although she met a group who were preparing to open a store for lesbians in San Francisco a while back.
One retail store catering to lesbians -- Tomboy Tailors opened in San Francisco -- recently opened. According to the store’s website, they are a fine clothier specializing in custom made suits and shirts of the finest quality that are made to measure. Their customers are butch/boi lesbians, trans-masculine individuals and women of any identity. Tomboy Tailors plan to set up an online store soon.
Another California-based company catering to butch/boi lesbians is Saint Harridan in Oakland. Although the store is not yet open, they have already taken a small batch order of their high-quality suits. Their first order is expected to be ready in July, according to their website.
An early company that began catering to lesbians was Dykes in the City (DITC). It was launched in Baltimore in 2004, and was created by a group of lesbian friends with cofounder Niki Cutler. They were known for their gender-bending hoodies, work shirts and belts. They had an online retail store and could be found at some retail locations, but as of 2010, they have fallen off the radar.
"It’s definitely an exciting time for the industry," Bernadette Coveney Smith, same-sex wedding expert and founder of 14 Stories, a New York-based same sex wedding planning firm, said of the other entrepreneur lesbian clothing designers who are creating casual and formal clothing for lesbian, queer and trans community.
Coveney Smith recently launched Fourteen, a clothing company that makes ready-to-wear suits. Their items are available online for purchase, and they have a design team that sews all of the suits. Their designs have a broad appeal, but their best selling product has been linen, she said.
The feedback has been positive, Coveney Smith added. Women who have bought or who have heard about Fourteen have been expressing their gratitude for the options.
"They have been thanking us because we are really solving a problem," said Coveney Smith. "It’s been validating."
Because of the positive feedback, Coveney Smith said they are now working on swimwear for the more masculine lesbians and trans-masculine individuals. Also on the Fourteen agenda is underwear.
In Atlanta, Crittenden has been receiving the same validation from the women who have ordered her suits. She previewed her clothing line during a fashion show in 2010 at the Twin Towers in Atlanta, and those in attendance were pleased with what they saw on the runway.
Since the launch of her clothing line, Crittenden said her company has been doing pretty well. But she still feels that some women are "intimidated by the fact of what if they don’t get the sizes right," she said of her customers having to input their own measurements when ordering her made-to-measure suits.
To overcome this fear, Crittenden said she recently spoke with her wife about the possibility of offering some of their items off the rack. The goal is to have some items available by the fall. But her ultimate goal is to one day have a Gentlewoman Clothing retail store.
"Gentlewoman Clothing gives every woman the opportunity to wear a suit," she said of her clothing. "We make well-rounded suits that give every woman that look, no matter what their preference. My vision is for every woman to own a Gentlewoman suit, no matter their lifestyle."
For more information and to purchase a Gentlewoman Clothing suit, check out the website at www.gentlewomanclothing.com.