'Suited': Sundance Review


Lena Dunham was one of the producers on this HBO documentary, directed by 'Girls' boom operator Jason Benjamin, about tailoring to a gender non-conforming clientele.

Clothes make the man and a host of other gender identities in Suited, an HBO documentary from boom operator-turned-director Jason Benjamin. Following a handful of patrons of Bindle & Keep, a Brooklyn clothier specialized in bespoke suits for gender non-confirming clients, the glossily if not entirely smoothly assembled feature explores how notions of fashion, appearance and identity can be profoundly interdependent. With Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, the brains behind Girls (on which Benjamin worked for years) on board as producers and an accessible format, this should do well not only on HBO but at festivals as well, even beyond the queerosphere.

The unassuming tailor Daniel Friedman initially dreamed of amassing his own fortune by making suits for wealthy Wall Street types, but an encounter with Rae Tutera changed everything. Rae, born Rachel, got his first suit at age 25. “It was imperfect but made an impact,” he explains early on, adding that he then asked whether he could be apprenticed to Friedman, until then a one-man operation. This led, ultimately, to Bindle & Keep specializing in gender non-conforming clients.

Though Benjamin chooses to focus on the store’s clients more than the duo running the business — not to speak of the lone and voiceless seamstress who seems to be doing much of the handiwork in the background — there are some fascinating tidbits that beg for more insight, especially into Friedman. What’s now a throwaway comment about how he “didn’t even have an opinion on gay marriage” when he first met Rae certainly makes one wonder how this kind of man could end up doing what he now does for a living.

The clients Benjamin follows from the elaborate, in-depth initial (and occasionally emotional) meeting to final fitting and beyond include Derek, a transgender man from the Appalachian foothills who’s getting married; Everett, a trans man studying law in Georgia who’s struggling with finding the right business suit for interviews; Aidan, a transgender boy from Arizona whose supportive grandma has succeeded in convincing their rabbi to celebrate a Bar Mitzvah (and not a Bat Mitzvah) for him; and Jillian, an attorney and transgender woman who needs a power suit for an upcoming case she’s defending at a Court of Appeals.

They all require a suit for a specific function that involves some form of impressing others — be it a bride, a potential employer or a judge — while also being comfortable and staying true to their own identity. Rather than taking the queer and gender-studies route, which might have labeled the suit a conservative symbol and remnant of society's patriarchal values, Benjamin keeps things — pardon the pun — straightforward and focuses on the individuals portrayed and their specific wishes. In practical terms, for transgender people this often seems to have to do with trying to hide a or certain parts of their body that they feel do not visually conform to the gender they identify with. Somewhat oddly, though, there is no real discussion of sartorial technique, nor even much footage of the suits actually being made (Saint Laurent this is not.)

Arguably the most fascinating and eloquent character in the documentary, Everett speaks of the fear of “being found out” as transgender, while all he wants to do is blend in. This doesn’t necessarily mean he’s afraid to be open about his journey, but his experiences have taught him to be careful; he recounts how during one job interview he was told he was the ideal candidate except they couldn’t deal with the whole “transgender thing.” Indeed, one of the strengths of the film is how it constantly integrates telling details such as these and thus very casually manages to reveal some of the complexities of being transgender in America today — and all that in a documentary that’s ostensibly about something as ordinary as finding the right suit.

Also in the mix are two other clients, Mel and Grace, who both identify as gender non-conforming, with Mel suggesting gender exists as a larger spectrum rather than just either male or female. Their stories are different from the transgender clients, who were born in the wrong body or assigned the wrong gender at birth, but the film doesn’t explore especially Grace’s identity and story all that much. That said, she does offer one of the film’s moments of mirth when she explains how she would be “thrilled to encounter” her own “magnificent breasts” on anyone but herself.

Every client is introduced via a nifty animated sequence in which they seem to submit their names and a quick introduction to their stories on the tailors’ webpage, which has a special “The more we know” box so clients can explain what they need. Benjamin also fills in the background of some of the customers with childhood photos, visits the parents or partners of some of them and even attends Derek’s wedding. These interludes provide helpful contextual material but are also frustrating to an extent, firstly because not everyone gets the same amount of screen time and secondly because six different mini-narratives need to fit into the film's svelte, 77-minute running time, which means there is often only room for hinting at larger, more fascinating stories that remain unexplored.

Benjamin and editor M. Watanabe Milmore waste some precious screen time on an out-of-the-blue fashion show, which lacks any context or dramatic pay-off, and Everett’s visit to a gender-fluid hairdresser, which tells us nothing about either Everett or his hair. But even so, as an introduction to transgender and, to a lesser extent, gender-fluidity issues — not to mention a feature-length commercial for the very personalized services of Bindle & Keep — the film works rather well.

Owen Pallett’s musical score is a mixture of gently melancholy and more upbeat vibes, while Bob Richman’s cinematography further lends the proceedings a classy sheen.

Production companies: A Casual Romance Productions, Loveless, HBO Doc Films
Director: Jason Benjamin
Producers: Lena Dunham, Jenni Konner, Ericka Naegle, Stacey Reiss, Carly Hugo, Jason Benjamin, Sara Bernstein
Executive producer: Sheila Nevins
Director of photography: Bob Richman
Editor: M. Watanabe Milmore
Music: Owen Pallett
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

No rating, 77 minutes