Updated: Sep 22
BACKBONE is a new series of interviews that aim to appreciate the work and art of BIPOC designers and leaders who shape and define the fashion industry. For volume one, Assistant Editor Gabbie Vaillancourt (virtually) sat down with Mic. Carter, the Toronto-based designer, industry leader, and fashion icon behind the feminine non-binary brand L’Uomo Strano.
Carter, who recently taught Ryerson University’s first-ever non-binary fashion class, spoke about implementing change on every level of the industry, their most recent protest collection “Strange Fruit," and how COVID-19 is shaping the fashion world.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MATTHEW CARTER*
HS: I wanted to start by asking, where did it all begin - what are the roots of L’Uomo Strano?
MC: It started probably about a decade ago — a little bit more than a decade ago. I’d just started teaching middle school. I was partying a lot and my parents were like, “What else do you love, other than partying and teaching?” I'm like, wow, that’s a really good question. I really loved design too — it was a passion for quite some time. While I was in high school and while I was even as young as five I loved the process of upcycling, the freedom of upcycling, its creativity, and how accessible it was. And so I really kind of wanted to infuse that creativity and that level of access into a brand. What happened was I had gone over to London, England to study at Central Saint Martins one summer. And one of the courses that I took was hat-making, and every day when I would go in as a genderqueer Black person, there was this older Italian woman who just had never experienced that identity, or that intersection of identities. She would just call me “l’uomo strano” over and over, and just laugh. It really felt like one of those stereotypical nightmares from high school where no one was standing up for you. I felt really challenged by it. When I got back to Toronto and really sat with what that meant to me, I decided to reclaim it — kind of like the N-word. That was the ethos and the birth of L’Uomo Strano. So what [the brand] really looks to do is to equip and to empower feminine non-binary folk with clothing that really affirms us and and allows for shopping, and for the act of getting dressed up to be something that's more pleasurable, as opposed to something that's fraught.
HS: Amazing. How has the brand evolved since its initial conception?
MC: That's a really good question. I think [it has evolved] in a couple of ways. When you start a brand that's really invested in impacting the social landscape of how people live their lives, it comes from a space of idealism and hope and passion. I think that there's been two separate examples. I think the first one was in 2014, when I was asked to show at a men’s fashion week here in Toronto, and I did a preview of the collection. The people who were running the show thought that it was way too femme for a men's fashion week and asked me to restyle it. I was like, listen, absolutely not. That is just not the vibe. Then they axed the show the day before. Then the media got involved and then the community came behind the brand. Then it was reinstated. It was this really lovely moment. So, I think that in terms of how that impacted the brand, beforehand I knew I had wanted it to have a social impact. But I think in that moment it was like, “Oh, this brand really serves a number of different people within this community, and I really want to ensure that it continues making this community proud.”
HS: So that was the defining moment for the mission of the brand?
MC: Definitely, absolutely. The other one was: for the first couple years I was going through the whole “art, art, art” thing and then after a couple of years, I was like, “Oh, this is a business.” Like, wow, who knew. So, I was going through an incubator, probably around the same time. And the feedback that I had gotten at the end of that experience was, this is like just going to be a passion project, girl, just enjoy it for what it is. And I was like — in order for this to be sustainable, I have to wrap my head around what it means to be both a Black genderqueer artist within the city, but as well, a businesswoman, you know? So I think, really, that sort of pivot has been kind of challenging and I'm still learning.
HS: Okay. So earlier, you talked about the ethos of the brand, but I'm wondering, how do you take that mission and translate it into a finished piece? What kind of questions and ideas do you consider during your process?
MC: I would say that the thing about creating non-binary clothing and gender-nonconforming clothing is that it's got to be dialogical. Right? It's got to be something that — because gender nonconformity as an identity means so many different things to so many different people, you have to have the conversations with the people that you're creating garments for, in order to ensure that it meets their needs. I generally work with the same group of models that I've worked with for years and years and years. So, I kind of have, at this point, an understanding of what silhouettes really resonate with them — what sort of colors, or vibes, really, channel their understanding of their feelings of beauty. And so I’ve worked from that position. So, in that respect it's slightly iterative, right? It’s like the last collection I've done. I've built on that one silhouette this way, then I’ll take it like a little step further, use a different fabrication, that sort of thing. Then when it comes to the production of the show, I have all of the models over and we co-create the styling of that garment. Do we want the front of the shirt actually on the front of the shirt? Do we want to turn it around? Do we want to nip it? That sort of thing. So it's not just one vision. It's this collective vision we’re sharing with the world.
HS: Sure. So it's more of a collaborative process of understanding what somebody needs and then channeling that into the garment as you work on it.
MC: 110%. Yeah, definitely.
HS: What do you want someone to feel when they're wearing one of your pieces? What is the sort of empowerment that you're looking to give people when they're wearing your clothing?
MC: So, how do I want people to feel? One person who I’ve worked with for quite some time is this incredible trans artist Vivek Shraya. We created garments as she transitioned, and as she created really wonderful pieces of art, whether it's music or books or whatever. The feedback that I've always gotten from her is that it just allows for her to feel as authentic and as beautiful as she wants to be, as she imagines, [and] that other clothes don't necessarily allow for her to access that level of authenticity, that level of actualization. I really always strive to ensure that I can do that to the best of my ability. That's really how I want people to feel.
HS: So, again, that collaborative process and keeping it genuine, not just for yourself, but also for the people that wear your clothing.
MC: Exactly. I would say more so for the people. It's almost a humbling sort of experience, because you're just like, “Oh, I really wanted it to look like this.” And then they’re like, “Nah girl, maybe this.” I'm like, “Okay. It's not about me.” It's a tenuous balance, for sure.
HS: Obviously L’Uomo Strano is an incredibly inclusive brand. It strikes me as a sort of iconoclastic level of inclusivity. When we talk about inclusivity in the fashion industry, for me, I think one of the most important cornerstones of that is accessibility, like you mentioned earlier. How does L’Uomo Strano align itself with that value?
MC: I would say, first and foremost, because it was part of my inception into what I thought fashion needed to be that it's one of the — you know how people often ask, “What are the three words that describe your brand?” Because that's where I had come from as a Black queer just trying to cobble together an identity by using clothes, and not having a lot of money, I have always prioritized making garments that are accessible in whatever way that I can. At the most basic level, there's just having a range of price points. So, there's like having logo tees at one price point, upcycled clothing at another price point, and then ready-to-wear and couture — where I have to bring on other artists to help out — at a higher price point. I'd say that that's the most basic level of accessibility, then there's definitely the rental model as well. That has definitely helped a variety of different customers be able to access it. There's also been a barter trade system that I've often tried to figure out from a business model standpoint, to make it even more accessible. There's also a size inclusivity that I have explored. Ensuring that a range of different bodies can have access to the same piece in different ways, depending on the styling, whether that be like an oversized piece, or a piece that transforms with zippers and clasps and stuff like that.
HS: So it's more of a founding principle than an objective you’re trying to reach, because it seems like you infuse it into every aspect of your process.
MC: Definitely, for sure.
HS: So, where do you find in your work that fashion and activism are working in tandem, where do they come together?
MC: I would say every part of the design cycle. Every collection is super political from the jump, from the very, very beginning. So really, brainstorming or reading — almost creating an essay, essentially before I even start looking for aesthetic influences, is super key. From that point, it moves on to how you access fabric, right? And it being as egalitarian and as sustainable as possible. So trying to access dead-stock fabric and upcycling bags, cast off fabric — trying to access that, because not only does it save the planet, but then it also saves the bottom line for the people who are looking to buy or borrow the clothing. There's that sort of activism. It's in how you choose the models as well. What sorts of bodies are having their stories and their experiences and narratives amplified. It's in the music. I often work with my twin brother who is this incredible artist who’s super, super political, and ensures that he takes whatever message or rallying cry we're looking to center and he infuses into the new music. For instance, with Strange Fruit, he created this incredible song called “Students”, which is about how lynching has been this central iterative structure within the American landscape, and how we, as artists in 2020, can respond in ways that are active, in ways that are thorough, and in ways that are powerful. It's in the staging as well. The embodiment of the clothing, as well as the gesturing as they move through the runway.
HS: Talking about Strange Fruit - that was your most recent show with Fashion Art Toronto - it was a virtual runway. Were you planning on that being a physical event before COVID-19 happened? How and when was that pulled together?
MC: Definitely after, for sure. They did have a show planned for April with Fashion Art Toronto, but then Fashion Art Toronto canceled all those shows, and I’m like, “Oh my God, I have a break. This is cute. I'm so excited.” And then they hit me up a month before the actual Strange Fruit show and they're like, “Just kidding, though,” like, “can you pull something together?” And I'm just thinking, wow, I'm really processing a lot right now. I really am quite angry and activated about what's happening and so, art is therapy. Sure. Let's do it.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY TYLER RIBCHESTER*
HS: Taking a quote from another interview that you did, where you said that the Strange Fruit collection was “inspired by the recent modern-day lynchings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. When you were designing that collection, what sort of messages and key principles and perspectives were you considering to put into it - and how did you visually represent those?
MC: In terms of the key messages, I would say that it was sort of that tenuous balance between venerating these victims of police brutality of anti-Black racism as saints. Because definitely their impact was earth-shattering and world-changing and paradigm-shifting, but also, at the same time, this should have never really happened to them. The collection was really looking to balance those two sorts of identities or those two sorts of thoughts. So, how that was manifested aesthetically within the collection is sort of this idea of, what do angelic structures look like in 2020 — like angelic silhouettes. There were very large voluminous silhouettes that were balanced off by really skinny pants as well. So, it was looking to make that angelic silhouette a little bit more modern and a little bit more Black.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY TYLER RIBCHESTER*
HS: What was the experience of producing and showing a collection entirely within quarantine like for you, within this sort of era of isolation? How is that different?
How do you think that COVID-19 has ultimately shifted the way that the fashion industry functions and works?
MC: It was so different — so different because it required you to do almost everything, once again, in isolation. So, normally when I'm producing a collection, I have a couple of different contractors scattered around the city that I can go to for leather work or dresses or something like that. And then I focus on the more artistic pieces. And I will generally have a lot more time from the beginning to the end of the process, right? And so, what COVID really insisted upon was “You have to do it by yourself and you’ve got to do it in, like, three weeks.” So, it was really challenging in that way. But also at the same time, it was really kind of an affirming reminder of what the act of iterative design and creation can look like and feel like. To have like the entire collection evolve and flow within my living space was such a fascinating reminder of what fashion can look like. That was really beautiful.
In terms of what it looks like and how it's impacting the entire fashion industry as a whole — I think it's really requiring a different level of innovation. Very early on, there was this incredible Black womxn designer out of the States who created this beautiful 3-D show, where I think all her models were wearing green screen, so it was just her designs walking down this black runway. It was just mind blowing. She blew up on Twitter as a result. I, and just Twitter as a whole, were just really blown away by how that happened quite quickly, and the innovation and the beauty. I think as the menswear shows are starting to come in now, in Paris and New York and so on, we’re starting to see how designers and familiar household names are pivoting to create their own take on what virtual fashion shows can look like. It is requiring innovation, it is requiring going back to what fashion means to them and what it means to the world. I think it's a really interesting precipice to be sitting on right now.
HS: Fashion as an industry and as an art has always been at the forefront of a lot of great social and political change. What do you personally believe that the industry needs to do now to progress to becoming a truly and radically inclusive industry?
MC: Radically inclusive. Love that. Wow. I think the work that Ben Barry at Ryerson is doing is incredible. I think that the recasting of the curriculum, the prioritization of ensuring that the different bodies of fashion have the opportunity and the impetus to collaborate with each other in ways that are holistic and organic — I think that is key, as a teacher as well. I deeply feel that education is really that first step in changing the landscape of something, and I think that for a long time, fashion education has been kind of prohibitive, like it's just super, super expensive. It’s been, as a result, inaccessible to different bodies and different sorts of narratives, and I think that the work that they're also doing in outreach and bursaries and that sort of thing is going to be transformative and incredible. I think that in terms of that movement towards being radically inclusive, Ryerson is definitely leading the charge. Not to come out as a Ben Barry stan, but also at the same time, a couple of years ago, he did this wonderful exploration of breaking down or refashioning masculinity, that was super successful. I think right now he's doing the same thing for crip-studies and fashion and I think bringing it back, once again, into centering the narratives that have often not been centered and legitimized and denigrated in fashion is super huge. That's really important. I think that that's already happening. I think that also the allyship that brands have joined within this Black Lives Matter paradigm-shift has been interesting and has been novel — I don't think I've seen it before. I'm really kind of interested in seeing how that continues to evolve, and I'm hopeful that it will continue to evolve.
And so if the energy of not just Black Lives Matter, but Black trans lives mattering, and Black poor lives mattering, and that sort of thing, finds a space within fashion outside of exotification or outside fetishization, that would also be radically inclusive. We talked about early fashion designers, so learning spaces and learning institutions, and also late career or established designers, but also, I think that there needs to also be an important pivot, more specifically, an investment in mid-career fashion designers. Whether that be on a deeper or more thorough investment in incubator systems, where those designers can learn not just their craft, but also how to connect with marketers or sales people or investors. That sort of thing, in order for the voices of designers who are invested in radical design and radical change, for them to be sustainable. It’s cute to get that information when you're in school, but what happens after that? I think that's super key too.
HS: So reshaping kind of at every level, so that it’s a more sustainable system altogether?
MC: Yeah, literally that. Definitely.
HS: What are you currently working on? Do you have any upcoming projects that we should know about?
MC: What am I working on? The first thing I was working on after the show was doing a deep clean of my space, because there was fabric and sequins everywhere. That's done. That's finished. And then it was sort of getting like a flow to, like — I guess the short answer is not much yet. It’s at this point, trying to get a flow of the day — I know that I don't prioritize social media marketing, and I think that’s a really important facet with the narrativization of a collection or a set of garments, so I’m really getting that down. Then it's also the back end stuff: getting the website down, getting the rental system down, all of those sorts of things to build the sustainability of L’Uomo Strano. In terms of the creative side of things, taking the silhouettes that were part of Strange Fruit and maximizing them. I just like, really want the huge, huge garments. That’s where that's at.
HS: Finally, what do you visualize in the future of L’Uomo Strano? What are you hoping for, or what are you aiming for?
MC: My biggest dream is for L’Uomo Strano to become a fashion hub, a fashion space for gender nonconforming and non-binary folk. For it to be a space or an organization that employs the community, that centers the community and celebrates the community, and to a certain extent, would almost be like a vogue-ing house, but not. When I started, that’s where I always saw L’Uomo Strano in ten to fifteen years. And so I think COVID-19 has, in one respect, slowed that down, but on the other hand, it's really given me the space to think a little bit more thoroughly about how to actualize that. ✷
Gabrielle Vaillancourt is HALOSCOPE's Assistant Editor and a Toronto-based fashion creative. You can find her on Instagram @gabbievaillancourt.