The HBO documentary Suited introduces viewers to the world of Bindle & Keep, a tailoring company that specializes in bespoke, gender-nonconforming suits. Director Jason Benjamin first learned of the Brooklyn-based clothier in a New York Times article in 2013.
"The thing that attracted me to the story was the description of the moment when Bindle & Keep arrives with a suit for a client that's never tried on something that fits before - and how that moment was the moment of self-empowerment and self-realization," Benjamin told NBC OUT.
At the time Benjamin worked as a boom operator on HBO's Girls and pitched the idea of a documentary to prolific producers Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner in hopes of bringing this story of identity and sartorial significance to screen. Dunham and Konner were game.
Instead of focusing primarily on fashion and design, Suited profiles seven transgender and gender-nonconforming people who contacted Bindle & Keep in search of clothing that made them feel like themselves. The film follows several of these clients from their initial measurement to their final suit fitting.
"I thought to myself, if we could get the audience to invest in these characters, and care about them, then showing [the fitting] would ultimately be incredibly powerful," Benjamin said.
By weaving their personal narratives into the film, Benjamin presents an insightful symbiotic relationship between the company and the clientele. Many of the clients are looking for a sharp suit they can wear for a special occasion, such as a wedding, an important interview or a Bar Mitzvah.
"People are coming there for their suits - in many cases that's celebratory on some level. I knew that there was an element of celebration baked into what we were doing," he explained.
Benjamin was also determined to go beyond gender identity in the subjects' intimate narratives.
"I didn't want to sensationalize the experience of being trans in any way. I realized after talking to the subjects that within 5 minutes I'd forget they were trans or what their gender identity was and just relate to them as people. And I wanted to somewhat convey that through the film. The gender processing takes about 30 seconds," Benjamin added. "You ask what's your preferred pronoun and how do you identify. Then that's it, you're done, you're off to what are you doing for work nowadays, or are you married. All those other questions that we want to know as people became so much more important than what their gender identity was."
Although Suited is more focused on personalities than issues, Benjamin is aware of how the film could open up the national conversation and promote further understanding of the trans community through the universal act of choosing what to wear in the morning.
"One of the areas of where we can find a common experience with people who have different gender identities is through getting dressed. We're closer to each other there more than anything else maybe."
When asked what the most memorable feedback Benjamin has received since the film premiered this January at Sundance, he paused a moment to reflect.
"You know, the most touching thing that's happened to me at almost all of the screenings is that, once the Q&A is over and the audience is shuffling out, there would be one person who seems to fit into a certain category - maybe they're 17-21, and they don't have anything to say, but they're crying, and they're just kind of overwhelmed with emotion," Benjamin said. "Maybe they're on some sort of gender journey of their own, and in some way I feel as though the film has reached them [in a way] they're not able to articulate or communicate about, and that to me has been the most touching and powerful thing."
The process of making the film further informed Benjamin's outlook on gender, as well, reinforcing the idea that at the core, we're all humans that deserve to be treated with respect.
"Gender as a binary, with male on one side and female on the other, is a very limiting way to look at gender. If we see it as a spectrum, and all of us having a distinct place between those two elements, I think it's more helpful to all of us as people."
Suited airs Monday, June 20, at 9 p.m. on HBO.