Film Review: ‘Suited’

Lena Dunham produces this upbeat doc on an under-exposed subject: the specific sartorial needs of the transgender community.

Three Suits Suited Sundance 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Bespoke clothing is an eye-opener for anyone of any gender persuasion: Only once you’ve worn a garment tailored specifically for your form do you realize how comparatively ill-fitting your regular store-bought wardrobe is. For transgender people, however, the upgrade is not just a luxury, but an affirmation of identity — a release from the unwelcoming cisgendered conventions of retail clothing. This little-considered niche takes center catwalk in “Suited,” Jason Benjamin’s short, sunnily illuminating profile of the Brooklyn-based tailoring outfit Bindle & Keep, which has cornered the market in suitmaking for those outside the gender binary. Slickly upbeat as it guides six contrasting clients through the measuring and fitting process, frosh helmer Benjamin’s film nonetheless gleans enough pointed personal testimonies along the way to add human weight to its makeover-TV format. The name presence of producer Lena Dunham, whose own sibling is among the subjects, will aid HBO’s promotion when the doc airs in June.

“This is not fashion any more,” we’re told at the outset of “Suited,” following a spinning, fast-cutting introductory montage of fashion-shoot imagery — not the first time the entrepreneurs at the doc’s center distance themselves from the F-word, as if it trivializes the unusual human interest of their business. One wonders why transgender chic — for Bindle & Keep’s crisply cut cool-wool ensembles are certainly that — need be disassociated from definitions of the fashion industry, but that’s a minor query for a wholly commendable enterprise. The business was founded in 2011 by Daniel Friedman, a straight cis former architect who turned to tailoring with the initial intent of milking Wall Street wolves for thousands of dollars; Friedman’s approach was redirected the following year by transmasculine Rae Tutera, who joined as an apprentice before persuading him of the commercial potential in a high-end couturier for the trans and genderqueer community.

Since then, the company has grown even larger than the doc implies: It now employs a team of tailors in the Big Apple and Washington, D.C., to serve a countrywide client base, though Benjamin focuses warmly on Friedman and Tutera’s odd-couple alliance. Each of the pic’s case studies is introduced via the website appointment form that brings them to Bindle & Keep in the first place, outlining their essential dilemma in a section headed “The More We Know.” It’s a tidy structural device that suggests how the premise could stretch to a lifestyle TV series; Bob Richman’s lensing and Owen Pallett’s ambient-to-chipper scoring are almost advertorially glossy.

First up, most engagingly, is Derek Matteson, an Appalachian-born transgender male nurse seeking a sharp-fitting wedding suit for his impending nuptials to fiancee Joanna: His is the narrative in which the film most extensively invests, following not just the wedding preparations, but a medical procedure important to his personal self-realization as a man. Supportive testimonies from Matteson’s notionally straight-laced family account for much of the film’s most heart-melting material. Climbing a rockier path in terms of acceptance is Everett Arthur, an African-American law student from Atlanta facing both parental and professional discrimination for his decision to live as a man; a courtroom-ready suit, however, proves a vital symbolic accessory in asserting his gender to potential employers in a conservative realm.

Less well developed — unsurprisingly, given the doc’s slim-cut 77-minute runtime — are the arcs of four other customers. They include gender-nonconforming cabbie Melissa Plaut, who wants to see out her 40th birthday party in pinstriped style; transgender adolescent Aidan Star Jones, who wants suitably masculine attire for his upcoming (and domestically contentious) bar mitzvah; and attorney Jillian T. Weiss, seeking sartorial confidence as she prepares to fight for transgender rights in federal court. (Details of her thematically apt case are scant, perhaps for legal reasons.) Most sketchily featured, meanwhile, is the story of Dunham’s younger sibling Grace — not introduced by surname, though some viewers may recall her from “Tiny Furniture” — who is pursuing a purely androgynous identity and, to that end, wishes for a “dark wool suit … to run around in.” Perhaps for fear of inviting critical charges of nepotism, the film doesn’t delve much deeper than that; with scarcely enough time to braid the remaining five stories, Dunham’s seems at once intriguing and extraneous.

Also shortchanged, given the film’s unflappably snappy pacing, is any insight into the tailors’ own art and craft. Sartorially inclined viewers will be left curious to know more about the whys and hows of the suits’ unique shaping and construction, though such detail apparently runs counter to Friedman and Tutera’s assertion that theirs is a business of people, not fashion. (A late-film interlude covering a catwalk showcase for the duo’s designs, however, is less strictly on-message.) At its heart, “Suited” is a compassionate study of personal transformation from the inside out, not the outside in; the clothes here don’t make the man, or woman, or nonconforming person, but rather perfect and present what has already been made.

Film Review: ‘Suited’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 27, 2016. Running time: <strong>77 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Documentary) A HBO Documentary Films presentation of a Casual Romance production in association with Loveless. Produced by Lena Dunham, Jenni Konner, Ericka Naegle, Stacey Reiss, Carly Hugo, Jason Benjamin. Executive producer, Sheila Nevins.
  • Crew: Directed by Jason Benjamin. Camera (color, HD), Bob Richman; editor, M. Watanabe Milmore; music, Owen Pallett; music supervisors, Manish Raval, Jonathan Leahy, Tom Wolfe; sound, Austin Plocher; supervising sound editor, Chris Bertolotti; re-recording mixer, Bertolotti; associate producer, Alexandra Pitz.
  • With: Rae Tutera, Daniel Friedman, Derek Matteson, Everett Arthur, Melissa Plaut, Aidan Star Jones, Grace Dunham, Jillian T. Weiss, William Barter, Frankie Edwards, Judith Shepard Gomez, Tim Holbrook, Bob "Papa" Jones, Mimi Lester, Joanna Matteson, Erma Matteson, Daniel Matteson, Debra Matteson.