Picking out an outfit for the day can be a highlight, a dreaded ritual, or a dealt-with-and-forgotten routine. Whatever one's relationship with clothes, however, that morning decision is a necessity. And perhaps the last thing on anyone's mind when choosing their clothes for the day is the fit of their underwear — or at least that's what London-based clothing designer Carmen Liu felt should be the case.
She is the founder of the GI Collection, a first-of-its-kind line of lingerie for transgender women that ships around the world and is designed specifically to aid in the process of concealing one's genitals. As a transgender woman herself, she told BTL via phone that it was a priority to make the process as hassle-free and as stylish as possible.
"I mean, for me, it's just nice to wake up in the morning and just put them on; I don't have to think about anything anymore, you know? So, a lot of the time I wouldn't buy certain clothes because I'd be worried that maybe the tuck wouldn't hold in," she said. "Whereas now, I just wake up and put my underwear on and that's it."
Creating the Perfect Design
But it wasn't always so simple. Before she created her own line of lingerie, Liu said she struggled for a long time with using solutions like gaff underwear that wasn't made out of comfortable material and often made her self-conscious. It did, however, provide a great template for what not to do in her design.
"Wearing transgender gaff previously for just over two years, you sort of know what is wrong with it and what you would have to do to make it better," she said. "And because when you're wearing it and you can feel the pain and things like that, you start to think of, 'How would I improve it?' And, 'What needs changing to make it more comfortable and more sexy?'"
Eventually, those thoughts culminated into a full-time project that kicked off in July of 2018 when Liu decided to create a solution to the issue. She got the help of an investor, started creating drawings, buying fabric and testing out various shapes and designs she had from existing pairs of underwear that she already owned.
"We had around 20 different designs originally that we were testing with different fabrics, different widths, different stretches and things like this until we managed to get the final piece," she said.
Eventually, those designs resulted in a fully functional pair of panties that became the debut product for the GI Collection. And it was barely half a year before they debuted in a runway show and, subsequently, to the rest of the fashion world.
"So, it's a very quick turnaround from July to January for a brand-new product that is launching, and I was working very long hours at the beginning, some days it was like 20 hours a day."
But those long hours paid off, and now, just over a year since the company's official debut, GI Collection is rolling out new styles like the Girl Flower Collection, a "100 percent first in the world" underwear designed especially for transgender children and plans for a new panty design.
"There's a physics behind how our panties work and hold everything in and the new design isn't the same as these [original] panties, it's actually a different style," Liu said. "And it has in fact worked sooner than I thought it would, which I know will be [good] for a lot of the women, because a lot of the women have requested that. And we do have a new bra product releasing."
For cisgender people, a lingerie brand like this one might seem unnecessary with the advent of medical procedures like the vaginoplasty and orchiectomy, but statistics tell a different story. In the National Center for Transgender Equality's 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, of the more than 9,000 transgender women surveyed only 10 percent had undergone a vaginoplasty and/or labiaplasty and 9 percent had an orchiectomy. Those low numbers reflect the fact that many transgender people have difficulties accessing general health care, let alone surgical procedures that may or may not be covered by various insurance plans.
Of the almost 28,000 transgender people surveyed in this study total, a quarter of respondents said that they had experienced a problem with their insurance relating directly to them being transgender, 55 percent had been denied coverage for transition-related surgery in the past year and one third reported a negative experience related to their gender identity at a health care provider.
This lack of access and other barriers, like the fact that one-third of respondents live in poverty, make products like Liu's a much more viable option for most transgender women who have not yet had bottom surgery or have chosen to forgo it altogether. Liu said that GI Collection gets messages daily from women who are able to use her products and feel more comfortable in their own skin.
"Two days ago a woman had said how much it's changed her life just having the lingerie," Liu told BTL. "So I know it's helping everyone and doing what I want it to do."
Discreet Delivery and Other Services
Liu's company goes beyond making transgender-specific clothing. She said that they take extra steps to ensure that customers are fully satisfied with the labeling on their packages.
"For me, it was important that the name of the company didn't have the word 'trans' in it, because a lot of companies out there [do]," Liu said. "And, for me, I don't like that because, for example, when I go to my clinic here, it has the title 'trans' in it and in the taxi on the way back it'll say that on the [driver's] screen that that's where you're going."
That's where the "GI" in the name, which stands for "get it," was born.
"I did spend a very long time trying to get the correct name and I just thought it was important; the main reason for the company being created is so that women can get the things they want and the things they need," Liu said. "I do just want trans women like myself to get there and it doesn't matter if it's a job, just going out for dinner — anything they want, I want to make sure they can get it. That's the whole story behind me calling it GI. I just thought it was an empowering name."
That concept of empowerment goes hand-in-hand with some of GI's other offerings, too. The business has provided a variety of workshops in the London area to help transgender women from around the country learn how to style their hair, makeup, nails and clothes.
"When you're transitioning you have so many things that you have to do and figure out living as the opposite gender. You've got to figure out how women's clothing works, how to do makeup, how to do hair, how to act as a woman and mannerisms, and then you have to figure out how you change your name, how to get onto hormones, how to get surgery and all these things," she said. "It was important to create these types of events where we could help other trans women with a few elements of their transition."
And for those not in the London area, GI offers their free Phone a Friend service that allows customers to reach out to staff and talk about anything on their mind "via phone, text, email, Skype or in person."
"Anything from celebrating getting your first job as your true self or how to change your gender on your legal documents. We must stress that this isn't counseling or any sort of therapy. We're not medical professionals," the website reads. "We just know that it's helpful to chat to someone that understands you on a regular basis. Even if you only chat to us once, we know it makes a huge difference to know that if you ever need someone to talk to, you can always talk to us."
Liu said that she's eager to share similar workshops and services with her American customers, too.
"I do love helping trans women with their journeys," Liu said. "And it's especially nice for me to hear from them because I've learned things from them, too, which helped me. It's nice to know that I'm not alone as well. I'd love to do it and I can't wait to get it to America."