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Gogo Graham vs Serena Jara
Gogo Graham vs Serena JaraPhotography Serena Jara

The trans-only girl gang about to slay fashion week

Ahead of Gogo Graham’s SS16 show today at the Ace Hotel, the designer goes head to head with photographer and muse Serena Jara on creating clothes for girls like them

It’s a rare thing to find a muse, collaborator and model all in one, but trans fashion designer Gogo Graham found such a creative soulmate in photographer Serena Jara. Together, the New York based duo make work fuelled by a common desire to push the notion that trans women must establish their own unique voice, style and point of view – and that doesn’t mean playing by the rules or embracing the fashion system. For Graham, there’s a healthy disinterest in making money from selling the clothes she creates: her designs are one-of-a kind-ensembles, put together solely for the purpose of dressing up her trans girl squad to be photographed and for their most vibrant moments living in the city.

From outfits made for going out dancing at the club and having late night picnics together to hanging out at Rockaway beach, her so called fashion “collections” are less about designing looks than helping her friends construct their own styles and identities. The materials for her clothes are all repurposed finds – often random scraps of refuse fabric found in the garment district in midtown Manhattan where Graham works – transformed spur of the moment into shiny new wardrobe fixtures for the girls.

Jara takes portraits and shoots Graham’s collections in order to document and share these intimate moments with the world. She says these “trans-femme collaborations” are driven by questions of agency, and that creating these images are an act of reclaiming the representation of trans women back for themselves. Jara and Graham’s latest collaboration is a beach collection and lookbook for Resort 2016 in which each outfit is modelled, directed and self-shot by a different trans girl in order to embody themselves, through the filter of Graham’s clothes and Jara’s lens. When we get the two together for a conversation ahead of the label’s New York Fashion Week show, Gogo is wearing a vintage denim skirt borrowed from Serena’s mom – the day before, they’ve been shooting ‘B-sides’ in Gogo’s apartment, unseen “hidden gems” modelled by them both here.  

Is there any pressure from creating clothes in the name of trans fashion?

Gogo Graham: I don’t sell my stuff, so that automatically takes me out of any kind of market and it also means I’m not competing with anyone. Since I’m calling it ‘fashion’ I’m getting contacted by interested fashion people, but I don’t think that what I’m doing after the collection is made and shot actually justifies the title of “fashion” because I can’t reproduce anything.

But you have interest. Do people come up to you and say I really want to buy that?

Gogo Graham: Yeah they do and I’m like, ‘Send me your measurements and if you fit the sample then yeah, sure.’ I don’t like to hold on to objects or material things and will completely move on to the next project. In the end, the aim is to have this beautiful image of the subject, and about the context of how that image came to be. It’s about the girls who worked on it and the girls that are in it. I feel like you can really see that whenever you look at Serena’s photos.

Serena Jara: A big part of it is being able to wear the clothes out and really just be living in them – getting into going to a party wearing something my friend made, that’s so exciting to me. It’s such a fun experience when people ask, ‘What IS THAT?!’ Then to be able to point to wherever you are and say, ‘SHE did it,’ that’s the coolest, telling people that you made my outfit. I don’t claim to know a lot about clothes – but when I looked at Gogo’s clothes for the first time, I could really feel the ideas and work that went into them and when I wore them, I definitely saw myself in a different way.

“If all I had was a cardboard box then I would start thinking, ‘How can this cardboard box be used to make this trans-girl look hot?’. Having only what you’ve got forces you to be creative.” – Gogo Graham

Do you think that it would take away from the fun of making these clothes if you were trying to sell it or “make it happen?”

Gogo Graham: It gets really tricky because I always wonder if I would be able to do things like this if I didn’t have any money. Am I always going to be able to find a way to make these collections? Is this eventually going to change into something else?

Serena Jara: I’ve watched you make some of the clothes and pieces on incredibly low budgets. You’ve mentioned before that being on a budget makes things difficult in a million ways and in other ways it keeps you creative. I enjoy working on a low budget if I have access to what I need, but I feel like it’s very different for what you do…

Gogo Graham: If I had a giant budget, then I would have that much more in terms of possibilities – and that is really stressful. If all I had was a cardboard box then I would start thinking, ’How can this cardboard box be used to make this trans-girl look hot?’ I am able to pull fabrics out of the trashcan and use them transforming garbage and refuse into clothes. Having only what you’ve got forces you to be creative.

Serena Jara: I think so too. You can see it in the way the your garments are re-purposed or altered from something that already exists – like that nightie shirt that I have – that blue thing with the butterfly that says “Open your heart.” It’s a nightie I found at Fat Albert’s Warehouse by the Myrtle J M stop. You just took it and made it into a slutty little thing!

Gogo Graham: You just revealed me as not actually making a ton of my own clothes! What I do is take things, destroy them and put them back together in something that’s...cuter.

Serena Jara: ...sluttier.

What else do you like to do, besides do shoots together?

Gogo Graham: We eat a lot together. Sometimes we sit out on my roof and smoke weed, then we go dancing. I feel like a lot of the time we are just out getting slutty together...

Serena Jara: Getting dressed up and acting lessie, playing the role of lessie, assuming the archetype of trans-lesbians because it’s fun. I like to go to Dagger at Spectrum.

Gogo Graham: It’s their girls’ night. I’m all in for female validation at parties, and girl DJ’s, girl hosts, girl everything! I like to go in a big pack of trans girls whenever I can. I always feel really safe and high energy and then I feel like I don’t have to wear a trench coat.

Serena Jara: You can just go in your underwear, whatever! If you are in a big group, it doesn’t matter how you’re dressed. Girls gotta stick together. All types of girls can learn a lot from each other, and we’re just trying to support each other. It’s pretty idealistic to always be like: girls, girls and girls but I think women have the power to think of things in a way that isn’t hierarchal or competitive. I’ve always felt at odds with that kind of masculine competitiveness, so breaking free of it has been this great thing.

Gogo Graham: For me it was about surrounding myself with people who were good for me.

Serena Jara: It is crucial, especially in this city. You have to be so critical of the people you are close with, because it’s important that you feel good about the energy they are bringing.

“Girls gotta stick together. All types of girls can learn a lot from each other, and we’re just trying to support each other” – Serena Jara

Who would you love to put the clothes on and who would you like to shoot?

Gogo Graham: I really like Wendy Carlos, the iconic trans woman who composed the score for A Clockwork Orange. I want every trans-girl to wear my clothes. Every trans girl is iconic.

Serena Jara: I love working with Gogo because I feel like it’s always going to be working on a set with new girls and hanging out with them. There are tons of trans women out there to work with who are aspirational.

Gogo Graham: I feel like all these girls feel the same way too, like we should be working together! Existing as a trans woman is enough of an achievement, but working together in a way that is uplifting and also not needing to work with people who are not trans women, in order to show that we can produce really strong work with each other is so important. It’s everything that I want to be doing. 

What made you guys decide to do a fashion show at NYFW this season?  What’s can we expect at your SS16 show?

Gogo: A show seemed like the appropriate next step for us after the Resort 16 project. It's bigger and better – expect to see powerful trans bodies to be in your face and to be bombarded with powerful trans sound! Serena and Julian Huxtable are working on the music, Jessica Greene and Daniel Abbott are producing the show, there’s a beautiful painting by Glossy, Kaidon Ho and Kelley McNutt, and then of course all of the beautiful, powerful models who are making the entire show happen. No one person is responsible and we've all worked hard for it! Fashion week in NYC is a big commercial event – that’s what it is – but there's room for a lot of people to see this great work come together. It's been a lot of me trying not to hang out and being sad because I'm actually too busy to play...but things will change after the show!

Serena: I'm collabing with Juliana on a soundtrack for the show. It's very trans feminine, sensual and abrasive. Our friend Aurel Haize Odogbo – the most outstanding young artist I know of right now – is involved as well; she’s contributed her voice to the mix. The show’s gonna be a very special moment for us, working together with so many multi-talented girls!