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Ella Boucht Saint Martins Jesse Glazzard butch fashion 5
Photography Jesse Glazzard

Ella Boucht is carving out a space for butch, queer womxn in fashion

The Dazed 100 designer is intent on bringing lesbian representation to the runway and beyond

Take a cursory glance through fashion’s vast history and you’ll immediately see that the most prolific designers have been gay men. Holding the reins at countless houses, or doing things on their own terms, queer men dominate the scene, while visible queer women, for the most part, are few and far between. Where are all the lesbian designers? The butch style icons? Where, exactly, are all the queer wxmen in fashion? 

On a mission to bring more lesbian representation to fashion is Finnish designer and CSM grad Ella Boucht, whose final collection mines queer history and draws inspiration from the women and non-binary people who’ve been forgotten, ignored, and erased. Drawing on queer texts by writer and poet Audre Lorde and Jack Halberstam to craft their deeply personal offering, often overlooked stories and histories from Boucht’s community are woven through each garment. 

The result is a tender reflection on how butch lesbian fashion has evolved up until today, with Boucht concentrating their energy on tailoring because “it’s a very historical way of crossdressing and butch style”. At CSM their decision to develop menswear patterns to create womenswear bemused tutors used to thinking within the binary – made up of oversized tailored jackets hung loosely over skin-tight cropped-tops, braces, and harnesses, the collection as a whole is centred firmly within the queer femxle gaze. 

“Drawing on queer texts by writer and poet Audre Lord and Jack Halberstam to craft their deeply personal offering, often overlooked stories and histories from Boucht’s community are woven through each garment”

Capturing the collection in a new editorial is fellow Dazed 100-er Heather Glazzard, who shot the looks on an all-queer cast who walked for Boucht at CSM’s MA fashion show back in February and include dance-pop duo Nimmo. Shooting in one of the model’s homes to place the collection within a natural, everyday context, the images convey an intimate, laidback side of female masculinity. 

With Boucht leaving Saint Martins behind this summer, their plans for representation extend far beyond just fashion. As one of this year’s Dazed 100, the designer was asked to put forward a creative proposal, with Boucht aiming to continue spotlighting and promoting the queer community through an online platform showcasing their work. According to Boucht, the project would encompass “film, photography, and writing, and address the importance of archiving and spreading LGBTQIA+ history”. 

Here, we speak to Boucht about their work, researching a hidden history, and improving representations of “butches, dykes, female masculine, and non-binary people” in fashion.

You had such a rich and referential research process behind your graduate collection. Were there any particular icons or stories that stood out to you during your research?

Ella Boucht: It’s hard to find queer history about women and non-binary people. It’s mostly about gay men and the gay male. That was something I got a bit frustrated with because it was hard to find style icons or find out how people used to dress because it’s a topic that has been erased so much. Even inside the lesbian communities back in the 70s they usually had to burn stuff down because they were trying to keep it under the radar. I couldn’t just go to one library. I had to delve into the secret world of the internet, go to bookstores, go to exhibitions, talk to friends, and find old research papers.

I went to see Shakedown, a documentary about an underground lesbian nightclub and strip club, at Lesbiennale in Dalston and it was amazing, the whole atmosphere of being surrounded by likeminded people. There are not as many places like that anymore where you can gather so I feel like watching that film in a crowd like that was also very empowering. That was a big part of the mood and the vibe of the collection.

Were there any other challenges that arose in executing your vision for the collection?

Ella Boucht: One thing was that I decided to come from a tailoring base, and I was working with all the models from the beginning. Some of them are my friends. Some are friends’ friends, and some are just from the community. I was working with them from the start, so I developed the looks to tailor them to each person. It was definitely a challenge to work that way because I haven’t gone to a tailoring school before. I’ve had an interest in tailoring and I've always been doing a lot of the technical work, but it was definitely tricky to find my way of working with tailoring.

While working on the collection, I started the old school way and calling it womenswear, then it went over to taking the basis of how menswear is built. It was always a bit tricky to talk about it with my tutors because some of them were like, ‘oh, it’s a womenswear collection’ and some were very strict that it was a menswear collection. I thought that was a bit annoying sometimes. There’s this old school way of thinking about fashion. You're not allowed to work with gender fluidity or think about gender from a different perspective. Clothes that are built for a female body are often quite fitted so it comes back to the construction. When you start constructing a garment you choose if it’s a menswear pattern or whether it’s a womenswear pattern.

“It’s hard to find queer history about women and non-binary people. It’s mostly about gay men and the gay male. That was something I got a bit frustrated with because it was hard to find style icons or find out how people used to dress because it’s a topic that has been erased so much” – Ella Boucht

Are the clothes you design a reflection of your own personal style? Is it how you wish you dressed or are you not related to it in that way?

Ella Boucht: I would say definitely I'm related to it. I very often wear waistcoats, trousers, and suits, but what I wanted to do with the collection was also bring in all the colours and the prints. I've been frustrated that it's so hard to find a printed suit or a coloured suit that is also a menswear suit. It’s pretty much impossible to find. I often find clothes secondhand and I go to vintage shops. Once I went into a shop and I asked a woman if she would ever get a yellow coloured suit in and she just laughed at me and she was like, ‘How can you even ask me such a stupid question? Obviously, a man would never wear a yellow suit’, and I was like, ‘Well, yeah, but I would!’ It draws back to history and how menswear suits have always come in very basic colours so that's why I wanted to use bold colours and play around with what genderless suiting could look like.

We’ve been seeing more queer representation on the runway and in front of the lens in recent years, but it still feels lacking behind-the-scenes – particularly when it comes to queer womxn. What do you think the fashion industry can do to become more inclusive, not just in terms of what we see but the people who are making the images?

Ella Boucht: It’s quite rare that you see a whole queer team behind a photoshoot. You can definitely see the difference. When it’s a queer team it’s a meeting of minds and coming from an authentic perspective and there’s interest in building up our community. It’s not the same when it's a brand who just casts a skinny body that is somehow potentially queer. I'm hoping that brands will become more open and perceptive, hiring people from queer communities and people with queer perspectives. 

The fashion industry is still, like, you have to have an MA or you have to have a BA. The thing that’s a bit sad is that our industry is so built on these old rules of how things should work and there are so many amazing, creative people who will never have the opportunity to study at school. It's hard for them to get a job because they don't have the background that they supposedly need. That's why I also feel that the fashion industry is lacking in these voices because these voices never even have the opportunity. I'm hoping that there will be bigger possibilities in the future to hire people who come from different backgrounds.

Is that what you’d like to work towards with your Dazed 100 idea?

Ella Boucht: I’d like to build this community online for other queers and young queers with different identities and voices but also for other people to see who these people are and their power in creation and then potentially collaborate with each other. It would just be this community where people can interact with each other as well as with people from outside. 

So many people felt really seen and heard by your collection. Has fashion always been about more than just clothing for you? 

Ella Boucht: I’ve always been a feminist and an activist and had these interests outside of fashion. I used to go to theatre school and that was all about the performance and dressing up and how you identify, so for me it’s always been interlaced. It’s about the clothes and the technicality and the design and who you’re designing for and why and where it comes from. I would not be able to do fashion without people. Ever. I’m really, really happy as well that it got so well received because those were the people that I had in mind throughout the collection.

Fashion can sometimes become a bit too shallow to me if it’s just about the clothes. I want to keep working with the community and combining these things and maybe at some point trying to build a studio which would be accessible to all people and build these things together.

Butch and lesbian fashion is often the subject of disdain. If someone says ‘you look like a lesbian’ it's often meant as an insult. Do you want to change and reclaim that as something positive and powerful through your work?

Ella Boucht: Sometimes I have a hard time identifying with the word lesbian. Dyke can be easier. I really like these words and I love that there are these words to identify with so I definitely would like to see a positive change of using them. I want contemporary queer and lesbian people to also find new ways of dressing that don’t have to be in these terms and find their own ways of identifying. I'm curious to see if there's gonna be a big change in what lesbian style looks like.