When it comes to the trans and non-binary community, there has been little to no focus withinthe larger wellness and fashion industries on designing much-needed products catering to this target market. Actor and entrepreneur Chloe Freeman is non-binary, and someone who took notice of this deficit. Deciding to take matters into their own hands, in 2021 they launched For Them, a company aiming to redefine wellness for the queer community through a range of useful products.
Freeman's first mission at For Them was to scale an urgently-needed product for a wide variety of people: the chest binder. Freeman recalls initially finding inspiration to take on this challenge while shopping for their own binder, saying "the ones that were out there at the time were just super, super uncomfortable. You know, really itchy, really bad for the body too. Some were sort of reorganizing people's muscular structures, breaking people's ribs and bruising people, and a lot of my friends were struggling with that." And while the design of many undergarments for women leave much to be desired, it's difficult to imagine the larger undergarment industry getting away with designing bras that cause as much pain for its users as binders do.
Through clever research techniques and help from friends, For Them managed to develop what they are simply calling The Binder in a little over a year, and since launching in November there is already an 800+ waitlist of individuals excited to get one of their own. The pieces are made at a small factory in New York owned by women of color, the material is eco-friendly, products are incredibly size-inclusive, and even features rebranded sizing names in reaction to body image toxicity in the fashion industry. After gaining $2 million in pre-seed funding late last year, it's also a fascinating example of a product that might initially confuse venture capitalists, only to exceed sales expectations. Products like The Binder can certainly illuminate how many investors tend to overlook valuable target markets.
How to create a truly inclusive binder
So how did Freeman and their team create such an in-demand product? For one, Freeman discusses how settling on quality was never an option. They say, "I'm really proud of how resilient we've been through this process because we could have easily sent something out to market that was 70% or 80% good given there's not a lot of options. There's opportunity here for just sliding in a little bit above and saying it's marginally better, but we kept going until we found all of these nuanced things to address."
In order to create a flawless design, Freeman knew they ought to get a design expert on board. They were inspired to reach out to designer Rada Shadick after hearing about her development of a bra for ballet dancer Misty Copeland, which incidentally had a design quite similar to a chest binder. Freeman recalls speaking to a manufacturer who worked with Shadick, who said, "Copeland asked for a bra that would hold her breasts in place and sort of compress them, which you still need to be able to move and dance and breathe. And I was like, 'hey, this is very close to a binder. It's not exactly, but it's close.'" Shadick shortly after was on board. Rather than with a typical bra that is designed for lift, The Binder instead encourages downward compression that is still comfortable and safe. Freeman reminds us that when it comes to fit, "there's only a certain amount, if you have breasts, that you can be compressed, right? They're not going to disappear fully. And so I was like, what is that maximum point, and how do we hold it there?"
Shadick used some of her industry know-how not just to make a binder that was comfortable, but also a product that considered comfort at every size. For the binder, Shadick tackled sizing that accounts for different sizes and shapes. Freeman makes notes of the complexity of sizing by saying, "you may have a larger breasted person that has a smaller ribcage, or you might have a larger person that has a larger ribcage and smaller breasts—the nuance of that is quite difficult. For our binder, Rada has mapped the side panels so that the material falls across the chest and so it compresses in, but then it releases at the ribcage. As you go up sizes, the length of the binder changes and there are slight nuances as you go up and down. So we've paid really close attention to that."
How to conduct community-led product research
For Them's team also knew a crucial component to answer these questions was getting the larger community involved, and they did so in several ways. Research began on a personal level, "asking friends, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends, that all wore a binder, and I got other people to interview them so there was no bias," Freeman recollects. This word of mouth feedback soon evolved in a digital community, where the For Them team created an anonymous platform on Discord. Freeman says, "I think that anonymity is super powerful because it means people feel like they can speak freely. And when we ask them for feedback, or we ask them if they like The Binder, I really take it seriously when they say yes. Because they could easily say no, right? It's anonymous. People feel like they can speak openly and I really encourage that."
Since launching their Discord, they have also created product request channels that will inspire the next products they will tackle in their wellness line. Freeman and their team avidly follow users' feedback, and said they "collate all the product ideas and we throw them into a Notion, and we start to tally off day to day if more people are mentioning this or that. If something starts to get enough traction then I'll pose the question back to the community and say, 'Hey, I don't know who's struggling with hats,' or whatever it might be, right? And getting people's responses is always really interesting'".
Whatever it is For Them is up to, they ultimately understand their power is in how well they know their community and user. Freeman says, "the binder was a wedge product to give us the opportunity to speak really intimately with all of our customers. We realized this is a huge white space in the market, and what would be really cool and value additive is if we spoke to customers, ask them what they needed and made the products and services for them with that in mind." It's a simple and yet revolutionary thought all wrapped up in one—respect the user who intimately understands their own experience, and you'll end up with an amazing, high-in-demand product.
For Them is an excellent example of what design teams can accomplish when they tap into their core community, and a fresh reminder of how important the fight is to seat more trans and non-binary designers in prominent roles within the industry.