‘Haute Butch’ is an up-and-coming fashion line developed by Napa Valley designer Karen Roberts. It caters to women and who prefer a masculine edge to their clothes, but have trouble with the fit of men’s clothing.
Roberts, who studied fashion merchandising before enlisting in the U.S. Navy, had always found herself disappointed with the sartorial choices available for butch women. “I knew I was really good at what I did but what I wore really ate away at my confidence,” the 52-year-old said.
During the time that she worked in real estate, she would often dress herself in rolled-up men’s blazers, rolled-up slacks, and a rolled-up dress shirt. Everything she wore just felt awkward and wrong when compared with her female colleagues’ chic business casual attire.
“I realised I avoided or didn’t attend a lot of things throughout my life – anywhere I really had to look like a girly girl – I didn’t go,” she admitted. “That’s why I always chose entrepreneur roles, too, because then I could dress how I wanted to.”
“Men’s clothing is not made for women,” she explained. “The sleeves are too long, the shoulders too broad, and the collar circumference is too wide. Additionally, the length of the shirts is too long and the garments don’t account for breasts or the rounded hips of the female form.”
So Roberts decided to put her brief stint with fashion to good use – she began developing ideas for a clothing line of her own that would perfectly serve women like herself. She drew inspiration from the women and men she’d met in the Bay Area’s LGBTQ scene, and from designers like Phillip Lim, Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood and Rick Owens.
Before long, she had designed an entire range of men’s clothing suited for a woman’s body – including dress shirts, vests, boxer underwear, sports shirts, outerwear and skinny ties. The kind of response Roberts received for her work was very encouraging. “The community was really pulling at me, saying, ‘Come on, we need this. Someone’s got to do it,’” she recalled. “And before I knew it, I wasn’t doing real estate anymore.”
With a $20,000 loan from a friend, and some money of her own, Roberts managed to get a full line up and running in 2013. And when that first line was released, letters of appreciation came pouring in from all over the world – Australia, the UK, and Africa. Roberts said she likes to share a collaborative relationship with her clients: “we look to the community to let us know what they like and what they need.”
“Haute Butch is an alternative for individuals seeking design-driven, fashion-forward attire that evokes a certain confidence,” she said. “I would say that our clothes and shoes appeal mostly to women who identify with concepts such as butch, stud, tomboy, and androgynous. However, many of our customers are trans men, and we take their bodies into account while editing our prototypes to be as inclusive as possible.”
Roberts and her small team are now gearing up to launch their next full production line, and they’re funding it through Kickstarter. The new line of dress shirts, jackets and underwear will be unveiled early next spring – with a twill-faux suede biker style jacket, paisley suspenders, and two-tone hi-tops. According to Roberts, these ‘subtle and classic’ designs will appeal to a range of women – from ‘soft butch’ to those who are into ‘heavy menswear’.
What Roberts says she’s essentially trying to do is blur the lines – she doesn’t believe in a ‘Men’s Section’ and ‘Women’s Section’ kind of world because she says there isn’t much space allotted for what lies in between. “I don’t have any interest in keeping the separatism going,” she said. “Many of our customers are straight women, and even some straight men wear items from Haute Butch. We don’t wish to exclude anyone from our line. If it fits your style and personality, we embrace you.”
Although she sells most of her creations online, her dream is to someday see her clothes sold in brick-and-mortar retail outlets. “My gut says they don’t know how to hang us yet; that has to be defined first so we can be mainstream.” Ideally, she’d like stores to have a unisex section where “nobody’s watching who’s going there, asking, ‘Do you belong? What dressing room are you going to use? What lines are you crossing?’”
Interestingly, while Roberts started her fashion line because she couldn’t find anything good to wear, her own closet contains only one of her designs. That’s because her clothing keeps getting sold out too soon, and she’s been sacrificing her own wardrobe for her customers.
But she’s still hopeful: “My hope is to have a closet that only has the type of clothing I like in it – that fit me and that blend between masculine and feminine – and the rest of the stuff can go.”
Photos: Haute Butch