‘It doesn’t feel good to use a product that isn’t designed for you’: Interview with designer Carmen Liu
Image credit: Shane Sinclair
Carmen Liu has launched the world’s first lingerie brand for transgender women. Ahead of the launch, she spoke to E&T about the challenge of creating a product that simply did not exist before, and her hope that other communities will take the lead in designing products for their needs.
Liu began her own transition four years ago, and quickly found that even something as simple as finding everyday underwear was no longer a straightforward experience.
Most pre-operative (pre-op) trans women conceal their genitals by tucking them between their legs, allowing for a smooth silhouette, even beneath tight clothing. This can be achieved with a piece of specialist shapewear known as the ‘gaff’, which securely tucks the genitals within the garment itself.
According to Liu, there is just one gaff manufacturer, which constructs the item from swimwear fabric and industrial elastic, then slaps a luxury lingerie price tag on the product: “You’re left with one product in the entire world, so it’s not a great start,” said Liu. “You have a brick wall put up in front of you at the very start of the transition, you think, gosh, how many of these are there going to be?”
“But that’s all we had available, so we made do with it. Or people made their own “contraptions”, that’s one way to put it,” she added.
Women who do not wear the gaff instead feel forced to use industrial tape, medical tape, or plasters to tuck – in some cases even resorting to using gaffer tape for the sake of security – Liu recounted a “not great day” in which she discovered in the most unfortunate way possible that she was allergic to plaster rolls.
Two years ago, Liu – feeling that putting on underwear should not be a miserable experience – decided to help patch the problem by starting her own company. She began sketching designs, and taking them to a sample house to be turned into test garments; she was her own guinea pig, testing 30-40 iterations until she was satisfied that the garment offered as much flattening as possible while remaining comfortable.
Carmen Liu Lingerie underwear functions similarly to the gaff (allowing the genitals to be tucked within the garment) while also looking like mainstream lingerie: the knickers are made with satin and lace, and lined with cotton.
Liu believes that the design process was strongly informed by her own experiences, which put her in a position to understand exactly what the product needed to do: “It could only come from someone who has also experienced it, who has gone through the hurt and the pain and the frustration,” she said. “There have been a lot of brick walls from people who didn’t want to work or talk with me because of the nature of the business or because of who I am.”
The brand was launched at an event in London in February, featuring a catwalk populated entirely by trans models. As well as underwear, the range includes the first tucking tape designed for trans women; the breathable cotton-mix tape is flexible enough to be comfortable, and wide enough not to require a mass of sticking strips (which makes something as basic as going to the bathroom an ordeal).
The brand has been an immediate success: Carmen Liu Lingerie sold out its entire supply of lingerie in two days before the launch to women all across the world. Liu admitted that the messages she received expressing relief and thanks made her cry. She is now working on developing other products which can help trans women “stop getting unpleasant reminders of their previous lives”.
Liu acknowledged that there is a broader problem in that products are frequently designed by small groups of people with a limited idea of what other people want and need. The efforts of extremely affluent American men working in Silicon Valley to design “life-improving” products and services – such as the much-derided $400 (£310) Juicero device, which squeezes expensive pre-chopped packs of fruit into juice – have come under increasing criticism for their irrelevance to people outside their small pool of experience.
Liu hopes that other groups of people with different needs will take the lead in designing inclusive products, informed by their own experiences: “This needs to be followed up all across other communities and people who are going through issues where they need specific products. I just hope there’s an effect here where perhaps somebody has found a lack of products [for unmet needs] and maybe they’ll start something,” she said. “Everyone deserves to live a happy life and a comfortable life as well.”
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.