When Carmen Liu walks into any high street lingerie section, she’s met with rows upon rows of silk and lace garments – none of which she can buy.
Until recently, the only underwear option widely available to pre-op trans women wishing to “tuck” their genitals was a transgender gaff, which Liu describes as being “reminiscent of Borat’s mankini”. A gaff can be worn below underwear designed for cisgender women, but isn’t always comfortable, certainly doesn’t feel sexy and often shows underneath.
“Underwear is a basic need for everyone, it’s something that you put on every morning,” the London-based 27-year-old tells HuffPost UK. ”If you go into a shop on the high street and can’t buy products for you, you just feel really undesired and unaccepted.”
Exasperated by the situation, Liu decided to take matters into her own hands by launching Carmen Liu Lingerie – Britain’s first lingerie brand designed specifically for transgender women.
Available to buy online, Carmen Liu Lingerie is part of Liu’s wider GI Collection – an online shop and community helping trans women navigate the world of transitioning, from advice on changing your name to tips on where to buy beauty products.
“You’re in a vulnerable position when you transition and people do know this and unfortunately, they do take advantage of that,” says Liu, who says finding practical advice when she began transitioning four years ago was difficult. “So making these women aware of what their rights are, what is available to them and where they should buy their products so they’re not being extorted financially is the aim.”
With prices starting at £15.40, Liu’s underwear is designed to be “delicate, feminine and sexy” and gives women the freedom to tuck without wearing anything underneath. The brand also sells a new lingerie tape designed to be kind to skin when it peels off – a far cry from some of the painful alternatives.
Creating the products was a slow and challenging process for Liu, who does not have a background in fashion. She trained at the Royal Ballet School between the ages of 11 and 19, then worked as a professional dancer in Sweden, but was determined to design the products herself.
The process involved her sketching the designs with pen and paper, visiting a sampling house to buy fabrics and creating dozens of samples before getting it right (she tried each of the garments herself, joking that the results were “interesting”).
“Because I knew how much this was needed, I just had to figure it out,” she says. “I had to figure out how the whole lingerie industry works, what these different terms people would say meant. I would be googling phrases while I was on the phone to people thinking: what the fuck are they talking about?”
But trying on the first complete pair made the hard graft worth it, she says. “I got really emotional just to feel like a woman finally, just to be wearing something that was actually called ‘lingerie’ and to know how many women would be having that same feeling,” she says.
GI Collection is one of a growing number of trans-friendly fashion and beauty start-ups making life easier for people in the trans community. Brands such as US-based Rebirth Garments has made headlines for its inclusive swimwear and underwear, while UK-based Jecca Blac is revolutionising the world of make-up, with products such as a foundation that’s designed to cover beard stubble.
But Liu would like to see established, high end and high street brands doing more to make trans customers feel valued.
“They’ll put us on the runway to say that they’re inclusive, but then they’re not actually making any products that are specifically for trans women, because we do have specific needs when it comes to clothing,” she says. “We do sometimes have different bodies – the shape of our bodies doesn’t always work with cis female clothes – so it would be nice to see some brands go a bit further to help us.”
In time, Liu would like to see her products in the aisles of Britain’s most iconic department stores. “I think that’s very important for trans women to feel accepted. If they can go into any high street store and see the lingerie there, they’re going to feel that people do acknowledge them now – they don’t have to buy it online and feel all secretive about it,” she says.
Although trans representation is improving, she’s not resting on her laurels yet: “We’ve still go a long way to go to be seen and heard.”