“A Shirt is a Shirt”: An Interview with Katie Cooper of Button Brigade

By Anna DiTucci-Cappiello

Button Brigade is the brainchild of Katie Cooper. With Button Brigade, she’s seeking to design button up shirts that are are gender-neutral, more size-inclusive, made in the U.S.A., and give back. Katie was kind enough to sit down with me and talk a bit about her mission, breaking into the fashion industry, and the trials that come with inclusivity.

 Photo by  Nate Packard

Photo by Nate Packard


Anna: I was just looking at your Kickstarter and it looks so cool! Do you have a background in fashion at all before starting Button Brigade?

Katie: No, not particularly. I am a freelance graphic designer, that’s my day job. The only kind of apparel experience I have had is working for a screenprinter. So different kind of apparel — not at all the same. That’s the only experience I’ve had in the fashion industry.

A: So Button Brigade came about in more of a “necessity is the mother of invention” kind of way, when you saw a need for something in the industry.

K: Yeah! It was more like seeing a need. I wear button ups all the time and I really struggle to find any that fit me, whether that was in the men’s or women’s department. So I decided to just make some that were actually more inclusive.

A: Totally agree with you there! Was it daunting to take on that idea? I can imagine there are quite a few hoops to jump through before seeing it really come to fruition.

K: For sure, I mean it’s definitely had its ups and downs. The fashion industry is very slow at getting things done, and it’s driven me up a wall. And it is a little daunting. But once I started making connections with people in the industry that were actually willing to help it became a lot easier, because they were willing to teach me and take the time to make sure I had things correctly and things like that. But there’s a lot of people who are like, “I’m doing my own thing, don’t ask me for help.”

A: Riffing off of that comes to my next question. You’re really seeking out to be as all inclusive as possible. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced while trying to accommodate all of those body types and sizes and gender presentations.

K: So, it’s really difficult. As you can imagine, there are a lot of different body shapes and sizes…small and large and the whole shebang. I think more than anything trying to be gender-inclusive and then size inclusive, which kind of go hand in hand — the shirt is very much inspired by menswear. So it’s taking a man’s shirt, because they have all the best things, and then accommodating it more for a "female" body, or just curves in general. But making it in such a way that (cis) men can still wear it, because it’s not the total extreme of a woman’s button up with the darts, cut in different ways and the fabric is usually different. So it’s kind of just a very good in-between, if you will.

 Photo by Nate Packard

Photo by Nate Packard

A: Another focus that I’ve noticed is that you’re working out of Memphis, trying to keep it as local as possible. How has where you’re from influenced your brand, if at all? Are you bringing some of Memphis to the world with these shirts, along with the message of inclusivity?

K: I’d like to think so. It’s been hard to work locally, the production side of things or the behind the curtain stuff. Most of the people I’m working with are in Chicago. So it’s been, as far as resources go, having things in Memphis is extremely limited. As far as finding a manufacturer, or finding a pattern maker was difficult. One person I met who does fabric sourcing out of Chicago had all of these connections in Chicago so it kind of just went from there. As far as Memphis goes, and I guess showing some of the community of Memphis, is through the models and our friends and people here and things like that. It’s not all local, per se. One thing I will say about being in Memphis is that it’s been hard bringing people together to fundraise — it is still kind of the Bible Belt and conservative in some aspects. There’s definitely been some hurdles to jump through. Gender neutral is still such a new concept for some people, even though it’s just another word for unisex. People have a hard time with that.

A: Right yeah, it’s just another word for unisex! I noticed you mentioned in another article, I believe in Teen Vogue, that it seems like a radical idea but a shirt is a shirt.

K: Yeah! A shirt is a shirt, it shouldn’t matter who’s wearing it. You know? It doesn’t need to be labelled as male or female — anyone can wear it. Even the term unisex, if you think about a unisex t shirt it’s honestly just a man’s t shirt. There are issues with that, of course, but it’s easier for people to wrap their minds around unisex rather than gender neutral. And on top of that, with us giving back to LGBTQ organizations it just like, “whoa! What are you doing?” [laughs] There’s a bit of a hurdle with that.

A: On the LGBTQ side of things, can you tell us a little about the organization you’re donating to? How did you choose OutMemphis?

K: The idea is to not just give to one organization, as time goes on it’s my goal to give to multiple organizations. I want to keep things to local community centers, to give locally and put them first. OutMemphis are the local LGBTQ community center, they have a ton of programs for trans services, LGBT youth. I want to give specific projects instead of giving to an organization and being like, “do with this what you please.” So I can kind of keep track of what’s actually happening and how that money’s being used. With OutMemphis, I want to give to their senior citizens program first. They have services and make calls for, like, seniors who can’t get out of the house. We’re still working out logistics for that. Longterm I’d like to switch that out for other local community centers that need a little extra help.

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A: That sounds great! So, what are you hoping the average person will be able to take away from seeing Button Brigade around or wearing one of the shirts?

K: I guess just creating more awareness around being gender inclusive. I’m really excited for people just having something — a shirt they can own that isn’t labelled. Especially for a person who’s gender non-conforming and forced to either shop in the men’s or women’s section. Giving them the confidence to be themselves and to express themselves the way they’d like to, I think, is probably the most important thing I would like people to take away. It doesn’t matter, and the end of the day it is just a shirt and it shouldn’t be labelled. That’s kind of where my focus is, and creating conversation around it especially with — I have a very conservative background. So, like, all of my outer circles probably are like “what the hell is she doing?” [laughs] But I think leading this conversation, and making gender neutral clothing more accessible and a real thing…yeah.

A: You had mentioned that you had done very different work in the industry with screen printing. What would you say you’ve learned from being at the helm of this project, either on the fashion or activism side of things?

K: You have to be extremely careful with how you choose your words, you would think the LGBTQ community or people who are into body positivity would be so supportive. People who are all about inclusivity, or in the queer community — when it comes to activism, you get a lot more criticism about not being perfect. Which was very surprising from my end of things. Because it is just me running a business. I think people assume I have a team behind me, so they can troll the internet and do whatever and think they’re not just talking to a person. So I have learned a lot about choosing my words carefully. I don’t know, the internet’s crazy. Like, learning things and figuring out the market and who my customers and consumers are. I learned a majority of them are poor, I mean statistically speaking. Those who are gender non conforming have a harder time finding work, you know it’s hard for them to even afford the product. Which has never been my intention, it’s just the price for what it is. That was one thing — how can I make this accessible without going bankrupt?

A: The internet is crazy. Have you seen mostly positive or negative feedback over the course of this project?

K: I would say the majority good. One negative comment and you’re like, "I don’t even know..."but the majority of the feedback has been good. I’ve gotten some constructive criticism, which is good. Anything negative has been people sitting around waiting for you to make a wrong move.

A: What does the future look like for Button Brigade? Either with aspiring next steps or things you already have on the horizon?

K: For sure, well, my focus has been on getting it funded and the first round of shirts done. Just getting funding has been extremely difficult. Dreaming, I would love to open up a storefront and offer different styles in the shirt. I’ve been playing around with doing a tall version, whether or not the budget allows right now. Or even go up in sizes, things like that are in the works. Trying not to think too far ahead when I don’t even have my product out yet, you know? But I would love to have a storefront.

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