Life + Business: Sonny Oram of Qwear

by Jeanna Kadlec

Sonny Oram of Qwear
You wouldn’t expect a classically trained viola player to end up as the editor-in-chief of an internationally acclaimed style blog. Or maybe you would. Dedication, precision and an unyielding commitment to making their vision a reality is something that both occupations have in common. And Sonny Oram, founder and editor-in-chief of Qwear, has those qualities in spades.

Sonny founded Qwear in 2011 as a voice for the most underrepresented in the LGBTQIA+ community. And under Sonny’s leadership, Qwear has evolved into an online community center: a safe haven for folks to talk, play around with fashion, see and be seen. Today, Qwear is a full-blown lifestyle brand, purposefully non-monetized and activist-oriented (more on that later). Sonny is a longtime supporter of LGBTQIA+ makers and small business owners, and I am excited to feature them in my first Design*Sponge interview. —Jeanna

How did you become interested in fashion? How did you develop an interest in “queering” fashion?

Anita Dolce Vita, dapperQ‘s owner, and I worked together on defining queer fashion: “Queer fashion is hypersensivity to society’s inflicted gender roles that is referenced and reinterpreted in the clothing we wear, and/or fashion that challenges the racial, ethnic, cultural, age, and size beauty norms set forth by the fashion industry.”

For me, fashion and queering fashion is one in the same. As a nonbinary trans person, my whole existence makes me an outlier in society, and as such I’m fortunate to view the world through a performance lens. I’ve had to play multiple roles as different genders, none of which fit. But it’s given me insight unique to nonbinary people.

I became interested in fashion when I started wearing traditional menswear as opposed to the clothing that was prescribed to me based on my birth-assigned sex. I felt amazingly like myself the first time I put on a guy’s button-up, and that’s what sparked my interest in fashion.

What inspired you to start Qwear?

I wanted a place to showcase all my new outfits as I grew into my identity and I thought that creating a community space would make it really special. I was frustrated with femme invisibility and I knew that if I gave myself visibility, I needed to provide the same platform to [all] femmes. The term “queer style” was so rarely used that I knew it was important to make sure we put out the message that it covers all ranges of the gender spectrum. There are still many people in the queer community who favor masculinity and view femme style as “less queer.” I believe this attitude is anti-feminist and I’m fighting this every day.

A look from Qwear's "Dismantle Me" collection at Queer Fashion Week. Model Alli by nyelyntho.

Image above: A look from Qwear’s “Dismantle Me” collection at Queer Fashion Week.

What have been some of your challenges in running an explicitly queer style blog?

When catering to an underserved community, it puts me in a very important role to make sure I’m giving everyone equal representation and equal voices. Sometimes it’s really hard to find photos and examples of styles worn on people of varying body types, and I’ll spend hours searching the Internet for good photos. But it’s good because it pushes me to remember my privilege and I’m reminded of how hard it is for folks of size to find decent clothing to wear. It makes me feel closer to my community.

Qwear is a passion project for you. What’s been the biggest sacrifice for you personally in running Qwear?

It doesn’t really feel like a sacrifice because I love it so much — my work with Qwear means the world to me! But I suppose if I look back, I’ve sacrificed a lot because I put Qwear first when I could have been developing my career in other ways. The four years I spent so much time writing, thinking, planning, traveling for Qwear could have been spent getting another degree or achieving my career goals much faster. Ultimately, I think I will have a great career because of what I’ve learned through Qwear, but it will just take a little longer than if career-building had been my sole focus.

Why have you made the choice to not incorporate Qwear or legalize it as a business? [Note: all of Qwear’s material is copyrighted and trademarked.]

I support the cost of the website itself through sponsorships and affiliate links. We want Qwear to be accessible to everyone in the queer community, the majority of whom are at a socioeconomic disadvantage. I want Qwear to be accessible to kids whose only access to queer resources is via the Internet. It’s really important for these kids to know that Qwear is for them without any strings attached.

My goal for Qwear is to raise voices that haven’t yet been given a platform and showcase styles people haven’t seen before. There are brands like Topman who want to tap into our market, but we also showcase many start-up brands that don’t have that advertising power. A lot of the people we feature wear clothing they thrifted, which is important because the queer community doesn’t have the same buying capabilities as their straight counterparts. To make money through Qwear would mean ignoring the segment of the community that is the most in need.

Can you name a moment of failure in Qwear’s journey?

I once edited something someone wrote for me before publishing it. I thought I was just clarifying his writing rather than changing the meaning, so I didn’t think he would mind. Turns out, I misinterpreted what he wrote and he got really angry. Now, unless we have an agreement, I’m careful to always run my changes by everyone. You never know what one little change might mean to someone else. Not all publications are this kind, but it’s really important to me that my contributors feel accurately represented on Qwear.

What, to you, is Qwear’s greatest success?

I am very proud of our Topman sponsorship. They are so big in the UK and have so many bloggers at their fingertips. They are one of my favorite brands and to be able to work with them for so many years as their first trans blogger is just a huge honor. I got to meet Adam Gallagher at their private opening of their new New York store. He was helping to promote the launch, and he’s one of the biggest menswear bloggers in the states. His audience is huge — we’re talking 30K Twitter followers and over 1 million Instagram followers! But that just goes to show how powerful our voices are. Topman recognizes that we are reaching an audience that most bloggers don’t reach.

Model Jeanie Chung by nyelyntho

Image above: Model Jeanie Chung by nyelyntho.

You frequently collaborate with other businesses and style blogs. What advice would you give someone looking to collaborate for the first time?

Whether you are reaching out to a business for the first time or working on a project, you want to offer something uniquely you. If you’re wearing clothes, for example, you’ll want to style them differently than people in the lookbook on their website. Give your own spin to their product and show your readers what you love about it. For example, my writers and I have modeled clothing from Topman for years, but we try to make each [blog] post [about the brand] special. I’m not going to do three posts in a row of the same cut suit.

If a business has asked me to review a product, I am always honest. I always put my loyalty to my readers first. If someone sends me a product that I don’t like and I don’t want to give a negative review, I often just won’t review it at all. I would never want to screw over a small brand like that.

In terms of other style blogs, people can sometimes go into a project expecting one thing and then come out with something different. I like to be as flexible as possible while working with other people, because for me it’s more about the process than the end goal.

How do you manage the balance between being a resource for others but also investing in your own creative production?

In my mind, I don’t separate the two. Everything I do is for the community. Our designs are inspired by the performances we see around us and are feeding back into the creative wheel. Whether I’m providing cohesive advice or inspiration, it’s all for the queer community.

Ru fitting model Alli in the hoodie tie

Image above: Ru fitting model Alli in the hoodie tie for “Dismantle Me” at Queer Fashion Week.

What brought about your line for Queer Fashion Week, Dismantle Me?

My partner Ru had been encouraging me to bring my eye for fashion to the runway. When I saw that Queer Fashion Week was accepting applications for designers and stylists, I thought, what the hell? I’d give it a try and apply. I ended up collaborating with Ru on this line — she designed most of the pieces herself while I styled the models. The name Dismantle Me was her idea because the whole concept was about dismantling social norms through fashion.

Behind the scenes shot of model Tiny

Image above: A behind-the-scenes shot of model Tiny.

Can you give us insight to the process behind Dismantle Me?

I was mostly on the managerial and stylist side of things while Ru did most of the designing. I can describe what I saw her doing, though it might be different words than she would use. (Normally I’d ask her to comment, but she’s busy preparing for our show [VERGE, with dapperQ] at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.) She made a lot of mood-boards, spent hours and hours gathering images. Many images were from race protests with people wearing bandanas over their faces. She pulled out every item of clothing we don’t use anymore and used it as materials. The hoodie tie idea just came to her in a flash.

When we got to Oakland we brought all her designs and a ton of extra clothes because we wanted to meet the models and complete the designs around their gender performance. She worked fast and spontaneously, fitting various garments to different models, getting measurements, taking pictures. We grabbed a few extra models who inspired her and designed for them, too. For the next three days we went thrifting to complete the outfits, and that’s where my styling help came in. We found that the biggest theme running throughout was Tartan and bandana prints, so we played with those themes a lot.

Sonny+Oram+Bonobos+2014+Fall+Style+Challenge-4 Photography by Sam Murray

Who are some of your major style influences?

I look all over every corner of the Internet for inspiration. The people who inspire me the most often end up being people on the street who just have the perfect haircut with brightly colored street clothes, because I get to watch them interact with their environment. The Durimel Twins are a huge inspiration to me. They just explore color and shape in such beautiful ways and always blow my mind.

What resources have helped you bridge the gap between style blog and being a designer?

Ru is a RISD grad and is experienced with apparel design, so I am learning by watching and helping her. Without her, I’d be totally lost.

Do you see yourself as a queer style icon? Who are your queer style icons?

Some people may see me that way, but I don’t see myself that way. Maybe a queer style influencer. I see most of our writers as icons because they each have followers who look up to them independent of qwear. Bing popularized the queer pomp on her blog I Dream of Dapper, for example. There are many other icons, too, some of my favorites being Jacob Tobiah and Aja of Fit for a Femme. I do believe that I am a key influencer of the queer fashion movement.

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