This is the story of Rae Angelo Tutera, a 34-year-old sober, non-binary suitmaker born and raised in New York. It’s also the story of how I found a kindred spirit in this gold-jewelry-wearing, kombucha-brewing fire sign with a killer fade and an aversion to Twitter.
About six months ago, my partner and I watched “Suited,” the 2016 HBO documentary featuring Tutera’s business Bindle & Keep, which specializes in making custom-fit suits, particularly for those outside the gender binary. My partner is non-binary and is perpetually struggling to find clothes that properly fit — both literally and stylistically. We live in Minneapolis and, after watching this documentary, we were just about ready to pack our bags and move to the Big Apple, Minnesota accents and all.
In a world where clothing departments are separated by “male” and “female” — arbitrary at best, soul-crushing at worst — Bindle & Keep creates suits that people can slide into, look in the mirror, and actually like what they see.
Alongside their business partner Daniel Friedman, Tutera creates the most dapper suits imaginable. But more than that, love is sewn into these suits, as trite as that sounds. In these suits, people can feel like themselves for the first time. In a world where clothing departments are separated by “male” and “female” — arbitrary at best, soul-crushing at worst — Bindle & Keep creates suits that people can slide into, look in the mirror, and actually like what they see. It goes beyond aesthetics; it’s a matter of seeing your reflection for the first time and not hating it.
Tutera’s been interviewed countless times about their business; Lena Dunham and Jeni Konner produced “Suited,” after all. If you want a full background on how their business started, read this article on Disruption Magazine’s website. When I googled Tutera, I found several articles about their company, personal style, and being an LGBTQ advocate — they’ve volunteered for organizations including the Services and Advocacy for GLBT+ Elders. But I couldn’t find any articles about Tutera’s sobriety. This is the first time they have been interviewed about sobriety.
“I’m glad I’m coming out as sober during Pride,” they said.
Tutera woke up on the morning of August 13, 2017, and realized they needed to get sober. It wasn’t the stereotypical “rock bottom” people whisper about in break rooms. At the time, Tutera was a “pretty active drinker.” They were also running a successful business and therefore pretty high-functioning. Hell, Bindle & Keep was even profiled in the New Yorker a year before Tutera got sober.
“I’m so grateful I’m sober for this part,” Tutera said. “I wish I was sober for the documentary and during the tour. I was very vulnerable that whole time, and I tried to quiet it the whole time by drinking.”
Yet even calling someone’s relationship with a substance “high-functioning” feels like part of the cultural dialogue that prevents people from drying out; it’s a myth that parallels the working mother “having it all” or the high-power executive who only gets three hours of sleep (and it’s with a Blackberry smashed against their face). We live in a society where, as long as you’re showing up on time to meetings, you get the patriarchy’s stamp of approval — clock in, clock out, grab a few drinks, repeat.
“I know that I was numb to my own life, and I know how I feel now.”
And that’s where those who question their relationship with drinking get lost. It’s two-fold; one camp is saying, if you think you have a problem, you’re definitely an alcoholic, and you need to be sober for the rest of your life. There’s another camp that says, as long as you’re not running over anyone with your car, you’re a-okay. The answers are never that clear. Instead, the truth reveals itself in subtle ways.
“I know that I was numb to my own life, and I know how I feel now,” Tutera said. “You don’t need to have drunk-driven or gotten a DUI to prove your legitimacy.”
The lack of self-numbing can be terrifying. It can also be the most eye-opening, transformative experience in life. Since Tutera got sober, they’ve noticed their relationship with their customers take on a new meaning.
“In a certain way, I feel more deeply about my work, and I have better boundaries,” Tutera said. “I’m better at my job, and I have more energy.”
Hearing Tutera speak, I felt like they were reciting my own story. They spoke about the boredom they felt at parties and the need to drink to drown said ennui, along with a desire to entertain. Since getting sober, Tutera said they’re “navigating the world in a more introverted way.”
“I feel like I was more of a performative extroverted person when I drank,” Tutera said. “Usually I’d just be cracking jokes and not really listening to anyone. Now I’m cracking fewer jokes and listening.”
We also talked about how we were socialized to suppress rage; alcohol’s a great way to do that, until it isn’t.
“We’re not really entitled to be angry if you’re assigned female at birth,” Tutera said, “As a drinking person, I was terrified of being angry. Now I’m constantly angry.”
“As a drinking person, I was terrified of being angry. Now I’m constantly angry.”
And that anger is well justified. Transgender women are murdered at disproportionately high rates. Suicide is the leading cause of death for LGBTQ individuals between the ages of 10 and 24. Between 38 and 65 percent of transgender individuals experience suicidal ideation. Approximately 20 to 30 percent of the LGBTQ population abuses substances, as opposed to an estimated nine percent of the general population. Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to attack the rights of the LGBTQ community, particularly those who are trans.
For some, it’s a terrifying time to identify as LGBTQ. While the fight for a properly fitting garment may seem trivial in the face of housing discrimination, it’s more the meaning behind Bindle & Keep’s mission. In a bespoke suit, you may feel at home in a different sense.
If anything, Tutera’s mission to clothe the LGBTQ community is part of their personal sobriety story; they just didn’t realize it would be when they emailed Friedman, the co-owner of Bindle & Keep, back in 2011 to ask for a custom-made suit.
“All of this is interconnected,” Tutera said. “I feel like there’s no wrong way to be sober, there’s no wrong way to be queer; you have the birthright to be yourself.”
“I feel like there’s no wrong way to be sober, there’s no wrong way to be queer; you have the birthright to be yourself.”
For some of us, that takes a long time. For others, that journey never ends. And if you’re lucky enough, perhaps that journey starts in Bindle & Keep’s showroom, where Tutera takes your measurements to create the perfect suit.
My journey started a few years ago, but it felt like it all came together while talking to Tutera on the phone about what it means to be queer, sober, and no longer numb.
Maybe the narrative of finding a connection in the queer community over a cocktail can be replaced by a deeper truth. Instead of hiding our fear, boredom, shame, or rage with a cloud of ether, maybe we can look one another deep in the eyes and say, “I know that rage. I will be angry with you.”
And in that rage, maybe the healing begins.