I’ve been out in my personal life since I was 19, but not in my professional world. We all know how women need to obscure our personal lives in business because it could be held against us professionally. I’m not sure how much of it was sexism and how much of it was homophobia, but fear of both kept me compartmentalizing. I found my covering to be exhausting and it made me angry after a while. It struck me as quite unfair that some people got to show up and be themselves and some of us had to leave a part of ourselves at the door. This inspired me as an entrepreneur. What if there were a workplace where you could truly be yourself and not have to worry about your intersectionality being an issue? I decided to create that environment myself and made inclusivity a cornerstone of our workplace culture at Leota. I didn’t make a big deal about this to my customers as a fledgling brand. Safer to just focus on the clothing I was designing.
The fashion industry traumatized me — open any magazine or social media and it’s telling me I need to be straight, light-skinned, thin, curved in just the right places, nipped and tucked, young, chiseled, etc., in order to be beautiful. I started to explore the industry further and discovered that fashion is focused on women and their money, yet only 14 percent of fashion brands are run by women.
I wanted to change fashion for the better. I could make a brand that would inspire self-love and joy rather than diets and conformity. I could create a radically inclusive brand that celebrates femininity as a source of strength no matter what body it shows up in. Our business practices from hiring to choosing vendors to how we spend money are firmly rooted in principles of feminism, anti-racism, inclusivity, meritocracy. If you read one of my blog posts on our website, you might get a flavor of what we were up to. But those messages flew under the radar, and other than my superfans, most customers missed them. I admit that made me feel relieved.
I thought I could do all of this while being relatively closeted professionally and keeping these points of view out of the brand, just in case customers might not like it. Of course, eventually people would find out I’m a lesbian, but I was accustomed to concealing my identity. I figured, if I’m risking alienating someone, better that they don’t know.
I already must work against unconscious bias as a woman — why add another one to the potential reasons to write me off? But now I have millions of customers, and our internal company conversations are getting painful when it comes to the question of what to share with our customers and what to coyly omit. We are complicit in major problems with our industry if we stay quiet, and we risk losing customers if we speak up. This is a trade-off I face every single day as a small business owner.
When I started Leota, I placed myself squarely in this conversation, so aren’t I accountable or at least responsible for my contribution to our industry and the communities with which we do business?
I think I have a pretty good idea of my customer demographic, and I’m worried being vocal about my beliefs will alienate her. Do I risk losing customers if I come out? What if she doesn’t believe in fashion for all like I do? What if she doesn’t share my views and decides not to buy from me anymore? We’re still an independent small business with no investors to give us cash if we face a shortfall. I spent the last decade building Leota from scratch, and I really do have something to lose.
There is a push and pull between what we want the brand to be and what customers think we are. My CEO and I have been punting this real talk for years because we’re afraid of our customers. My customers are smart, strong women, and I am dependent on them for my livelihood. And they may not share my views. We struggle with being an inclusive company making fashion for all and also really not wanting to alienate anyone. We’ve been right in the middle, like water, pushing for change with our business practices but not making a big deal about it to our customers because I’m not sure how commercially viable it is.
This risk is not something that I made up. It’s not a fear coming from insecurity. It’s coming from experience. After all, I experienced the backlash in my career — homophobia and sexism, and discrimination and harassment for being a lesbian. I have internalized homophobia to deal with also. All signs point to the best way to be successful is to fit in.
I understand how to conform; I’ve been doing it my entire life. Even though I entered the fashion industry wanting to make change, I continued to conform even as I took a visible role in the press and in the industry. This might sound naive, but it never occurred to me that my personal life would be part of the brand. Early on in my business, I was interviewed for an article profiling my lifestyle as a fashion designer and entrepreneur. They asked a seemingly benign question you often see in these lifestyle profiles. “What is your typical weekend like?” A simple question that is not so simple for an LGBTQ+ person, and I was dumbfounded. That is the first time I remember omitting my truth as an entrepreneur. I was married at the time, and I left my wife out of my story. Better to straightwash my story, I mused, than risk being rejected by my potential customer base.
Conformity is the price of entry in fashion. I recently attended a mandatory workshop from one of my major retail partners, and the topic was about how to integrate heritage and storytelling into your brand story. The workshop leaders encouraged us to discuss our families, our origin stories, the things that made us special and made us uniquely ourselves. Except not me. Not my story. In the workshop, the retailer explicitly said to me, “Do not say anything about being gay or LGBTQ-friendly. Our audience will not relate to that.” The message was loud and clear: We are afraid that our customers will be turned off by anything that’s out of the mainstream.
Meanwhile recently, we’ve been in a tizzy at work with the dystopian world we’re living in right now, including but in no way limited to the Supreme Court overturning Roe, the “don’t say gay” law in Florida, trans youth being denied gender-affirming treatment, mass shootings, Black people being murdered by police officers, attacks on Asian people, the Ukraine war. These are things that affect my customers, that affect my staff, my communities. We finally realized we couldn’t hide in our closet anymore.
There are serious trade-offs, but our choice is to not sit in the middle, but rather come out and say what we believe in. This has been really uncomfortable for me personally because it is much safer to stay out of the conversation and out of the fray and in the closet. But I can’t live with myself if I do.
I’m making fashion for all. I want anyone to be able to put on Leota and feel like a million bucks. Leota is for all — I mean men, women, nonbinary, trans, everyone. Fashion is about self-expression, and I want to be a part of the freedom that comes from dressing up as yourself. And I want people to know that this contribution to fashion and culture is coming from a diverse team of creators.
I’m betting that my customers will stick with me. I’ve had their backs all these years — will they have mine?
Sarah Carson is the founder of Leota.
This story is part of The Advocate’s 2022 History issue, which is out on newsstands August 30. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.