Workaholic // Leon Wu

WHAT DO YOU DO?

I am the Founder and CEO of Sharpe Suiting, a Los Angeles based queer-centric suiting company that constructs clothing for ALL body types and identities. We have been custom suiting our community for the past year out of our Silverlake studio. Currently, we are developing a progressive line of Ready-to-Wear suits and dresswear so that we can bring our vision to the world.

I am also a Co-Producer and performer of a queer and gender-bending variety show called BENT hosted annually by The Beauty Kings, a local drag king troupe.

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HOW DID YOU GET TO WHERE YOU ARE NOW?

A: Growing up, I felt uncomfortable in the clothes my mother and sister made me wear, particularly this one sailor dress. To this day, my sister claims it was my favorite – I hated it. I wanted to wear clothes my big brother wore and grow up to wear suits and ties like my father. I would always look at myself in the mirror, which led my parents and siblings to believe that I was the vain one in the family. Little did they know I was imagining and already studying how I could make myself look more masculine. I would visualize myself wearing boys or men’s clothing, but because of culturally enforced norms, I felt this was barred from me at the time.

Each chapter of my life played a significant role in the development of who I am now. Coming out as gay, coming out again as trans, coming to grips with understanding my complex self and then bundling all these experiences into my work. Fast forward a few decades, my passion for developing a company that would provide this service for similar individuals became a reality. At Sharpe, we create masculine dresswear and suits (or silhouettes) for female-bodied people who identify more with masculinity. In less than a year of business, we have sold over 100 suits, not just to our community, but to other fashion-forward cisgender men as well.

 

IMG_4850WHAT MADE YOU TURN IN THIS DIRECTION?

When I graduated from UCLA as an undergrad, I got that corporate ‘dream job’ at a top consulting firm with the comfortable salary and benefits. I was set financially for life with a career in IT and strategy. But, just after one year of my job, I was left unfulfilled. I realized that what I was really lacking was an outlet for masculine expression and creativity. At that point, I almost left my consulting job to become a military officer for the US Marines. I gained placement as an aviation officer and all that was left was paperwork to sign. My professional mentor at that time B. Aerabi challenged me to rethink my path. If I wasn’t happy with the world then, he advocated, innovate something new, create a business to drive the change I wanted to see.

To blow off steam and find a creative outlet, while continuing to work hard in my consulting career and study for the GMAT, I joined a local drag king troupe. Drag king performance is what ultimately steered me towards my passion in queer fashion. I became responsible for procuring my own performance wardrobe and costuming and came to realize my talent for styling and creating masculinity on stage. Outside of my day job, I worked as a menswear stylist for a few different fashion shows, both straight and queer. In 2005, I co-produced one of the first Butch Fashion shows in Los Angeles.

The concept of Sharpe was just within its infancy and so was queer fashion. However, the timing of a viable queer fashion market was not quite right. I decided in the meantime to focus on progressing my education and spent the next two years at New York University for business school, choosing to specialize in marketing, luxury retail, entrepreneurship and just being gay, as all queers do in school. I knew the knowledge I was gaining would someday benefit my dream and become a workaholic reality.

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WAS THIS ALWAYS YOUR DREAM JOB?

No. When I was younger, I wanted to be a window-washer. I thought it was the coolest job ever. My Taiwanese mother said NO. Then, I wanted to be an astronaut. After all, I loved physics and geometry. After my parents divorced, my brother and I became latchkey kids to a single working mother. My mom tried to make ends meet doing real estate and sadly did not succeed. Some days we didn’t get lunch or dinner. With the money we had, my brother would make me mac n cheese and mayo sandwiches that were simply the best!

The bank repossessed our house and I was so embarrassed as a teenager to have a big “BANK REPO” sign in front of my house. At that point, I became a straight-A student and steered myself towards a life of financial stability. That is until recently when I witnessed how quickly Sharpe was growing and saw the demand from so many clients who walked out transformed and happy from our studio. Within just one year of business, I left my corporate job as a Senior Project Manager for a major entertainment studio to throw myself into working harder than ever to serve my community through Sharpe. I took the leap to become a full-time entrepreneur.

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HOW MUCH OF THE WEEK IS WORK, HOW MUCH IS PLAY?

As an entrepreneur, there is not really any time for play unless it’s work-related. I travel and take trips, but it’s always some benefit or tie-in to Sharpe. Unfortunately, there is not really much time for dates unless it’s a meal or one of said work-related trips. I’m just super grateful my girlfriend is extremely supportive and has her own ambitions.

Self-care is of the utmost importance to prevent myself from getting sick. If I put on my gym clothes in the morning, there is a 10% chance I will exercise that day; if I don’t, it’s zero. You have to make health a priority or it gets forgotten. And, as much as I love drinks with friends, it seems as if I lose about 4-6 hours of work productivity in the evening once I crack open that bottle of beer.

 

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HOW DO YOU FIND YOUR INSPIRATION AND DO YOU FIND IT EASY TO STAY ORGANIZED?

After 15 years of project management experience for a few major corporations, organization had become a necessary strength and my forte. As an entrepreneur, I don’t have time to organize every detail anymore. Managing complexity is a daily task. Yesterday’s to-do list is already trash or no longer relevant.

My clients and my team inspire me daily. Specifically, inspiration comes from my own personal struggles with clothing and identity, knowing how I want a suit to fit, innovative ideas from our Sharpe Team, as well as comments and feedback from our clients. We are always brainstorming designs and cuts that will make our clients feel more empowered in their identities. Sometimes, after a 16-hour day, sleep brings the best inspiration. You’ve got to constantly inspire not only yourself but also your team in the face of all challenges, which is not an easy task to do!

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HOW IMPORTANT IS YOUR WORK AND DO YOU FEEL IT DEFINES YOU?

As an entrepreneur all of my work now is a direct action to an idea or thought on how I can help my community find clothing that fits. Thus, my work is extremely important to me, since this was a struggle I know personally very well.

 

 

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WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST EXCITING THING YOU HAVE DONE WITH YOUR WORK, AND WHAT IS A DREAM SITUATION YOU’D LIKE TO FIND YOURSELF IN?

At Sharpe, we developed a system of measuring and tailoring whereby we minimize stereotypically female curves for those who identify as more masculine. Our suits fit androgynous bodies better using Andropometrics, which is our trademarked formula for masculinizing or better matching the individual identity of butch women, trans men, and anyone who wants a Sharpe fit. Most of our clients want a more traditionally masculine cut, but we’re happy to accommodate any identity or style. We will always listen to our clients needs and never judge anyone’s suit based on their appearance.

My dream situation, or future fashion utopia, would be a world where everyone is able to express their identity confidently and have open access to any clothing garment sold in their size. Think of it as a parallel to personalized technology but personalized fashion.

 

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HOW DO YOU DEFINE YOUR PERSONAL STYLE, WORK AND CLOTHING?

I wear a lot of hats. Usually I’m dressed in a suit and tie. But I still add my own personal style to it or dress it down a bit. Now that we’ve started Sharpe, my suits fit so much better and I save so much time and energy on shopping and tailoring suits that just never quite fit. During my down time, I’m a baseball hat, or snapback, and jeans kinda guy.

 

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DO YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC DURING YOUR WORKDAY?

I still love my 90’s R&B and hip-hop, especially anyone in A Tribe Called Quest group. Actually, a fan of my former drag king troupe encouraged me to audition for a music video Knew You by the The Pharcyde and I got the part! In my twenties, I used to dance hip-hop with my friends for fun. We would frequent The Edge and Millennium dance studios whenever we had time. But man… now if you go you will see that the kids there are amazingly awesome dancers – it’s like So You Think You Can Dance! While driving these days, I have Coldplay’s Sky Full of Stars song on repeat. I’m a big fan of Chris Martin and Jennifer Lawrence and am totally obsessed with their romance right now.

 

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WHAT’S SOMETHING SOMEONE MAY NOT KNOW ABOUT YOU?

If I abstain from coffee, I get these incredible migraines. Daily, I drink Americano’s half-full with two Splenda (bad… I know) and half-and-half until it’s blonde. At 2:30PM, I have to cut off all caffeine; otherwise, this brain won’t be able to shut down at night and get enough sleep.

I’ve been told routinely that I’m one of the weirdest people they’ve ever met. I guess I’ll take that as a compliment. Entrepreneurs are not like most people.

 

 

ANYTHING ELSE YOU WOULD LIKE TO SAY OR FOR US TO KNOW?

I feel like a ringmaster introducing the next act of Sharpe’s brand of queer fashion to a heteronormative audience whereby they seem amazed but still label it a circus act. I’m so tired of start-up VC or angel investors telling me that Sharpe is a really great concept but for a niche market. My response to them is always yes it is niche in that it’s a new market. However, queer fashion currently is the fastest growing segment in the fashion industry. If menswear and womenswear are polar ends of the fashion spectrum, the potential and opportunities for queer fashion comprises everything in between. From crowd-funding campaigns alone, not including aggregate revenue, queer fashion companies already constitute a multi-million dollar market share of the entire fashion industry. Let’s really support these businesses so we can show the world what we can do…

They always say to end with a quote, so here’s one by the great Kate Bornstein from her book Gender Outlaw:

I see fashion as a proclamation or manifestation of identity, so as long as identities are important, fashion will continue to be important… I identify as neither male nor female. What I’ve found as a result of borderline life is the more fluid my identity has become, and the less demanding my own need to belong to the camps of male, female, gay or straight, the more playful and less dictatorial my fashion has become – as well as my self expression.

Welcome to my runway!

 

 

http://www.sharpesuiting.com

info@sharpesuiting.com

 

ringmaster2Photos:

  • Ringmaster Photographer: Vanessa Adams Photography
  • Other photos by Leon Wu and Sharpe Group

 

— Jenelle Campbell

 

 

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