Sometimes fashion is more than just fashion.
"The clothes that we put on our body actually have a big role in our self-esteem, our body image, our self expression and our sense of identity and affirmation," says Mere Abrams, a licensed clinical social worker and co-founder of gender-affirming undergarment brand Urbody, who uses they/them/theirs pronouns.
That can be especially true for people whose identity extends beyond the binary notions of gender. It's something Abrams has experienced.
Growing up, Abrams would sneak into their brother's room to try on his Batman briefs. "For whatever reason, it made me feel so much more comfortable in myself and in my body," they say.
The fashion industry and retailers have taken steps in recent years to be more inclusive of all gender identities — stripping away binary gender categories, offering universal sizing and marketing "gender fluid" clothing items. But when it comes to creating garments that help people facilitate a more positive relationship with their bodies, little has been done, according to Abrams.
In founding Urbody, Abrams and their co-founder Anna Graham want to change that.
The line, launched in March, sells gender-affirming, functional undergarments for trans, non-binary and gender nonconforming individuals, ranging from $40 boxer briefs to $88 leggings. Abrams and Graham hope it will help change the future of the fashion industy.
Abrams and Graham, both 33, met at Pitzer College, a small liberal arts school in Claremont, California. The pair stayed close friends after graduation and into their adult lives. When Abrams came out as nonbinary, Graham remained a major part of their emotional support system.
The idea for Urbody came around 2019. At the time, Abrams was self-employed and seeing patients out of their private practice, while Graham was working as an operations manager for DDA Holdings, an apparel manufacturing company, helping fashion start-ups manage backend logistics, such as customer service and shipping.
"We both felt this calling to do something bigger than what we were doing in our current jobs," Abrams says. They started having weekly discussions and brainstorming meetings about how they could combine their professional backgrounds and build a brand.
Abrams and Graham spent two years doing market research and developing their line. First, the co-founders put out surveys to members of the LGBTQ+ community and hosted fittings in their homes where people could share their experiences shopping for underwear and bodywear.
For example, survey respondents who identify on the trans-masculine spectrum talked about wanting a boxer brief that could smooth their waist and hips to give them more of a traditionally male silhouette and subsequently address gender and body dysphoria. ("Gender dysphoria" refers to psychological distress that results from an incongruence between a person's sex assigned at birth and gender identity, according to the American Psychiatric Association.)
The collective knowledge that Abrams and Graham gleaned from the surveys allowed them to settle on seven garments: a boxer brief with an internal pocket that can hold a prosthetic in place; a thong that has ample room to accommodate all types of external genitalia; leggings with a "power mesh" layer of fabric to smooth the body; a bikini brief with a thick waist band and double layer of fabric for additional security for those with external genitalia; a compression top; a boxer brief without an open fly pouch; and a bralette that's specifically engineered for people with small busts.
Given the dearth of undergarment options for trans and gender non-conforming people, the trans community has taken a "DIY kind of approach to fashion" for decades Abrams says, like MacGyvering chest binders out of elastic bandages or medical tape. This often means settling with quality, style or fabrication.
When it came to finding a manufacturing partner, "there was super limited understanding of what we were doing and the goals we were trying to achieve," Abrams says. Sometimes, "that education process of trying to get someone to understand what we were doing felt insurmountable," but most were eager to learn.
Constructing garments that fit a wide range of gender-expansive bodies was also an undertaking, because typically designers turn to a universal sizing template for "male" and "female" bodies. Urbody had to make their own templates for grading, the process of adjusting a sample size to create smaller and larger sizes.
To build the business, Abrams and Graham, who still have fulltime jobs, say they received financial support from family members, but decline to say how much. They also received and in-kind support from individuals working in the fashion industry and queer and trans communities, they say.
Though the co-founders declined to comment on sales or the size of their customer base, Graham says she gets unsolicited emails from customers who say that it feels like the garments were made for their unique bodies and needs.
"It really speaks to the emotional aspect behind our products and how they can really change the way somebody goes about their day," she says.
At one point in the development process, Abrams themself tried on Urbody's boxer briefs and turned to Graham and said, "In my 33 years of life, I've never felt like this putting on an underwear. I've never felt like it was made for me."
Prior to trying the Urbody boxers, Abrams said they had a hard time shopping for clothes that fit their aesthetic preferences and also fit their body. The feeling that an item is made for you is "something that is hard to put a value on in any way, shape or form," Abrams says.
One Urbody customer said in a review on Instagram, "I am always nonbinary no matter what I wear, but this kind of presentation helps me show you who I am."
"That's what transness and queerness should be centered around, those positive feelings," says Abrams.
Since launching the line in March, Graham estimates that she and Abrams spend 30 hours per week working on Urbody, often on the weekends. They say they also employ freelancers who work for the brand. And as Urbody grows, they're thinking about what the future of the brand looks like. For instance, they eventually hope to expand to other product categories and hope to work with mainstream retailers to create a more inclusive and safe shopping experience for all.
"It makes you want to work harder," Graham says.
"We have really big dreams of the fashion industry looking very different than it does now," Abrams says.
Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that definition of gender dysphoria is according to the American Psychiatric Association.