By Ashley Altadonna
Carmen Liu is busy. The 28-year-old entrepreneur and director of GI Collection is in the middle of moving from the UK to Thailand. It’s yet another massive endeavor for this British trans woman who started her own company and launched an internationally successful trans-friendly lingerie brand only earlier this year.
“It’s been crazy,” says Liu, “We sold out in three days, from most countries around the world. There’s been so much attention on us, and positive attention as well. I did not expect it at all. I originally intended only to sell to the UK, but overnight we were selling internationally. It was just crazy. As a trans woman, you know there’s a need, but you don’t have any idea just how many trans women there are out there, globally.”
Q: How would you describe your experiences when you first started transitioning, wearing traditional gaffs, or cisgender (non-transgender) women’s lingerie?
A: When I figured out that I was trans, I finally felt at home. Going out and being myself was the best thing. It felt right. I can still remember sitting at home in my bedroom and thinking, “Okay, let me buy some stuff.” I went online and typed in “transgender underwear,” and was like, “Where is everything?” I thought maybe I wasn’t searching the right thing. I recall thinking most of the products I did find were hideous, and they weren’t even in my size! So, even when I did buy things, I usually had to alter them anyway, and I really hated that. It was annoying.
Q: How did you decide that you wanted to start a company?
A: It must have been about a year after I transitioned. I’ve always been able to look at something, whether it’s a product or a business, and instantly think about how I could make it better. When I saw that we didn’t have these products, my brain immediately started thinking about how I would make these things. I’ve started a few businesses before, but this has been the most expensive one because it’s fashion, and it takes a lot of money to get a fashion company off the ground.
Last year I was talking to a friend of mine and telling him about my idea for the company. He told me he was interested in investing in an LGBTQ business. Since the time I showed him my business plan and got the go-ahead, I’ve been working 17-20 hours a day. I worry that if I don’t do it, then who would be able to? I realize there are a lot of people who want to do it, but they might not have the opportunity to find the funding.
Quite honestly, it’s the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. The messages I’ve received from the women, crossdressers, or whomever it might be that wears my stuff – quite often my staff and I will sit here and cry. It’s weird to think that some lingerie or seeing a fashion show featuring all trans women models can change someone’s mentality or way of life. It’s really touching.
Q: Do you have a background in business?
A: When I was younger, I went to the Royal Ballet School here in London, so initially that was my focus. When I was 19, I had to quit ballet due to an injury. Afterward, I started working as a manager in various different jobs, none of which had anything to do with fashion. At one point, I started my own hair extension company. I like to do things myself and be my own boss. Business is something that comes quite naturally to me.
Q: The panties aren’t just fashionable, but functional as well. How did you come up with the design?
A: It was sort of like a science experiment. Obviously, you can design something to look pretty quite easily, but making it work is harder. I know in my head how it needs to work. I think we tried over 20 variations to get it to work the way it’s supposed to. A simple thing like turning the fabric horizontal rather than vertical would change how the garment would work.
Then I had to test every single variation. I’d wear them to the gym, just every day or out clubbing - whatever. I’d make notes about how each one did. Some of them were awfully painful. Even though we might have only changed the design by a few millimeters, those millimeters ended up being extremely painful. It felt like you were being shredded down below. It was just trial and error really.
Since these garments are designed for trans women I think it’s important that I am a trans woman testing them, because I can wear my garments and know how they feel. I never let other people test my products for the first few models until it’s complete, and then I’ll have other people wear them just to see how the fit works. I want to be able to feel it in my head and in my body whether or not it’s working properly, and if I wasn’t transgender, I wouldn’t be able to do that.
Q: Similarly, how did you come up with the idea and design for the lingerie tape?
A: I’d heard so many horror stories from friends about gaff tape, and I’ve always felt like, “I can barely get that off a cardboard box, I’m definitely not putting it on my skin!” I used to use medical tape, but I had to use like twenty strips because it was so small. It turned out I was allergic to it. I had a really bad reaction to the adhesive.
When I started the company, I wanted to focus on the things that were the most important, which was the lingerie and tucking. When you transition, I think that tucking is one of the first things most trans women focus on because you want to hide that part. I started searching for tapes that were safe for the skin. It was also a matter of trial and error and finding the right blend of fabrics within the material. It was a lot easier than the lingerie.
It’s important because now we have so many young trans women transitioning that I can’t bear to think about them not having lingerie or gaffing tape. I wanted to make sure that these products were out there so that from day one these women have at least a bit of positivity. We’ve started with a black, a beige, and a purple tape, and I’m excited to announce that in 2020 we’ll be coming out with lingerie tape in different skin tones.
Q: Through your website, you also offer services like Phone-A-Friend, GI Sisters, hair and nail treatments, and you even put out a GI magazine. How do you find the time for all this, and why is it important for you to go above and beyond a traditional clothing company?
A: [Laughs] I don’t sleep! I typically work a minimum of 12 hours a day. Lately, it’s been anywhere from 17-20 hours, but the rewards of this company are so great, that I couldn’t care about only having a few hours of sleep. If I ever feel stressed, I’ll watch the video of our runway show because that day was really special to me. I had so many people, both trans and cisgender, tell me how empowering it was, so I knew I was doing something right. The idea that there are women around the world who can just put on the underwear in the morning and go without having to think about it or having to put on all this horrible stuff and then put on cis underwear makes it worth it.
As a trans woman, I know the frustration of not having quality products at a reasonable price. There are some terrible products out there, that are made by folks who aren’t transgender, and they’re charging a fortune for them to take advantage of the fact that we often have low self-esteem, and we need these products. It’s really aggravating.
I do care a lot about people. I honestly wouldn’t want people to experience some of the things that I have, or that so many other trans women have experienced. With my Phone-A-Friend service, I have people who call and talk about killing themselves and ask if I can please just talk to them. It’s reasons like that why I could never give those services up. I would do whatever I could for my community because I’m in a position where I can do it and on a global scale.
Q: What advice would you give to other trans folks who want to start a business?
A: I would say you need to prepare yourself. Unfortunately, there are a lot of businesses that won’t work with you just because you’re trans, which I didn’t expect. However, I would always say never give up because if you give up, we’re not going to go forward as a community. If you’re starting a business for the trans community, the rewards of doing it outweigh everything else. Even if you don’t plan on doing something for the trans community, I still think it’s important that we have trans-owned business, if only to send the message that we can run a business. So, I would say go for it, and if you ever need help, I’m here.
Q: What has been the best part and most challenging thing about starting a business?
A: The most challenging thing has been getting people to take me seriously as a trans woman and as someone who is still fairly young. Trying to get folks to understand that trans women do have needs and that there are a lot of us. Even the factory I get my lingerie from initially thought that my business wouldn’t work because they didn’t think there would be enough trans women out there to justify the demand.
The most rewarding thing is knowing that for so many women, I have made a small impact in their lives every day, that they can achieve things because they’re not worried about things falling out, or not feeling secure or sexy. Just knowing that I’m helping trans women like myself.
Q: What are you excited about for the coming year?
A: The main thing I’m excited about is my Carmen Liu Kids, which is going to be my children’s underwear line. I know there’s a lot of people who don’t necessarily agree with what I’m doing, but the reason I’m starting that is that I have received so many messages from parents of trans girls, who have told me they feel helpless, that they can’t help their child. The amount of emails I got were just too many. I had planned to release the line in two or three years, but because of the messages I received, I decided to go ahead. We also have a lot of things planned for 2020, including an event in Los Angeles in January, so be on the lookout for that!
Find out more about Carmen Liu and the GI Collection at: https://gicollection.co.uk