In honour of Pride Month we are celebrating amazing LGBTQIA+ small business owners that are a pillar in their community.
Name: Rae Hill
Location: Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Business: Origami Customs
Origami Customs is a customized and handmade line of swimwear, lingerie, and more for folks of all genders. Our goal is to construct clothing that makes it easier for people to be in the world. We actively produce fashion technology that supports our transgender and queer community and anyone else who wants to feel good in their body!
A little over a decade ago, Origami Customs was just an Etsy shop. Based out of Honduras, I was a one-person-operation customizing swimwear for friends who were seeking options that fit real human bodies.
After landing back in my hometown of Victoria, BC a few years later, I became a resource to the queer and trans community who were coming to me for gender affirming items they weren’t finding anywhere else. I expanded my line to focus on these staples, as well as creating a community program that gets our garments for free, to those who face access barriers.
Honestly, even though this is our eleventh year in operation, this year has felt like year one. We went from a small team of part- time independent contractors working out of my home loft, to a team of ten employees, and an incorporated business with its own production facility in just a year.
The biggest lesson that I’ve learned is to co-create a team that enjoys each other and the work environment first and foremost. We created a staff policy that includes extra sick and menstruation days, flexible work schedules, and a top-tier benefits package which is fairly unheard of for a company our size. We created systems for those who are neuro-divergent and re-wrote operating procedures in different ways for those who needed to learn things in different or multiple manners.
All of this allowed us to create space that we really enjoy being in, and a work environment of mutual care and openness.
How many people would look to me as inspiration! I honestly never expected my business to get this big. It’s always a surprise when I have new entrepreneurs ask for advice.
When I started, I didn’t have any idea how to turn my conception of managing staff into a cohesive HR plan. I wanted it to feel supportive, but not too stiff either. My values are rooted in mutual aid and conflict resolution, so I researched how NGO’s handled HR documentation, especially around conflict in the workplace. We ended up with policies that feel much more in line with my values and how I want to see them reflected in the business world.
I feel like I’m serving my community in the best capacity. I owe my community (we all owe the trans, especially the BIPOC trans community) so much.
One of the things I’m most proud of in my life is creating jobs for trans people where they have access to safe, supportive work environments and comprehensive health care.
We had to scale up to three times our capacity in the span of two years. That was a tornado of learning on the fly, hiring and training staff, and overhauling manufacturing and operating procedures, all during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I couldn’t have done it without my team, who remained flexible and positive as we “put out the fires'' the best we knew how. It was because of the collective skill sets and perseverance of everyone that we stabilized and created an incredible structure from which we can grow sustainably.
We’ve been featured in many large publications such as the New York Times, Teen Vogue, Elle, the Guardian, Bustle, and more. However, the proudest moments for me are when we receive feedback from trans people who have been struggling. Hearing the stories of how our products have affected their lives is the best motivator to keep going. We are all especially affected by stories from the parents of young trans, gender creative or questioning kids and youth. The pride and protectiveness they have shown us over the years is astounding and inspiring.
Firstly, I’ve shifted focus to making things that people need, not just what people want. The trans community was lacking ethical, safe options, and I decided that was more important than making high- end custom swimwear and lingerie, even though the market is much larger for those more standard garments.
Secondly, I stood by my ethics of offering custom sizing, for free, with no limits. So often, larger sizes are more expensive, and lots of people can’t find standard sizes that can fit their unique shapes. This is why I decided to always offer this customization for free.
Lastly, I treat people as real people. Every customer email we get, or Instagram DM, or blog comment, I remember that there is an actual human on the other side of the screen. We all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
Absolutely, I have come across bias. I have had articles written about the “horrors of tucking and binding”, that I’m mutilating people’s bodies. etc. But the outpouring of support is so much more uplifting, that it really negates all that negativity.
I would say to listen to your community. Ask what people are missing, or what is wrong with the current systems and then find a way to help fix them. Chances are that there are already queers who know how to fix the problem but are lacking the resources.
I turn to the inspiration from my community. There are so many incredible people out there at the cutting edge of fashion, music, art, etc. I have so much to learn from my queer elders and those who just arrived on the scene.
I like “Dancing on my Own” by Robyn. It gets me pumped and makes me really feel my strength and capacity. And “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’” by Scissor Sisters is another one that you just can’t feel sad when you listen to!
One of the biggest shifts over the last few years was the move towards forming partnerships with community organizations so we could get gender affirming products to NGOs who would distribute them for low or no cost.
At the time of writing this, Origami is partnered with fifteen or so NGOs who distribute these products for free within the community.
One of my goals for this year is to expand this program even further to extend points of access to folks who can’t afford gender affirming care.
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