Designing Maternity Clothes for Genderqueer Parents

Co-founder Vanessa Newman of Butchbaby.
Co-founder Vanessa Newman of Butchbaby. Photo: Butch Baby

Once upon a time, maternity clothing was all bows, floral patterns, and muumuus. While it has evolved in the last few decades to include body-conscious styles that flaunt (rather than hide) “baby bumps,” it’s remained mostly conventionally feminine.

The founders of the new line Butchbaby & Co. want to change that. Vanessa Newman, a digital strategist, and Michelle Janayea, a design student at Columbia College in Chicago, are creating an alternative to hyperfeminine maternitywear aimed at LGBTQ folks who are starting their own families.

The young entrepreneurs spoke to the Cut about identity, their new “alternity” line due out in the fall, and creating an LGBTQ community through fashion.

Co-founder Michelle Janayea. Photo: Jacob Boll/Butch Baby

Can you tell me a little about the origins of Butchbaby?
Vanessa Newman: The idea came when I was 18 during my freshman year of college. My best friend and I have a little more masculine aesthetic. And we would always joke about having kids at the same time and they would be best friends like us and the question was always — What are we going to wear?

During my sophomore year, I started going to networking events more often and I hated saying that I was a student, so I would say that I was doing whatever my idea at the time was. I would occasionally go to events and say I was working on an androgynous maternity line and people would be like, “That’s so great, let me give you my card.” And that’s kind of when I realized, Wow, you have a really good idea here.

Michelle Janayea: For me, this idea first came to me when I was 16 and my mom got pregnant. I was an only child — it was just me and my mom at home and she was having a baby. Watching her over those nine months, changing what she wore, had me thinking about what my life would look like at that stage and who I would be with, knowing that I was a queer woman and knowing I would most likely be with someone who might be a little more masculine than me and thinking about what we would wear and who would be having children.

How did you come up with the name?
V.N.: The name kind of honestly just popped into my head one day.

I will say, though, that when our website first started getting attention, we did get a number of concerns raised over the name because the term butch has more negative connotations with older audiences. We had a number of queer women [say], “Butch wasn’t a good term growing up.” Or transgender individuals were like, “Butch to me is a lesbian and I’m not a lesbian, I’m trans. I can’t really relate to the term. But at the end of the day, I will still buy your clothes.”

I think that millennials are embracing the term butch in many ways.

What do you make of the interest in your company?
M.J.: Just having been in fashion and studying, I have always noticed this very big gap between masculine and feminine clothing … Studying fashion, I told myself I wanted to bridge that gap and then when I got this overwhelming response when we launched our website, it showed me that me and Vanessa weren’t the only ones thinking about this.

V.N.: We’re just at the beginning of what I think will be a much larger movement of gender-neutral clothing … We’re seeing more companies popping up, like suits for women or individuals who don’t like the way that women’s suits fit but men’s suits don’t fit them either. We’re seeing more of just everyday T-shirts and jeans and dress shirts for more gender-neutral aesthetics.

Selfridges in London, right now they’re opening up floors of gender-neutral shopping and clothing. We’re just at the beginning. We just attacked one of the areas of clothing that hasn’t been focused on yet.

In the first collection, you’ve divided the designs into work (jeans, button-down shirt, pullover), play (nursing tee, jogging pants, hoodie), and rest (nursing bra, boxer briefs). Why did you group them this way?
V.N.: I wanted to start with the basics, the absolute necessities, the clothing that most people in our audience of masculine-identified individuals were wearing on a day-to-day basis.

I’m wearing a button-down shirt, joggers [sweatpants], and jeans, and an undershirt. That’s my outfit just about every single day. And on the weekends, it’s a T-shirt, jeans, and joggers.

Through customer discovery, we pretty much found what was the standard outfit. If I was trapped and couldn’t go shopping for a whole year, what would I have in my closet? A sweater, a good pair of jeans, a nice T-shirt, a nice button-down shirt. This was the general consensus.

Are there any touches or features that you really are proud of?
V.N.: The jeans — I’m really into that we’re trying to have these side elastic splits that get rid of the need of a belly band. I think that the belly bands are kind of hideous. I’m also really into the hoodie, we have a wallet compartment in the sleeve. That’s really awesome. When you’re masculine, for me, I don’t always carry a bag and I like to carry as much as possible with as little [of the] pocket space that I have.

M.J.: Another feature that I’m actually really into, on our nursing tee, where it’s split right underneath the bust, that way you can lift up the top piece for nursing. I want to spend more time on it in a future collection, figuring out different ways to design because I think it’s really essential to have that easy access.

Where do you guys hope to sell the collection? Online or in brick-and-mortar stores?
V.N.: We’re currently planning on selling online through our own website. I personally want to do a pop-up store within a year or two after launching. There’s always the option of wholesale and selling in other people’s stores. But one of the big things we’re selling is comfort — and not just comfort in clothing but comfort in identity and knowing that you can be comfortable in your own skin. If we sold clothing to someone like Target, you may feel comfort in the clothes but if you’re masculine or trans, you may feel uncomfortable going into Target. You may feel uncomfortable talking to that cis, straight, potentially judgmental salesperson, asking, “Hey can I wear this? Does this fit?”

M.J.: We’re not just creating a clothing line. We want to build a community. We want to build a safe haven for people who don’t always know where to go to feel safe … Even it’s just an online community that we build, that’s enough for us right now. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Maternity Clothes for Genderqueer Parents