who was born in California and grew up in Texas, closes the door to her studio, the merciful cross-breeze blowing through her apartment on that sweaty day be damned. There, hanging on the back of the door, rests a ribbed, white, cotton-polyester top with creamy silk ribbons laced up the back. There's a zipper on the left shoulder, zipped up to the collar. I ask if the zipper's there so that the garment can be worn off the shoulder. "You don't need to unzip it to be off the shoulder," says Graham, "but Cecilia can if she wants."
It's a one-of-a-kind piece for Cecilia Gentili, the actress and beloved leader within New York City's trans and sex worker communities whom Pose fans might know better as Miss Orlando, the show's resident silicone enthusiast and body disposal aficionado. In two days, Gentili will perform The Knife Cuts Both Ways, her one-woman show about becoming New York's "Downtown transsexual sweetheart" after leaving Argentina to seek asylum in the United States. She'll be performing for a sold-out crowd.
"She deserves every ounce of recognition she can get," Graham says of the star.
Graham has been making ethereal, feminine couture for trans women for more than half a decade, creating garments for women in her community in a very literal sense. While that effort exists most plainly in private commissions, like her work for Gentili, it extends to all areas of her business.
When Graham goes to design a runway collection, she begins with the casting -- reaching out to people she knows to see if they'd like to walk for her. She then pores over clothing and other materials she's found in the bins at Goodwill or gathered from friends as the pieces take shape in her mind. While she has ideas going into the process, the resulting collection -- be it veiled interpretations of traditional bridal gowns, or blood-spattered sportswear inspired by the violence trans femmes risk every day -- will depend as much on the models she casts as it will on the materials. Each look is made with a model in mind, in a sense custom for them. But Graham's is a sustainable design process, transforming discarded, low-cost materials into something new and, at the risk of sounding like a disgusting capitalist, of greater value.
Sustainability is a very buzzy word in fashion right now, with major brands like Gucci and Chanel signing French President Emmanuel Macron's so-called "Fashion Pact" to make the industry more sustainable. Even Zara has announced new sustainability goals, despite how thoroughly unsustainable its fast-fashion business model is to its core. But for Graham, sustainability isn't so much a trend as it is a matter of ethics, not to mention economics.
"Journalists didn't really ask me about sustainability until the past year or two, even though I've been designing this way from the start," she tells me. "I can't afford to do it another way, but I also feel obligated to do it this way. The fashion industry creates so much pollution and waste. I don't need to be contributing to that." So her upcycled wares, refashioning discarded garments into newfangled creations for women who, often times, are not the ones who were intended to wear the pieces in the first place, are almost the definition of sustainable.
The designer is similarly unmoved by the idea that she might be doing something radical or relevant by making couture for women of all different shapes and sizes -- something that pretty much all of the major houses, even with all of their resources, are loathe to do on a massive scale. "It would be silly for me to be like, 'I'm making this stuff for people in my community to wear,' but then have it only fit a couple of people," she says. "We're all different. It doesn't make sense to me not to make my clothes fit different shapes and sizes."
Casting trans models, as Graham has done for every single one of her collections since 2015, is similarly in vogue, though usually in the service of "augmenting a brand's consumer base," as Alex Verman wrote in a recent piece on the fashion industry's embrace of nonbinary aesthetics for Xtra. Marco Marco, for example, got a lot of positive press for the designer's "groundbreaking" all-trans runway at New York Fashion Week in 2018, despite the fact that Graham had been presenting all-trans runways for years before that to significantly less fanfare.
These kinds of representational milestones don't seem to rouse Graham as much as they might Marco Marco. Her wants are so much greater. She'd rather a new economic system, one that doesn't require mass precarity to function: "Unless things change drastically with our current economic structure, the fashion industry can't improve." But if trans visibility under capitalism is all we're going to get at the moment, Graham just asks that trans women of color get paid -- in dollars, not exposure.
"Pay these girls," she says. "Pay the girls. That's it."