"People used to come up to me all the time and be like 'I wish I had the same courage as you'," says designer Vince Barile as he crosses his legs, takes a sip of rose, and smoothes the pleats of his skirt. " 'The boy that wears dresses or skirts' started becoming a signature for me."
The 24-year-old, who resides in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, is in a cafe in Union Square. He's paired his demure, knee-length black skirt with a Sonic Youth T-shirt that shows off a few of his 42 tattoos.
As a self-proclaimed 'Girly Boy,' Barile's new endeavor -- the gender-neutral, and genderless, brand Girly Boy Gang -- is a natural extension of his mode of dressing.
It launches tonight with an opening party at International Playground, a trendy SoHo shop. Girly Boy Gang will be selling band-inspired T-shirts and other pieces of merchandise, such as posters and notebooks. The unisex T-shirts feature logos mimicking the iconography of bands, such as New Order, the Sex Pistols, Public Image Ltd, and Gang of Four. Along with his penchant for punk and post-punk is a passion for riot grrrl; Barile envisions Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and The Julie Ruin as the ultimate collaborator. His old-school music taste was instilled in him at an early age when he was growing up in suburban Connecticut.
"My sister got me into feminist punk rock," Barile explains. "I was only 8 years old, but the girls were so passionate. You could literally hear the cries in their singing. For me, that's what fighting for something was about."
In the same way the riot grrrl scene was just as much of a movement as a musical style, Girly Boy Gang aims for similar lofty goals: to get people talking about gender identity -- including those who don't identify with any gender. Girly Boy Gang is a not-for-profit organization, with all profits going to various LGBTQ organizations. For Barile, the goal is to have an activist group that runs like a "posse that would totally have your back."
Although influenced by classic female centric biker flicks -- like Grease (the 'Pink Ladies' especially spoke to him), Girl Gang, and Cry Baby -- Barile's Girly Boy Gang is all-inclusive: anybody can buy the T-shirts and anybody can talk about gender.
For International Playground's co-founder, John Pizzolato, Girly Boy Gang is in line with the store's ethos. "Over the past couple of years, the store has set out to expose queer artists in fashion, in the attempt to address the counterculture of queer fashion," he said. Previously, International Playground has collaborated with photographer Ben Fredrickson, who designed boxer shorts with built-in condom pockets. Another one of the store's 'Queer Looks' was the brand Kick Sagat, a collection of men's underwear, with pop art colors and fabric cutouts, by former porn luminary-turned-designer, Francois Sagat.
Barille studied graphic design at the Art Institute and then, in 2011, he co-founded the industrial punk jewelry brand Bond Hardware, along with his then-roommate, Dana Hurwitz. It began specializing in extreme pieces that looked like re-appropriated heavy metal fixtures (think: brooches that look like chain locks for doors). It became a cult success and sold at various stores in New York and Lane Crawford in Hong Kong.
Earlier this year, however, Barile left the company. "I did the jewelry full time for two years," he says, but he found the industry "emotionally draining. I didn't want to just go to fashion parties and talk about Raf Simons' new collection."
After leaving Bond Hardware, Barile devoted his time to Girly Boy Gang -- as well as moonlighting at a men's spa.
"When I was growing up, I just sat on MySpace and looked at other people and were super jealous of their lives. I had this really awesome group of people that I had never met," Barile says.
Barile hopes the brand will unite Girly Boys (or boyish girls and everyone all over the spectrum) everywhere. As Barile explains: "It's an activist group, for people who don't want or need to identify with any gender. Obviously if you want to identify as a boy or as a girl you can, but it's the idea of freeing yourself from a gender."