raffa reuther in raffa tangerine coat

Raffa Reuther wearing a Raffa mini coat in tangerine. Courtesy photo

When your very existence rejects gender as binary, “finding your perfect fit” is more than a notion. That’s especially true when it comes to fashion. Raffa Reuther is determined to make clothes that affirm many body types and all gender identities, in service to others and the sartorial dreams they had as a kid.

Identifying as nonbinary, Reuther launched their eponymous brand Raffa with the desire to find attractive clothes that were also practical, durable and made them feel affirmed in their body and identity.

“I wanted to make the clothes that I wish I had,” Reuther said. A formally trained interdisciplinary artist, they launched what would become Raffa in 2018, and now run the brand of fully hand-sewn pieces out of their showroom in Detroit’s Woodbridge neighborhood.

They believe that representation in popular culture can inspire nonbinary and gender nonconforming people to confidently dream of living life beyond the limits of predetermined boxes. In part, that means crafting designs that are imbued with playfulness and shun popular impositions of shape. Reuther loathed the idea of launching yet another collection that presented gender neutral fashions as charmless and excessively minimalist white threads.

From the Raffa staple collection. Courtesy photo

“Shape is very much dictated by society,” said Reuther. “There’s this idea that your body is one shape, so you should wear shapes that flatter it in a way that is determined by the patriarchy. I never wanted to show my body in the way that is expected of femininity or masculinity. I wanted to find something that projected a sense of confidence and felt more in between.”

In Raffa’s current line, that’s easy to find. Designs for coats, matching sets, wrap shorts and more experiment with shape, patchwork and color. Raffa pieces are sturdy enough for yard work and garage mechanics, but fashion forward enough for brunch and bonfires, if that’s your thing.

Reuther intentionally focuses on workwear, which they define as well-constructed and intrinsically functional, so worth the cost of purchase. Besides, they said, “I don’t know about you, but when I put on workwear, “I’m gonna get some shit done.” Reuther aims to adorn Raffa wearers with that kind of energy.

From the Raffa staple collection. Courtesy photo

Making workwear is a nod to Reuther’s family ancestry too, which they describe as “full of labor activists,” most notably their great-uncle Walter Reuther, who adopted Detroit as his home and became one of the nation’s most prominent social progressive leaders through his position as president of the United Auto Workers union from 1946 to 1970.

Though not born or raised in Detroit, Reuther moved to the city last summer to explore those familial roots in the place where their great uncle made his greatest public impact. The point was to wrestle with the idea of what it means to earn a living by making clothes in an era of “fast fashion,” when clothes that are built to last are an undervalued commodity.

“The fashion industry is so complicated and such a big polluter,” Reuther said. “When I decided this is the sole way I would support myself, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just adding to that conclusion.”

From the Raffa staple collection. Courtesy photo

Being new to the area hasn’t stopped Reuther from making some great connections. Earlier this year, a rep from a celebrated Detroit-based fashion accelerator program was referred to their showroom and talks have been promising, boding well for Raffa’s chances of expanding its customer base. Reuther also plans to open a pop up with other local makers this summer.

In the meantime, people are welcome to visit the showroom by appointment or shop the staple collection online.

Reuther hopes to grow the Raffa brand in a way that respects the environment and caters to an underserved population in the nonbinary and gender nonconforming community, though not exclusively.  At the end of the day, Reuther said, “my clothes are for any body.”

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer with a heart for people and their stories. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Innovation. Get in touch at @shes_cwise...

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