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Keith Tennant (left) and Sam Braemer, photographed in Toronto, founded Transforming Style to create a safe, welcoming place for anyone on their 2SLGBTQIA+ style journey.Galit Rodan

Over the weekend, Sam Braemer received an email that brought him to tears. It was from the mother of a teenager who Mr. Braemer and his team had helped with some personal styling over the summer.

What made this different from your average back-to-school shopping trip, however, was that this young person had been assigned male at birth and had been presenting that way all her life. This new school year marked a turning point when she began living (and dressing) as the person she felt she had always been inside.

“After she went back to school, her mom reached out with some photos and said, ‘You have helped shape the beginning of the new year in a new school and a new identity. As a mom, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for this program,’” Mr. Braemer says.

The program that grateful mom was referring to is Transforming Style, a free service that helps people in the 2SLGBTQIA+ community be, as Mr. Braemer phrases it, “their true selves,” regardless of barriers to access. Beyond the cost of investing in a brand-new wardrobe, these barriers can include not having the means to buy gender-affirming underwear such as chest binders or tucking briefs, or lacking the mental health or community services for support during the “coming out” process.

Co-founded in August 2021 by Mr. Braemer and his husband, Keith Tennant, Transforming Style has already worked with more than 100 people in just over a year. They recently launched a campaign, 500 Faces, to help them reach 400 more folks with their styling, beauty and support services. For the most part, they’ve grown through word of mouth and people who have found them on Instagram.

“Our mission is to create a safe and welcoming place where anyone on their 2SLGBTQIA+ style journey can find the resources they need to celebrate their true self through style,” says Mr. Braemer.

Sam Braemer (second from left) speaking to visitors at the opening of Transforming Style’s Calgary location.Supplied

‘A matter of being seen’

Since the organization’s launch in Winnipeg, they’ve opened two more locations – Calgary and Toronto – and have had requests from across Canada, the U.S. and as far afield as Australia.

“Style is a statement; it’s how we communicate to the world who we are,” says Mr. Braemer, who has a background in non-profits and has also worked as a personal stylist. “For many of us in the community, it’s really a matter of being seen.”

At the same time, it can sometimes be “overwhelming” to go into a mall or boutique and shop, he notes. Someone’s true self might be very different from the person they are currently presenting as when they browse the racks or go into a fitting room.

“For example, when I was in high school, I did not express myself through style,” says Mr. Braemer, who grew up in Winnipeg. “I was not out at the time, and I wouldn’t necessarily wear, say, a pink shirt, because I wasn’t comfortable with myself, and I wasn’t comfortable expressing myself through fashion.”

Style is a statement; it’s how we communicate to the world who we are.

Sam Braemer

Even with a loving and supportive family, Mr. Braemer says he only felt comfortable experimenting with fashion in the privacy of his home, often wearing clothing donated by a particularly fashionable family friend.

“It was a great way for me to play with fashion and see what I like,” he says. That experience inspired the environment Mr. Braemer and the rest of the volunteer Transforming Style team strive to create in their appointments: a warm, inclusive space that feels like a chic boutique in the comfort of your own home.

A client’s “style journey” starts with filling out a contact form on the Transforming Style website, after which they have a virtual consultation with their stylist.

“We get to know them, and really get down to the nitty-gritty of how best to represent themselves through style,” says Mr. Braemer. Questions can include, “Who are your style icons?” or, “Are there certain patterns or colours you like?”

It’s not unusual for a client to not really know what their style is, which is where the in-person appointments come in. Clients try on things they may have otherwise dismissed and may expand their ideas of what works on them. (If someone can only attend virtually, clothing is shipped to them.)

“That’s why you’re matched with a professional stylist, who can really walk you through this, and guide you to what works best,” says Mr. Braemer.

Ongoing support

Clients leave their appointments with a new, free wardrobe (all clothing is donated, which is part of Transforming Style’s commitment to sustainability). But the journey doesn’t end there. They can come back as the seasons change or even as their sense of style evolves. The organization also provides beauty consultations and products and, perhaps most crucially, support services, inspired by Mr. Braemer’s very first client in Winnipeg last year.

“She was so thrilled to be presenting solely female on the outside, and still needed to do some work on the inside,” says Mr. Braemer. He initially referred her to some local organizations, but found out the wait time was over a year. “That’s why we now offer immediate support, and there’s no timeline to when the support ends.”

All the clothing provided to Transforming Style clients is donated, says co-founder Sam Braemer (above).Supplied

Appointments with trained therapists are also cost-free, he adds, noting that some clients have been using these services for nearly a year.

“It might seem backwards that the style journey sometimes comes before the support services,” Mr. Braemer says, “but being who you are on the outside can make such a difference to your confidence and in loving yourself.”

Fostering that self-love is why Mr. Braemer founded Transforming Style. He says that receiving emails from grateful participants – and their family members – is particularly impactful for him.

“When I was in high school, I struggled with my sexuality and coming to terms with my true self, and I wasn’t expressing myself through fashion,” he says. “I think that if an organization like Transforming Style had existed, maybe I wouldn’t have gone through some of the hardships I went through.”

He adds: “Thinking back, how silly was it that I was afraid that someone might judge me for wearing bright colours or certain patterns? I just want to be able to help people at any stage in their life to wear whatever they want.”