The Clothes That Make the Wo/Man: Parisa Parnian

By Jocelyn Voo
Curve magazine

Versace, Armani, Calvin Klein — you can’t rummage through a Bergdorf women’s rack without flipping past a dozen frocks envisioned by a queer eye. The clothes are sensual and evocative, but their aesthetic almost always conforms perfectly to the mainstream definition of feminine attire: flowing couture gowns, delicate silk shirts, form-fitting tailored pants. And while no one can claim there’s a lack of gay designers, for a gay designer to produce a specifically queer-themed women’s line that defies traditional notions of femininity — well, that’s rarer in the fashion industry than a model wolfing down a pint of Häagen-Dazs without making a post-snack trip to the bathroom.

But Parisa Parnian is one such fashion rebel out to leave her mark on gender-divided clothing. While growing up in a traditional Iranian family — where Islamic dress code requires a woman’s head, neck and arms be covered — and a conservative Republican community in Arizona, Parnian struggled with the idea of discrete gender categories, which seemed increasingly anachronistic as she matured.

“To me, it didn’t seem weird to draw a fashion sketch of a tall, lanky person with short spiky hair, high cheekbones, eye liner, red lips, plunging necklines, tight pants and a giant bulge between his/her leg,” Parnian says. As a result, her early college sketches were full of women dressed in boyish clothing and men’s attire with a typically feminine edge.

Parnian’s fashion philosophy also closely resembles her outlook on life. By the end of her college years, the queer designer realized that sexuality aside, living a straight-edge life was not for her.

“My queerness moved beyond my label as ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian,’” she says. “I found myself constantly pushing the envelope and not fitting in with many aspects of my life — as a devout Muslim, the prodigal eldest child, a first-generation Iranian American living in a culturally unsophisticated suburban sprawl of strip malls and bottle blonds.”

But even a prodigal designer has to pay her dues in the beginning. Though she is now known for her innovative manipulation of color and design, Parnian got her start at the king of plain polos and khakis: The Gap. For two years she designed Hawaiian camp shirts and tongue-in-cheek print boxer shorts for the Old Navy division. Before that, she was a senior designer of young menswear at Target, traveling to extreme sporting events to promote a surf-skate house brand.

“I was the spiky-haired city dyke in black with the digital camera around my neck walking amongst the sea of young, drunk, hetero college kids getting their freak on in sand, snow and sun,” she remembers.

However, it’s precisely those drunk, hetero college kids whom dykes around the world should be thanking. During her years spent designing mass retailer suburban clothing, Parnian noticed just how many of her fashions were being worn by lesbians rather than the young men they were ostensibly made for.

“I got a thrill out of watching women reinterpret these items of mainstream men’s clothing for their gender, lifestyle, and as a way to help mark or identify them as queer or butch or genderqueer,” she says.

The final kick in the bucket occurred one fateful day in the summer of 2004 as Parnian perused the craft fair at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, watching women hawk lesbian products and services to fellow lezzies.

“It was like a math equation,” she says. “Knowledge of masculine design plus dykes complaining about lack of fashion relevant for their aesthetic/lifestyle plus quitting [the] corporate fashion world equals starting Rigged OUT/fitters.”

Parnian cobbled together an impromptu line that was consistent with her idea of the way people ought to dress, and Rigged fashions quickly became noted for their strong androgynous design. Rigged’s first collection was modeled after stereotypically macho yet homoerotic figures — sailors, pirates, cowboys, boxers — who are glorified for their sexy, rebellious appeal. This translated into feminine cuts of masculine wear: vintage cowboy shirts, zip jackets with chest patches, boy-cut graphic tees with “Outlaw” or “Tomkat’s Pussy Shack” silk-screened on the front.

The recycled, one-of-a-kind pieces seem worn-in, unfinished. And for Parnian, that sentiment is deliberate, even symbolic: “I like the raw, true sense of things. I’m not into polished or highly refined aesthetics but a play between new and old, history and the future, possibilities and borders to be crossed and walls to be broken.” After all, she points out, Brooklyn hipster dykes were sporting “that white trash ‘dirt fag’ look” long before Hollywood celebrities began making the front pages of Us Weekly in Salvation Army duds.

Even without a brick-and-mortar storefront, Rigged has slowly gained momentum over the past few years. In fact, Cynthia Summers, costume designer for The L Word , recently contacted Parnian to discuss including Rigged clothing on the hit show. With show creator Ilene Chaiken’s blessing, Shane, Moira and Carmen will all be wearing Rigged pieces in the upcoming season, and the waitstaff and chef of L Word hangout The Planet will be rocking Rigged’s signature swallow bird on their uniforms.
Breaking stereotypical “lesbian fashion” categories is still an uphill battle, but progress seems to be slow and steady.

“Can you imagine if I tried to pitch my clothing line to a bunch of financial investors? This is the last market anybody would be willing to take a risk with,” Parnian says. “But I am invested in at least giving it a shot and doing it with a bang.”

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