Prairie nonprofit combines free fashion with mental health support for the LGBTQ community

In high school, Samuel Braemer used fashion to try to hide his sexuality.

He says that at the time, he didn’t want his style to be expressed too much. He avoided bright, bold colors and patterns.

“It wasn’t really until after high school, when I came out to my family and friends and was really on this journey of accepting myself and finding myself, that I started to express myself through fashion,” Braemer said.

Today, the 33-year-old from Winnipeg is helping others in the LGBTQ community find their individual style through his new non-profit organization, Transforming Style.

It is open to anyone in the community facing socio-economic barriers.

Braemer said the nonprofit process — which he calls a “style trip” — begins when a client requests a private consultation online.

From there, the team learns more about the person – who they are and how they want fashion to reflect that. Virtual consultations are followed by an in-person session to try on clothes and sometimes a second meeting to complete the wardrobe.

“We want people to be able to be true to themselves and feel comfortable and confident in who they are,” said Braemer, who previously worked as a stylist in several Canadian cities, including Toronto.

“What we like to say is that we’re breaking down barriers, building trust and building a support network, one style at a time.”

Samuel Braemer, right, with his husband and Transforming Style co-founder Keith Tennant at a pop-up event in OUTSaskatoon on March 11, 2022. (Don Somers/CBC)

Transforming Style’s team of approximately 10 people, including beauty consultants, curates each personal collection of clothing, shoes, accessories, jewelry and handbags from items donated by the public.

WATCH | How Transforming Style uses fashion to help members of the LGBTQ community:

Prairie nonprofit uses fashion to help members of the LGBTQ community

‘Transforming Style’ is a non-profit organization that creates custom wardrobes from donated items. It also provides immediate access to mental health support. 2:28

As the work begins on the outside, there is also the healing on the inside. The non-profit organization provides free mental health support to ensure a holistic approach to its work.

“We found that there are great organizations that provide mental health support, but wait times — especially given COVID — can be anywhere from six months to a year,” Braemer said.

“It was just, in my mind, not acceptable because people need that immediate support.”

The demand for our services in Saskatchewan is quite high. We have already met a dozen clients and we receive dozens of requests every week.– Samuel Braemer, co-founder of Transforming Style

Braemer noted that about 75% of people who sign up for styling sessions continue with wellness support.

In its first six months, the Transforming Style team has helped more than three dozen clients with custom wardrobes and mental health services.

Expansion in the Prairies

Braemer co-founded Transforming Style with her husband Keith Tennant, officially launching the nonprofit in Winnipeg on August 26, 2021.

In March 2022, the organization expanded to Calgary, with plans in place for a Saskatoon showcase in July and space in Toronto this summer.

“The demand for our services in Saskatchewan is quite high. We have already met with a dozen clients and we receive dozens of inquiries every week,” Braemer said.

On March 11, Braemer and Tennent hosted a pop-up event at OUTSaskatoon, an LGBTQ community center and service provider, to meet with Saskatchewan-based clients.

Jemma Martens is the Peer Navigator for OUTSaskatoon and helps connect people with supports. She said people who access the centre’s services usually face obstacles, including financial ones, and added that a free wardrobe has more than material value.

“Tailoring it to an individual is very important for someone starting their fashion journey or their gender journey,” Martens said.

“A person may not know what they like and having expert eyes to help them is an experience few people have.”

Jemma Martens is the Peer Navigator for OUTSaskatoon. In this role, Martens helps people access peer support with referrals, system navigation and ongoing peer support. (Don Somers/CBC)

Martens said mental health support is a key part of the process, as community members often don’t feel comfortable asking doctors for help.

“They may instead want to talk to someone who is also part of the community and has experienced the struggles or struggles they are experiencing,” Martens said.

Braemer said the plan is to ultimately serve more of the province, particularly rural areas where gender supports are often harder to access. In Manitoba, Transforming Style has begun to partner with rural high schools.

Community connections, donations

Steph Parsons is a longtime friend of Braemer who started helping Transforming Style in its early days and was affectionately given the title “Steph of All Trades”.

“When I meet someone for the first time, or listen to their first interactions with us, and then slowly feel more comfortable, finding out who they are is really awesome to see,” said said Parsons.

“My favorite thing is seeing people in their first styling session. I love watching them go out and look in the mirror.”

Steph Parsons works in various departments of Transforming Style and says the biggest reward is seeing people connect with who they are. (Radio Canada)

Parsons added that while the demand for the organization’s services shows need, it also highlights glaring gaps in LGBTQ support.

“It’s pretty crazy that it wasn’t something that already existed and it was something that kind of had to be created,” they said.

“Especially like people who don’t feel comfortable going to clothing stores, regardless of your size, identification or presentation… not everyone feels comfortable going to these places.”

Parsons now handles most community clothing donations in Winnipeg, and said youth sizes are needed as the program expands to school-age children.

In Saskatchewan, donations of clothing, shoes and accessories of all sizes can be dropped off at OUTSaskatoon. Organizers added that they were in particular need of winter jackets and hygiene products such as deodorant, toothpaste and shampoo.

Anyone interested in getting involved with Transforming Style as a professional service provider, client, donor or volunteer can learn more on the organization’s website.

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