Every dearDama piece comes with a special, surprise label attached. “You gotta think for yourself,” one might read, while another could offer something more ambiguous, like “You don’t need confirmation.” This sense of freedom and empowerment runs throughout the indie New York-based brand, which strives to create the antidote to toxic masculinity in our everyday dress.
For Cuban designer Ryan Rodriguez, who’s previously worked for brands like Thom Browne, Calvin Klein or The Row, this means achieving balance between femme and masc style codes — a skort made from basketball shorts in bright pink; a polo with the silhouette of a camisole in sequins; a guayabera day dress that resembles the look and feel of classic workwear.
Below, PAPER explores dearDama’s “complex interplay between womenswear silhouettes and mens sportswear details,” and Rodriguez’s greater mission to foster a "gentle man" with his fashion.
What is the story behind your brand name and how does it play into the clothes?
I honestly thought about what the name would be every single day for like five years straight. Ultimately dearDama, is an attempt at addressing the femininity in men. "Dama" means "lady" in Spanish (my heritage is Cuban). My perspective often dwells in the intimate relationship between the garment and the consumer, so your t-shirt addressing you with dearDama, when you go to grab it from your closet hopefully reminds you that whether it’s 100% or 1%, there’s a little bit of lady in all of us.
What did you take away from working at major brands that you’ve applied to your own work?
I’m eternally trying to improve things, so I mostly learned what not to do with my experiences as a part of any brand, to be completely honest. We all know the entire fashion industry is riddled with inefficiencies and waste, and that struck me the most emotionally. As an example: having to play a part in scrapping hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of fabric because it wasn’t used and it has a custom print so it can’t be repurposed outside of the company was soul shattering. This [is] probably why I haven’t even made any actual stock of the clothes to sell, some sort of waste PTSD or something.
Gender in fashion is being more readily explored among major brands, especially recently. What is dearDama’s own position or statement on gender?
This is a big one. Though our culture is making progress, society is still burdened with gender identity and gender expression prejudice. Terms like cisgender and gender nonconforming, while helpful in developing a language for progress, ultimately ingrain division. Culturally speaking, gender expression is the adherence to or away from existing varied but very specific "feminine" or "masculine" constructs. Most individual's gender expression is a lifelong development that is often guided by a slow leaning into a few pre-made archetypes. We experience this with "toxic masculinity," a term that denotes the cultural pressures for men to behave and act in a certain, very nasty way. Propagating negative traits like aggressiveness and dominance, to name a few.
However, these archetypes — male, female — aren’t gonna stick around too long because everyone is an individual and everyone falls on their own little spot on the gender spectrum. Now, you might say that sounds like gender nonconforming. But to not conform, there must be concepts to not conform to. Girls do this and boys do that, but that’s not me. I don’t conform to those expectations or standards. That ideology can only exist as long there are expectations and standards to begin with. As time goes on, these expectations will start to blur and fuse even more and you can just be you. Speeding this process up as much as possible is the main goal of dearDama.
"I realize there is enough nuance when I myself can no longer judge the gender of the garment."
Your designs seem to all balance more traditional codes of menswear and womenswear, like the cami silhouette on a polo or the basketball skort. How do you decide when you’ve achieved enough nuance?
Playing with and merging or distorting traditional codes on either ends of the gender spectrum will illuminate areas on the spectrum that are currently unexplored. Socially accepted masculine and feminine clothes are readily available and it's through the dance of those extremes that I hope to create paths to spaces untainted by prejudice. I realize there is enough nuance when I myself can no longer judge the gender of the garment.
How do the materials themselves, like sequins, play into this process?
The materials are of equal importance to the process as they play an equal part to the gender expression. When it comes to clothes, many silhouettes and materials alike are intrinsically tied to predated gender constructs. If I said to imagine a flowing piece of chiffon on a body, most people would imagine that body as female, because that’s mostly what they have been exposed to thus far. Those are the standards we aim to fade [by] making garments like a tailored jacket out of chiffon instead.
Is there a style or silhouette you’ve already created and released that you consider a dearDama staple? Something we’ll see moving forward with the brand frequently?
The cami, I'm obsessed with how feminine the silhouette reads. I'm throwing camis on every masculine thing in existence until no one knows what a cami is anymore. Same with a pleated skirt, these shapes need to be devoured by menswear.
"I'm throwing camis on every masculine thing in existence until no one knows what a cami is anymore."
Are there any figures in pop culture you think about while designing? Anyone you’d love to see wearing dearDama?
Realistically, I consider people like Bad Bunny or Post Malone — figures who are like-minded and already pushing the mission. But what a dream it would be for some random white 60-year-old politician or even some finance bro fuckboy [in] his silly little suit to wear a dearDama floor-length frilly chiffon gown walking down the street, hand-in-hand with his girlfriend wearing jeans and a blazer. The day that’s an average occurrence and no one bats an eye is the day toxic masculinity has officially lost.
How do you think fashion can be a communication tool for achieving a safer world, especially for LGBTQ people?If we can erase the point of reference for what a straight cisgender person wears and how they express themselves through clothes, then the point of reference for the LGBTQ [community] will fade as well. I believe it needs to be done in this order as it's typically the non-LGBTQ community that is doing the judging. So once the non-LGBTQ community no longer has a sense of what normal and different means to them, gender prejudice will be eradicated worldwide.
What larger impact do you hope dearDama has on culture, outside of fashion?