Let the Heads-Count-Stephane using fashion as a driver of inclusion and diversityUrbanmedley
The inspirational Stephane Bonutto- believes in expressing himself exactly the way he feels even if it means going against the traditional societal norms. He dresses in clothes originally designed for women, as that is what he wants and feels can best express himself when it comes to fashion. An advocate of inclusivity shares his journey with us.
I will have to start with probably the question you have heard many times – When did you wear women’s clothes for the first time in public? what was the reaction around you?
Let me answer with a slight correction first on the term “women’s clothes” if you allow. I prefer to use the expression “clothes designed originally for women”. For me, all clothes can be worn by all genders. I recall my first trial was about 10 years ago. At first, people have shown curiosity, and have also in the vast majority shown positive reactions. This has given me confidence to make it my personal style.
(Stephane I stand corrected – ‘Clothes designed for women’ )
What changed in you at that moment as a person?
I do not believe that clothes change the person, and certainly not the gender. Clothes rather interact with us. I have found out that I can express my values and my personality through my clothing. In my case, this is empathy, and what I call “strong kindness” or “soft power”. For this, I use the feminine clothes as my visual expression. I find that I can achieve a more differentiated expression than with only men’s clothes.
Was this a desire you kept secret for a long time – when and what made you realize this urge in you and the need to express it?
I recall it was rather a coincidence. On a shopping day, I passed by some skirts and realized I would fit in them (I thought before, that it would not be possible due to morphology – laugh). I bought one, along with some tights and heels, and found out I felt well in them. Then this style has become my expression.
You are married to a woman – what was her reaction to you dressing in women’s clothes and how did she support you in this journey. Did it in anyway impact your relation?
For sure this has raised some questions for her, since it has been a change vs. what she had known before. Her first question was whether I would be on my way to change my gender. I am always clear this is not the case. This reassured her immediately. I make a clear point that I continue to feel like a man, and that I continue to be straight. It is very important to me to break the cliché that man wearing skirts & heels would be either gay, or in a gender transition. This is not the case.
What is the reaction you get when you are out clothes shopping for yourself?
The reactions from salespeople are very positive. They discern a taste for elegance and feelings, by the way I chose the clothes. There is no judgement. Men shopping a skirt or a dress has also become more common than 10-15 years ago.
Are there an women’s clothing/ accessories that you just don’t like? g. Bras, pantyhose, many of us women consider these bothersome.
I do not need to wear bras, since I have no breast, and since I do not wear fake breasts. Fake body parts emulate the woman’s body and thereby risk reinforcing the prejudice, that men wearing feminine clothing try to pass as woman. Since I claim that a man can wear a skirt or dress as a man, I strongly avoid fake body parts. Having said that, I have full respect for men who wear body parts; this is their choice, and I stand for respect and tolerance. I just say it is not me.
Do you always dress in women’s outfits or are there times when you change your style?
I love changing my style. Although most of my wardrobe consists of clothes designed for women, they include many pants and shirts. I do not wear a skirt or dress or heels every day. I cultivate my personal branding as described before, but I want to avoid generating a new cliché of the “man constantly in skirt”.
How was it at your workplace? With colleagues and others, I assume you wear women’s clothes at work.
I do also wear all kind of clothes at work. It is important for me to bring one’s true self to work, and not to hide traits of personality. This makes people even stronger since they show themselves authentically. This is precisely what I empower people to do.
How tough was it to be accepted as a professional given your choice of clothes?
We have come a long way. Certainly, 10 years ago, it was a “little revolution”. By now, many companies with a commitment to Diversity & Inclusion include gender free clothing as part of their policy. I feel proud having been among the first ones to bring this innovation. I believe it needs this kind of disruptive taste to drive innovation. Innovation is driven by people who challenge the status-quo. This challenge can take place in a production technology, in a finance tool, and in the personal appearance. Because behind the appearance, the person counts – or : the head counts. This is by the way the origin of my initiative “the_heads_count” you can follow me on Instagram.
We are all aware of the glass ceilings a woman is faced with at the workplace – did your outfits of choice make things difficult for you a man?
This is one of the reasons of my action. I am a driver of inclusion and diversity at work and in life generally. In this respect, breaking the unconscious bias is one of the most important things to do. It is also fundamental to evaluate people at work on their results, on their technical skills, and on their soft skills. On the contrary, personal dimensions like race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, and physical ability must be left out of any professional evaluation.
You are modelling in women’s clothes and are also part of fashion talks – Tell me a little about how this happened – do you see this as a catalyst to changing mindsets and societal gender bias?
Yes, clearly. The “feminine clothing” corresponds to my taste, but it is also the visual expression of my commitment to make mindsets evolve and to break the gender bias, at work, in the fashion world and in society in general. I am very pleased to see that men are increasingly part of fashion shows for “feminine clothing”, as a symbol of diversity in our world. The same applies to people of different sizes and we also start to see people with physical disability in fashion shows. The sustainable fashion is at the edge of this progress because sustainability and diversity go hand in hand. The inclusiveness of the fashion world is also fundamental for me, since fashion shows should reflect our world as it is, instead of creating an illusion of what the world is not.
Can you share a few critical remarks you may have faced from the people around you during this journey? How have they impacted you?
Critical remarks have come from people who try to see a moral issue in a man wearing clothes designed for women. I answer by asking whether they would see a moral issue when a woman puts on a trouser or a tie. Then these people become quiet. Another type of criticism comes from people who try to see diversity as propaganda. This also concerns me, since these remarks are the expression of people who try to refrain the freedom of thinking and of expression. And we currently see where this could lead to. These two kinds of criticism reinforce me in the belief that my action for diversity and its visualization through the clothing is more needed than ever. I do not see myself as an activist, but I clearly stand for peace and freedom. And there is no tolerance towards intolerant people on these values.
Is it only clothes or would you want to further explore femininity in a deeper way?
I do not intend any transition in any way. Rather, the question what feminism is, has been raised at several international women’s days. Feminism, and female business, stand for much more than only gender or biology. They are a perspective on our world, on equity, and an expression of empathy. Wearing theses clothes has enabled me to add a complementary perspective to my original perspective: a more empathetic and emotional view, as a complement to the rational view. Frankly speaking, I would not have thought 10 years ago that wearing a skirt would have taken me that far.
Fashion today is making bold statements and breaking stereotypes – your views on this?
This is great, when this is meant with integrity. That is, when deeds follow declarations. I refer to what I said about fashion shows earlier in this interview. The fashion world, like the business world, is now full of statements to equity, diversity, and inclusion. What matters is which actions are taken, to ensure this is effectively lived on a day-to-day basis. Real actions are measured by hard facts. There are several indices in place to measure the true impact of diversity management. Let me quote as examples the Diversity Monitor from Beyond Gender Agenda, and the Woman Career Index (“Frauen-Karriere-Index”) from Impact of Diversity, in Germany, where I live.
Your message to individuals who are closeted and unable to express their true inner self.
Get out of the closet. There is no reason why you should remain hidden. You are beautiful the way you are, since you are unique. Let your uniqueness make you recognizable and memorable.
Stéphane is working in an industrial company as finance manager. Outside his work, he is a diversity speaker and coach, believing that diversity and inclusion are key success factors for individuals to live their true self, and for organizations to build high-performance teams delivering superior results. Stéphane uses feminine clothing worn as a man, as a visual communication for his commitment to diversity. Check out the amazing work done by him to promote inclusivity at The heads count
Author – Shayonti Chatterji
Image credits- Stephane Bonutto