Prairie non-profit pairs free fashion, mental health support for 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 express too much. He avoided bright, bold colours and patterns.

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

Now the 33-year-old from Winnipeg is helping others within the LGBTQ community find their individual style through his newly-formed non-profit organization, Transforming Style.

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

Braemer said the non-profit’s process — which he calls a “style journey” — starts 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. The virtual consults are followed up with an in-person session to try on clothes and sometimes a second meeting to complete the wardrobe. 

“We want folks 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 are breaking down barriers, building confidence and creating a network of support one style at a time.”

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

The Transforming Style team of about 10 people, including beauty consultants, curates each personal collection of clothing, footwear, accessories, jewelry and handbags from items donated by the public.

WATCH| How Transforming Style uses fashion to help people within LGBTQ community:

Prairie non-profit using fashion to help people within LGBTQ community

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

As the work commences on the outside, there’s also healing from within. The non-profit provides free mental health support to ensure a holistic approach to its work. 

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

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

The demand for our services in Saskatchewan is quite high. We have already met with a dozen clients, and we are receiving dozens of requests on a weekly basis.– Samuel Braemer, Transforming Style co-founder

Braemer noted that about 75 per cent of people who sign up for style sessions continue with wellness support.

In its first six months, Transforming Style’s team helped more than three dozen clients with personalized wardrobes and mental health services.

Expanding across the Prairies

Braemer co-founded Transforming Style with husband Keith Tennant, officially launching the non-profit in Winnipeg on Aug. 26, 2021.

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

“The demand for our services in Saskatchewan is quite high. We have already met with a dozen clients, and we are receiving dozens of requests on a weekly basis,” Braemer said.

On March 11, Braemer and Tennent held a pop-up event at OUTSaskatoon, an LGBTQ community centre and service provider, to meet with Sask.-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 typically face barriers, including financial, and added that a free wardrobe has more than material value.

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

“An individual may not know what they like and having the eyes of experts to help is an experience not many people get.”

Jemma Martens is the peer navigator for OUTSaskatoon. In this role, Martens assists people accessing peer support with referrals, system navigation and ongoing peer support. (Don Somers/CBC)

Martens said the mental health support is a key part of the process, as people in the community often don’t feel comfortable seeking help from doctors.

“They may instead want to speak with an individual who is also part of the community and has experienced the struggles or the hardships they are experiencing,” Martens said.

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

Community connections, donations

Steph Parsons is a long-time friend of Braemer’s who began helping with Transforming Style in its early days and has affectionately been given the title “Steph of all trades.”

“When I’m meeting someone for the first time, or listening to their first interactions with us, and then slowly getting more comfortable, finding kind of who they are, is really awesome to see,” Parsons said.

“My favourite part is just seeing the people when they do their first style session. I like watching them walk out and like look at themselves in the mirror.”

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

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

“It’s pretty wild that this isn’t something that already existed and that this was something that had to sort of be created,” they said. 

“Especially just like people not being comfortable in clothing stores, regardless of your size or how you identify or how you present.… not everyone feels comfortable going to these places.”

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

In Saskatchewan, donations of any-sized clothing, footwear and accessories can be dropped off at OUTSaskatoon. Organizers added they are especially in 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, a client, a donor or volunteer can learn more on the organization’s website