Times are extremely hard for everyone right now, especially for small business owners. Today I wanted to highlight a small business that I truly love and wear myself. The designs are what originally caught my eye. I was delighted to hear that the owners were also trans.
Alex Asero and Abel Killian are the guys behind Over the Rainbow Apparel, a trans-founded clothing company that started in June of 2019 in Richmond, Virginia. The duo have been friends for over 10 years and are both 8 years into their transitions. Right now this incredible small business sells t-shirts featuring original artwork by Abel Killian, who also works as a tattoo artist in RVA at LUCKY13. Over The Rainbow Apparel sells t-shirts with incredible designs, pins, and even art prints featuring Abel’s work. If you are into the traditional American tattoo style you will love the designs on this apparel. Many of the designs touch on trans topics without featuring trans pride colors or the rainbow flag.
You can purchase merchandise from OTR here: overtherainbowapparel.com
I interviewed Alex and Abel to get a deeper look into their small business, friendship and process.
Ryan Cassata: Before we start, please share how you both identify.
Abel Killian: Identify as a straight male but I get my testosterone from a 10ml vial. He/Him/Hey there.
Alex Asero: I also identify as a straight male. He/Him.
RC: When did OTR start? What gave you the idea?
AK: Art was something that I’ve done my whole life but tattooing was the art form that made it. I’ve been at it for over 12 years now, so once my clientele grew I began thinking of other ways to push art out that wasn’t just on skin. Designing apparel would be a way for me to draw tattoos that someone could accessorize or change themselves. I was given the opportunity draw up a shop shirt for Lucky 13 Tattoo’s LGBTQIA+ Pride a few years back and the feeling I had watching all of our allies and community rock this design was unreal. The only thing that really held me back from continuing the process was that juggling tattooing and a clothing company would mean one or the other wasn’t going to be getting all of my focus and neither deserve that. Fast forward to about a year and some change later, when my best friend, Alex — the Man of Opportunity, came into the shop talking about creating a clothing company based around Pride. He said he would handle the business side, and I would draw and do the designs based on a tattooers perspective. Pride gear that him and I would actually wear? Hell yes!
OTR took off last June which was perfect because it was Pride month, and Alex and I never planned on it happening exactly in June but it couldn’t have worked out better. The name came from a lot of brainstorming. Ideas bouncing back and forth from each other. The idea was to think beyond the Rainbow since the bravery, pain, and self love needed to be who you are is not always vibrant colors, sometimes it just is what it is and that’s as authentic as we can get. Over The Rainbow is catchy, classic, and made to force you to see beyond the glitter and glamour.
AA: OTR officially started in June 2019. Abel and I always kind of had this idea that we should market his art, but we didn’t want to do it “just because”, you know? We had talked about it a few times of the course of our 10 year friendship, but it just never materialized. We both had other focuses whenever it was discussed, so it never really became a priority. Earlier in 2019, I had started dabbling in marketing, graphic design, and website development — things I actually went to school for and had enjoyed as a little hobby every now and then. I actually started a small online-only company selling a bunch of random stuff in April. I quickly realized if there was no passion behind it, I was wasting my time and I knew that if I wasn’t in the business of actually enhancing other people’s lives I was doing myself a disservice. I then approached Abel about REALLY going for getting his art out there, but with a cause. The timing was perfect, and things just kind of fell into place from there.
RC: Many trans people are creating clothing brands. What makes yours stand out?
AK: What makes us stand out is that it is something that you haven’t seen before. They’re not based on quotes, or just plain bold text. It’s like a dreamers vs. the realists conversation. Each design encompasses a certain darkness and a certain meaning which is something that no one really ever admits that they have in common when it comes to pride. These designs are drawn from a tattooers perspective so each line in the fabric was hand drawn and put together as if it were about to go on skin, instead, it lays above it like armor.
AA: We understand that there are many trans*-owned clothing brands popping up, but we still had never really found a brand that stuck with us. It was difficult to find “Pride” merch that was our style; both of us have a wardrobe of very neutral, muted colors and that speaks to our personalities. I’ve always been a HUGE fan of graphic tees, band tees, etc., and not so much the super bright and colorful clothing people tend to associate with pride gear. As Abel and I are approaching our tenth year of medical transition, we were reflecting on how much we actually had to overcome to get to where we are today. It’s something you don’t really think about on a day-to-day basis, and truthfully, I think we sort of lost sight of the struggle because our transitions are almost on autopilot now — the huge milestones you look forward to when you start hormones and go through surgeries (if that’s your path) are now just fond memories. The last thing I wanted was to lose touch with where I came from, the people that supported me, and the blood, sweat and tears I shed to get to where I am now. We wanted to create not only a style that we would enjoy wearing ourselves, but a style that can scream “proud” from the mountaintops or be completely subtle. I don’t typically see allies showing their support with bold rainbow clothing in predominantly LGBTQIA+ spaces, but it’s important for us as a community to know that they’re there. One of our brand ambassadors made the statement, “It’s like a secret handshake for the LGBTQIA+ community”, and I think that is the PERFECT way to describe Over The Rainbow Apparel.
RC: Can you share more about the creation of the designs? Who comes up with the artwork? Who comes up with the quotes that you feature on the shirts? Have you tattooed these specific designs on anyone yet?
AK: Trying to describe the process of creating, for creators, is almost impossible. I feel like it’s like having a box full of objects, knowing you have to put something together but not quite knowing what it is, or what it will do to you or anyone around you. As the artist, I am responsible for every aspect of the design you see on the clothing so sometimes the quotes come first and sometimes the image does. I haven’t figured out why just yet, I suppose it’s just brain stuff. As far as the designs for tattoos, I have had a hand full of people inquire about getting them done and so far, two people have actually made their armor permanent! The first one I ever did from our brand was about a 5x5 outline of the bear head on our “Bear Hugs” shirt right in the middle of a man’s chest. The second we did from a raffle winner who got one of the branches from the “We Never Sleep” design. SOLDIERS FOREVER.
RC: What’s your favorite design that you have put out? What’s been the most popular?
AK: It’s truly hard to pick a favorite for me, but I if I had to I would say ::drum roll:: “See You On The Other Side”! Not only is it the design I personally relate to most because of the transition aspect, but it also was hell to line up those faces to make it look the way it does! I spent a lot of time going back and forth adding and taking away ideas to finally get it where I wanted it.
AA: I agree with Abel, it really is difficult to pick a favorite. They each have their own meaning to me, and that’s really the special thing about Abel’s art and the message behind our brand. Each design can mean something completely different to the next person, akin to what song lyrics mean to a songwriter and what their fans can translate that to. However, if I HAD to choose, my favorite shirt so far is our take-off tee, “What Hurts You Hurts Me”.
This one is special to me because it was the shirt that started the movement, but I also think of my mom. After I came out to her as transgender, she definitely understood the changes that myself and my family would undergo. It was difficult on many fronts at first, but I remember her visiting me and we went to dinner. Through tears, she told me that she worried about how I would be treated by society and people who didn’t fully grasp the concept of the life-altering experience I was undertaking, and that was the most difficult part about the whole thing for her. She didn’t say verbatim, “What Hurts You Hurts Me”, but the sentiment was very clear. Aside from Abel, my mom has definitely been my rock and biggest fan. I wish I could share my mom with the world — everybody deserves the type of love I receive from her.
RC: In your own words, why is it important to support brands that are run by trans people?
AK: Because we damn well deserve it and the community does too.
AA: It’s really important to support brands run by any minority and anybody in the LGBTQIA+ community because we all have a story to tell, and there is usually a really good story about how and why they started their brand. We are just as capable as anybody else in our position, and 9 times out of 10, brands and companies run by someone within our community are willing to give back and their missions are palpable.
RC: What is your favorite thing about running this brand?
AA: Truthfully, my favorite thing has been connecting with so many awesome people from literally all over the world. One event really sticks out to me — I was working our booth at a Pride event, and a mother and daughter came up and were browsing our selection. We had just released “See You On The Other Side”, which neither of us expected would have the success that it did. The daughter locked eyes on the shirt and her mother started asking for the backstory behind it, so after a few minutes of conversation, she let me know that she would be purchasing several for her family and friends, as her daughter had recently begun transitioning and some relatives were having difficulty understanding the ins and outs of the process.
Fast forward a few weeks, I received pictures from this mother and her daughter standing together wearing the shirt, the daughter beaming proudly with the biggest grin I’ve ever seen. Her mother wrote to us and stated that her daughter felt so bold wearing her armor, and loved explaining HER meaning of the shirt to anyone who would listen. THIS is something that will stick with me the rest of my life. The mere fact that Abel’s wearable artwork spoke to a youth and made her feel empowered was enough validation for me to know that we’re in this for the long run, and whether sales fall off eventually or not, I will always remember that little girl and the impact our message had on her self esteem. That made it 110% worth it.
About the Author:
Ryan Cassata is an award winning singer-songwriter, actor, performer, writer and LGBTQ activist & motivational speaker based in Los Angeles. With features in Rolling Stone, Billboard Magazine, The New York Times, Buzzfeed, and The Daily News, Ryan has made the most of his young career, which started when he was just 13.
As a musician with over 550 performances touring across the United States and internationally, including dates on the Van’s Warped Tour, SXSW and at the worlds biggest pride festivals, Ryan has been praised by The Advocate saying he’s a “Transgender singing sensation”, Paper Magazine put him on the “50 LGBTQ Musicians You Should Prioritize” list, LOGO put him on the “9 Trans Musicians You Need To Get Into” list and Billboard put him on the “11 Transgender & Non-Binary Musicians You Need to Know” list and premiered his most recent music video for “Daughter.” He has also been heard on Sirius XM Radio, BBC Radio 4 and other radio stations around the world. MORE INFO AT: http://www.ryancassata.com/