Walk too quickly down Orchard Street and you might miss the cellar doors that lead to Rachel Berk’s lifestyle boutique Otherwild. The shop, which opened in May, is located underneath the design store Coming Soon New York. Downstairs you’ll find a plethora of perfectly curated items: T-shirts and sweatshirts with phrases like “The Future Is Female” (inspired by Liza Cowan’s famous 1975 photograph of her girlfriend wearing such a T-shirt) and “Gender Is A Drag” and “Lesbian Culture,” smoking pipes shaped like boobs and the female gender symbol, “Feminist” underwear and “Dike” sports bras, and gender neutral bathroom signs that read “Everybody Everybody.“
The message is clear: Otherwild caters to the outsiders, the ones who are out-of-the-box and living life by their own rules. It’s a place where feminism and LGBTQ pride is celebrated, not side-eyed. “I wanted the name to reflect both a feeling and also a place,” Berks told me.
“It’s not just buy this thing, wear this shirt,” she continued. “It’s one thing to wear your politics across your chest, but [another] to actually live those politics. I think that’s what feels important about what I’m doing.”
Berks and her former business parter Marisa Suarez-Orozco wanted to launch a store that was also a design studio. The first Otherwild was born in Los Angeles in 2012 and now hosts everything from tarot readings to comedy nights to book launches to feminist readings. As a graphic designer, Berks often designs her own things for the store as well as for her collaborative line with Kelly Rakowski, the creator of the Instagram account Herstory, and donates a percentage of their proceeds to organizations fighting for the civil rights of women and the LGBTQ community. So far, she has contributed to Planned Parenthood, The Lesbian Herstory Archives, The Center for Transgender Equality and the victims and families of the Orlando nightclub shooting. Now, she’s working on designing a T-shirt with the proceeds going to Black Lives Matter.
I spoke with the Berks about creating safe spaces, the terms “lesbian” and “queer,” and why it’s important for her to serve her community.
When did you decide to open a store?
I was really inspired in Los Angeles. You have this ability to do things yourself in a way that in New York it feels really hard to do because of financial constraints. In LA, when I got there in 2011, there was this energy where people have galleries and storefronts in the middle of nowhere or like a pop-up shop that just would sell cool zines or records once a month. There was all this DIY energy that felt really inspiring to me.
Why was it important for you to focus on queer, lesbian, and transgender women?
It’s just who I am and where I come from. It’s me being unapologetic, and also feeling like, as a queer woman, as an outsider in some ways, to make sure that I’m including a lot of different kinds of people when I think about what I’m putting out into the world. My community is the queer community. It’s expansive and intersectional.
Navigating the world as a queer woman, were you always confident in your sexuality?
I think it’s something that I’ve grown into. For me, I definitely feel like a little bit of a late bloomer. It’s taken me doing something like this to feel more confident in being out and loud and proud and realizing the importance in that. I’ve learned that people really want these tools or these ways to show their pride in themselves or their confidence and that’s where Otherwild has come in.
How did you find LGBTQ representation and pride growing up?
Something I think about a lot is a younger generation of queers that I get to speak to. I’ll be 40 in a couple of years, but I would have been so excited if I was 22 and this existed. As a 22-year-old, I was alway searching for representation in that way. Before I was even necessarily out and dating women, I was searching for films and books and that feeling of connection that you can get through a zine or through a film or through a T-shirt even.
Where did you find it before?
When I was 21, I lived in Provincetown. It’s in Cape Cod and it’s like super duper gay. I really loved going out to the lake with the gay stores with all the rainbow flags and the pink triangles, or going down to Christopher Street and buying all of the rainbow suspenders and rainbow handkerchiefs. These sort of things can feel sort of cheesy, but ultimately can represent pride in these nice ways.
In a way, Otherwild does the same thing.
I try to do a little bit of that, in a tasteful way. Working with HerStory is interesting because we get to look at these throwback images. These pieces of history that feel so important to look at and to be able to think about bringing them back or taking something from the past and reinterpreting it and reinventing it.
How did your project with HerStory start?
We just knew each other on Instagram. I made The “Future Is Female” T-shirts after seeing it on her Instagram feed. Then later on, we decided to collaborate and develop a line of things together that are based on these archival images.
Where do you get the images and inspiration?
The Lesbian HerStory Archives in Brooklyn. It’s an archive in an old brownstone in Park Slope. There are these binders of photocopies of old T-shirts, or you can look at old pins or old books. It’s basically things people will just donate from their personal archives. There’s an archive in LA that I’ve worked with called the OneArchives, they are the national gay and lesbian archive.
There’s something that’s comforting in looking at photos from the past.
It’s that feeling of nostalgia, but it’s also knowing our history and where we come from. I think that’s why it feels important to have these different ways of reflecting back and looking back and understanding our histories.
With each of your collaborations with HerStory as well as your own projects for Otherwild, you’ve given a portion of the proceeds to organizations. Why do you think it’s important to give back?
The idea of really being a feminist or truly being a radial person, it’s not enough to just wear a statement across your chest. It has to feel bigger than that. Last year, when Congress was voting to defund Planned Parenthood, I went as just a single person to donate money and I thought, you know what, I have an opportunity here to do something much bigger. I realized the strength and power in numbers. If I can say, Hey social media followers, I’m gonna donate money to Planned Parenthood and if you want one of these shirts I’ll donate on this your behalf as well. It just feels more empowering.
What’s your relationship with the word “queer?”
I feel really old sometimes because I feel like I’ve heard a lot of things lately about all young people these days consider themselves queer. I’m like, is that true? That feels so far from my experience of growing up. Except maybe in college when I went to a school that was 70% women and so a lot of people were queer in college and maybe grew out of it. I was the opposite, where I was not straight but dating men in college and grew into my queerness after. I’m more acquainted with this older generation of lesbians who are in their 60s and 70s who hate that word. I really identify with queer, it’s always felt like the closest thing to who I am. It wasn’t until recently that I felt like I could identify with the term lesbian.
Why do they hate the word?
For them, it’s like insulting to who they are and who the fabric of them is. That word feels like a dirty word to them. I think because owning that you’re a woman who loves women feels really like a radical act. It bothers me that queer offends them so deeply because it feels very much like an accurate representation of me. I’ve always hated the term bisexual; I really hated the stigma that was attached to it. Queer felt like a more multi-dimensional representation of who I am and the identity of most of my peers.
How did you come to accept the word lesbian?
I think there was an internalized homophobia that prevented me from connecting with what that means and what that is. I’m in a long-term relationship with a woman and I have been for six years and before that I was with someone for five years on and off. I think the longer that my reality looks like this thing, it’s more comfortable for me to own it. I think when I was younger that wasn’t my active reality so it was harder for me to be like this is what I am. I felt that way about feminism when I was younger too, like it didn’t belong to me. It belonged to somebody from a different generation. I feel like now it belongs to me more, but I still feel like queer is something I’m more comfortable with because it accurately reflects a bigger, larger experience.
It’s 2016, yet the safe spaces of the LGBTQ community are continuously threatened. How do you cope during times like these?
I think that was one thing that really tripped me up about Orlando and affected me in such a deep way. I felt really immobile for a couple of weeks afterwards. I was in the gay area of Fire Island when it happened and the day before I had been saying it’s amazing to be in a place that feels this safe. And then the next day, this happened. I can imagine having been at Pulse that night and feeling the same way, or any of the other bars and clubs that I’ve been to over the years. I think that’s why that particular attack felt so personal. It felt like such a total violation of the safety of the gay bar.
Otherwild is a safe space.
After that happened myself and the people who work for me, who are a bunch of young queers, we all started talking about this idea of safe space and that became the focus on social media for us. Let’s remind everybody that we’re this safe space and let’s remind everybody of our queer history. I think we live in a really hard time and I feel like we do what we can in our own way to create safe spaces, to raise money for organizations that are doing important social justice work. It’s a really dark time to be a person. I feel like we’re all collectively feeling that pain.