Shaobo Han is always going to have an edit. A note, an alteration, an addendum … feedback. This personality trait can make them a key collaborator, helping to take a project from its first draft into a must-have accessory. But it also makes for the perfect theater when telling a story.
“I remember on our first date, I —” Louis Dorantes begins. The three of us are sitting in the Brooklyn-based studio for his brand Leak NYC, most known for its sexy, gender agnostic, knit bodysuits. Dorantes is trying to tell the spring 2016 story of how he and Han got reacquainted after being friends-of-friends in college at Parsons School of Design. But Han, cofounder of the genderless footwear brand Syro, has an edit. Well, maybe.
“What are you going to say?” they look over at Dorantes, cocking their head to read Dorantes’ face as only a romantic partner of 6 years can. “What story are you telling?”
Nearby a workout bench is covered with a neon version of Leak’s knit in the color “slime.” Syro has its own studio down the hall a short walk away from Leak in the same Brooklyn warehouse. There, a wall is lined top-to-bottom with the attention-demanding heels (and now even one pair of flats) from the brand — alongside Han’s longtime partner Henry Bae — that prioritizes those amongst us with bigger feet.
“On our first date, I lured you to my apartment —” Dorantes says, pressing on with the story.
“We are not talking about this,” Han interrupts, waving their arms to emphasize the point. “We’re not telling this story and let’s not use the word lure! Scratch that.” Their Guatemalan-born, Detroit-raised partner is undaunted, undeterred in the way one has to be to sustain a fashion business in a fickle market. After reconnecting on an app, he explains, the pair had their first date at a restaurant in his neighborhood. As it came to a close, Dorantes invited Han a block over to his apartment for feedback on some sketches and a mood board he had created for an idea he’d been toying with.
“Yes, yes,” Han, who was born in Chengdu, Sichuan, China, affirms as the story unfolds, content with the destination if not the journey. “There was always this energy between us where creating something has been fun — creating something has been what’s drawn us together.”
SPOTTED! KITTEN DISCO BOOT https://t.co/9Q3K57nw6Z
— SYRO (@shopsyro) February 22, 2023
Jointly, Syro and Leak NYC have become part of a certain Brooklyn queer aesthetic over the past five years, now broadening to the rest of the country and world. The sister-brands each offer pieces that seem aimed at proclaiming the wearer’s queerness in ways many would have found objectionable a decade ago (and some still do today.) Major celebrities like RuPaul, Adam Lambert, Lil Nas X, Billy Porter, Sam Smith, and Bowen Yang all own heels from Syro and wear them regularly on red carpets (RuPaul owns quite a few, including one of the newest styles that he wore to the Emmys.)
On the other end of the scale, Leak NYC became the provenance of another class of queer notables. Dorantes’ deep friendships with sex workers meant that OnlyFans stars and gogo dancers were wearing pieces with abandon in the label’s early days — back before increasing censorship on Instagram forced the rebrand from Leak Your Sextape to just Leak NYC. Now, you can hardly go to a queer function in Bushwick without spotting one of the designs. (And sex workers are still involved with creators like the anonymous FullMetalTwunk recently appearing in brand imagery.)
Within fashion industry parlance, both brands are “gender neutral.” When asked, even Dorantes agrees that Leak NYC is gender neutral with the goal of “degendering” garments he always wanted to wear growing up but were only seen as appropriate for women.
On the notion of gender “neutral,” I, respectfully, disagree. Though a range of bodies do wear the garments, what these two labels are doing is too charged, too active to be considered “neutral.” Someone assumed male carrying Syro’s first handbag, a stiletto-turned-purse, while waiting in line at the bodega? Some powermesh Leak “slutgear” creeping above the waist of a pair of low slung jeans on the L Train? If anything, these brands are gender instigators and identity aggravators that actively disrupt the notions of who should wear what and where. Though it may not seem it, the lionshare of the garments are utilitarian in nature, solving personal and sometimes intimate daily problems for the founders and their friends. Where are the slinky stiletto sandals for a size 46 foot? How do you recut a thong to best fit someone assigned male at birth?
“These are the things I always wanted to wear growing up in the Midwest, but I was too scared, or didn’t have access to, or thought it would embarrass my friends and family,” Dorantes says.
After a three month “courting” phase of sorts, Dorantes and Han were very much together by June 2016, building a love that while generative and affirming, Dorantes says is at times “brutal” (more on that later). Han provided their eagle-eyed edits to Dorantes’ never-ending fountain of ideas and in return, received the benefit of Dorantes’ copious experience helping other brands produce products — Han runs the operations for Syro while their co-founder Bae heads up the creative aspects. A slight sense of accountability also began to form between the two: during the pandemic, Han suggested that it was a chance to rest and slack off for a bit.
“You were like, ‘Oh do you think all the people we admire are just chilling?’” Han recounts. “‘No, they are working on their next memoir or their next project.’ I think that’s what we saw in each other in the beginning, this ambition. Even though we never actively talked about it, I think we felt it about each other and it turned out to be true — and we just synchronized.”
The couple hopes that synchronization will continue as Han will begin to work with Leak’s team of five in a more official way this year as the brand expands outside of its offerings — they will continue in their role at Syro with that team of four. This fall, the companies got a taste of working together, with Syro providing all of the shoes (and some of the hands for the all-hands-on-deck approach) to Leak’s first fashion presentation. That show, staged in Brooklyn by the label’s creative director in residence Sebastian Hernanez, featured 18 models in intimate vignettes wearing not only the bodysuits the designer is known for but the first hints of “ready-to-wear” like a sexy cropped puffer jacket and skimpy miniskirts. But there will undoubtedly be more edits.
“I’ve never made you cry from my feedback,” Han protests — no, edits — as Dorantes answers one of my questions. Their always-expressive voice feels genuinely aggrieved at the suggestion. “We are talking about feedback.”
“At least twice,” Dorantes responds. When pressed to “name them,” Dorantes does: “Once was when you told me our bodysuit shouldn’t have duck feet.” Han instantly relaxes into a sigh.
“That’s so true,” Han confirms. The first Leak bodysuit originally came in orange with stockings, covering the wearer’s legs and feet. It was an idea Dorantes had worked on diligently but didn’t pass muster to Han who immediately dubbed the bottom half “duck feet” and said that no one would ever wear it. The feedback was in fact brutal, as was the ensuing back and forth. Dorantes did not agree and the pair fought about it. But one night, after taking the prototype out for a test run to a party in Brooklyn, he realized the practical implications of trying to go to the bathroom in the cumbersome look. The “duck feet” turned to garter straps.
“That decision changed my life,” Dorantes says now. “No, really. That one decision changed my internet profile, it changed my tax bracket. Seriously. Everyone needed to wear that body suit after that.” It was a turning point for the business and for their relationship, building a foundation of trust where the pair both knew that ultimately they both had the same goal no matter how heated things got.
“I wouldn’t be here today talking with you if it was not for them,” Dorantes says to me of Han. He hopes this year will bring expansion into other categories first previewed in last year’s show like basics and even a handbag. After integrating sexual liberation in such explicit ways with the label’s initial products, Leak’s new challenge will be broadening that in thoughtful ways. It’s a challenge that the couple is eager to address.
“Behind every brand there’s a they/them,” Han says, leaning towards the recorder that I’m holding. One final edit.