“Gen Z is coming! Gen Z is coming!”
Phluid Project founder Rob Smith joked that he should ring a bell like Paul Revere to alert the industry that Gen Z consumers are coming, questioning everything and making big changes.
Smith said they’re the first generation “to question the status quo every single time.” They are also one-third of the population, which is the same size as Baby Boomers; care about racial equality and sustainability, and have a spending power of $143 billion — and up to $200 billion when accounting for purchases they influence.
In addition, 56 percent of Gen Z consumers shop outside of their assigned gendered area, 40 percent identify as strictly heterosexual and 50 percent know someone with a gender-neutral pronoun.
But Smith’s relationship with Gen Z is much different from most retailers trying to attract and attach itself to youth culture. Smith is connected to the generation through fashion, gender expression and activism at the Phluid Project.
“We are the mecca for young people,” Smith said. “The concept of Phluid started out as looking at clothing but not gendering it so it became the world’s first gender-free store. But then we really started to build our whole business based on our values and our principles and building on that so it became a community space. As soon as we opened, the press identified this as something remarkable and the international press just went crazy.”
Phluid Project was born from Smith’s desire to open a gender-inclusive and safe shopping experience for the LGBTQ community, especially transgender and gender-nonconforming people. The store also welcomes Gen Z consumers on a broad scale and allies, or “people who walk in, get the idea of no men’s or women’s sections,” he said.
The store, which is located at 684 Broadway near New York University, houses brands such as Levi’s, Fila, Happy Socks and Dr. Martens, as well as Gypsy Sport, Nicopanda and Chrishabana. Phluid also operates an in-house collection that is inclusive of body types and socio-economic positions.
Smith shared stories of families from Minnesota and Pennsylvania with non-binary children that made Phluid Project the first stop on their vacations. Smith also said that while parents are astonished by the concept of Phluid Project, the younger generation says, “Eh, it’s cool. It’s no big deal.” Smith added, “For them it’s just the way things should be.”
Phluid is also an authority that companies and brands turn to for authenticity. Smith advised Mattel on its genderless “creatable world” doll, which is now only available at Phluid; works with the Be Kind and the Born This Way foundations, and Equipment recently turned to Phluid to launch its gender-free collection. Smith said he is being selective on hiring models, photographers and the crew for the collection campaign, because, “The last thing you want to do is have someone gender-expansive in front of the camera and get misgendered by the person behind the camera so it’s really important to do that.”
Smith began his fashion career at Burdines in Boca Raton, Fla., where he was assistant department manager in women’s better sportswear. Over the years, he worked at Levi’s and Nike, and served as general merchandise manager of Victoria’s Secret and Macy’s. He is also a human rights activist for LGBTQ youth and worked with the Hetrick-Martin Institute, the first and oldest non-profit organization that serves LGBTQ youth.
Three years ago, Smith quit his job to travel with only a backpack and during his journey wrote in his journal, “consider opening a gender-free shopping environment” with the word fluid in quotation marks. “I basically have merged the two together. What I love to do, which is fashion, and looking at social causes and human rights issues and giving everyone a space at the table,” he said.
Smith was born in 1965, and he describes the year as a time when change was put to law. He said that 54 years ago, “women couldn’t serve on a jury duty, couldn’t get a credit card without your husband to co-sign it for you, an African American person couldn’t get jobs, and as a gay person you went to prison.” But that time also saw the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts get passed.
“This is a time for us to think differently,” Smith said. He also revealed the launch of Get Phluid, a gender-expansive training program for companies that will teach pronoun usage, include a third option on applications; reevaluate dress code policies, and create accessible restrooms, and a Verizon-sponsored job portal to help non-binary people find jobs.
“What can you do to be a good ally?” Smith asked. “First and foremost, hire us. Hire the queer community, mentor us, help promote us, get us into your executive team, hire us on your board of directors because that matters and nobody’s tracking that, and make us ceo’s. Right now, there are only three queer ceo’s in the Fortune 500. That is the lowest number of all of the minority groups. Understand and respect pronouns, create a safe space at work where everyone is included, shift away from antiquated thinking on sexual orientation to gender identity and remain open to change and be empathetic to difference.
“I’ll leave you on this,” he said. “We have a responsibility to make inclusion a daily thought and daily action so one day we could just eliminate the word inclusion.”