Gender-neutral retailer the Phluid Project, which in March opened at 684 Broadway in Manhattan’s NoLIta, is building diverse revenue streams, including expansion to new geographies and amplifying nascent businesses in an effort to attract more Gen Z consumers who reject being categorized according to traditional binary norms.
Founder and chief executive officer, Rob Smith is in the midst of a kickstarter campaign that he said will raise money to help fund the initiatives. There are also brand partnerships such as the recently launched Nicopanda capsule collection.
Phluid Project also received the designation of official retailer of WorldPride, which will be celebrated with a spate of designer collaborations that will include Frankie Grande, Alok Menon, Lance Bass and Yves Mathieu. Separate from WorldPride, Phluid is working with Boomer Banks on some designs Smith said he also sees an initial public offering potentially in Phluid’s future.
“Our first months have been about building awareness and proving that people care,” Smith said. “Job done. Now we’re all about growing sales.”
The Republic kickstarter campaign — the site specializes in start-ups founded and operated by underserved groups including minorities, women, immigrants and veterans. “Crowdfunding is an extension of the community,” Smith said. “We can have people who are part of the community invested in the success of Phluid Project. We raised $70,000 in first couple of weeks. I can raise up to $1 million on Republic. I’m looking for other investors. My goal is to raise $3 million by the middle of next year.”
“We achieved a run rate of $615,000 for 2018, posted a 320 percent sales increase in 2018’s second quarter, and had 200,000 page views on Instagram in six months,” Smith said. The ceo cites statistics about Phluid’s core audience to strengthen the case for investing in the company. For example, Gen Z will represent 40 percent of consumers by 2020 and 56 percent of Gen Z consumers shop outside their gender. Most compelling is that Gen Z spending potential will reach $143 billion by 2020. The data is from Adweek, Broadly and Barclays, respectively.
The Phluid Project is in the process of raising capital via crowdfunding site Republic in an effort to replicate the brick-and-mortar experience online, heighten Phluid’s e-commerce site, which is now primarily a forum to welcome LGBTQIA+ people and their allies. It promotes style, culture and resources and continue to expand with new locations worldwide, Smith said.
The five-year strategy for Phluid includes growing the digital and wholesale channels in 2019, and expanding in North America in 2020, Europe in 2021 and Asia in 2022. Web and digital sales this year will account for 3 percent of total volume. The share will grow to 30 percent in 2019, fueled by the continued buildout of the Phluid community with a Phluid YouTube vlog; digital magazine; podcast; weekly content-filled e-mails; health and wellness resources, and monthly subscription service, Smith said.
Smith, a 30-year retail veteran rose to general merchandise manager at Macy’s before joining Victoria’s Secret Direct as executive vice president. He became Haddad Brands’ global chief merchandising officer in 2013.
Phluid’s wholesale business is expected to reach $7 million in sales in year five of the growth plan by targeting Internet pure plays and fashion retailers with private label apparel and accessories. “Private label is 40 percent of total sales,” Smith said. “We’re spinning it into a wholesale business. We shipped a couple thousand units to Amazon and we’ve shipped off price retailers. The goal is to be more strategic. We’re in conversations with some major retailers about partnering during the May and June WorldPride celebration.
“We’re working with iconic American brands to create capsules for Phluid Project,” Smith said. Levi’s, Fila Champion and Steve Madden are some of the top brands in the store. Would like work to create gender-free capsules. We’ve starting conversations with these brands, but we’re not limited to them. We want to speak with any brands that have an interest in creating a space in their brand for gender non-conforming product.”
According to Smith, there’s a lot of white space now in the gender-free offerings of high-end designers and luxury brands. Both groups fell short, the former with their monobrand mind-set, and the latter, for their lack of brick-and-mortar stores and the fact that they sell only their own labels.
Phluid is also supporting young talents. “We held a contest last spring where we got submissions from 40 designers from around the world,” Smith said. “We selected one winner and taught them how to produce their line and work on a budget. We’re doing it again in the spring.”
“We’re rolling out experiential community stores in markets in North America, Europe and Asia, targeting $13 million in sales in year five,” said Smith, citing plans in 2020 for three units in Los Angeles, Chicago and Toronto. Stores are seen opening in London, Paris and Berlin in 2021, and the following year, when sales hit $50 million, Phluid will venture to Asia with stores in Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
More brand partnerships are also on tap for Phluid because they give consumers, whose identities are “constantly ebbing, flowing and changing, the freedom to choose their forms self-expression,” Smith said.
Fashion director Nicola Formichetti, said of his brand’s hookup with Phluid, “The Nicopanda collaboration is especially meaningful to me because working to make fashion more inclusive has always been at the core of my work. By rejecting the traditional binary in our genderless silhouettes, we’re creating a safer shopping experience that mirrors and honors the diversity we see in our audiences.”
Smith intends to leverage WorldPride with Phluid’s dedicated merchandise and designer partnerships. Next year’s event will be high-profile as the first WorldPride to be held in the U.S. More than 4 million are expected to attend the 50-plus events over 30 days. Adding to its currency, WorldPride will coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots, which marked the beginning of the modern Gay Rights Movement. In addition to the store and web site, Phluid’s WorldPride merchandise will sold through NYC Pride Organization channels.