Rob Smith became a leader of the LGBTQ+ community when in 2018 he unveiled The Phluid Project, at 684 Broadway, billed as Manhattan’s first gender-free retailer. The 3,000-square-foot Phluid Project in NoLIta from the get-go was intended to be more than simply a place to buy products. With a full slate of panel discussions, workshops and charitable events, Smith threw open the retailer’s doors and cast Phluid as a hub for the community.
Smith, a 30-year retail veteran prior to launching Phluid, said the retailer was self-funded. However, while he welcomed outside investment, it proved difficult to secure. “At a dance, it’s important to see everybody, but we weren’t going to go home with just anybody,” he said, referring to meeting with investors.
Smith told WWD, that early next year The Phluid Project flagship will close. The store team was informed on Monday, and letters were being sent today to vendors. Smith has worked with everyone from Levi’s to Nicopanda.
“This is a concept and a dream,” he added. “We’ve raised the consciousness of society through the existence of this space and have begun a conversation as we challenge constructs that are outdated. The reach of what this little store in the corner has done – it will be one for the history books.
“I’m one guy with very little [outside] investment. There’s only so much capital, and you have to make a choice,” Smith added. “The dream continues, it’s just taking us in different directions. We want to be a leader in a robust way on a grander scale both domestically and globally. We’re going to be showing up with authenticity and really tapping into our community.
“Phluid has been a destination for people in the city and around the world,” Smith said. “It’s not as if the queer community only lives in New York. While much of the community moves to New York and L.A. because they’re safe places and less judgmental, it almost felt elitist for people to be able to afford to be there [at the Phluid flagship], whereas in other parts of the country, they have no representation. If we can offer that elsewhere, we felt that would be the most authentic and natural thing. We can’t do both — [operate the flagship, and fan out across the country via pop-ups].
“We’re going to focus on the growth of the web site and building it out so it’s more than a web site, the jobs portal and get more into the certification process,” Smith said. “As I’ve been a student the last two years and now I move to being a teacher.”
Smith said he will partner and collaborate with entertainment and media companies, and retailers. Phluid last summer traveled with several cast members and the director of HBO’s “Euphoria,” a dark series of high school teenagers struggling with sexual identity and drugs. “We’re starting off in February with collaboration with the ‘The L Word’ and a pop-up shop that will travel up and down the West Coast. Phluid in February will be showing up at Girls’ Choice Awards in L.A.”
Phluid, which manufactures private label, will enter new categories, such as health and wellness, “especially, given the type of anxiety and suicide [rates] within the community,” Smith said. “We’re going to partner with brands and extend our reach by leveraging other brands. I’m talking about product collaborations and categories such as fragrances and shoes, which will go to broader outlets.”
The brand, which recently launched a jobs portal on its web site, will continue to build on education and training in order to build on safe spaces. “A good example is the Equipment collaboration,” Smith said, adding, “They wouldn’t show up without us. We’ll spend some time with Equipment. For example, we’re working on casting of the models and helping choose who’s behind the camera for their next advertising and marketing campaign. Then, we’ll take it around the world and do panel discussions. We’re helping them show up with authenticity and really tap into our community.”
“Equipment is thrilled to work alongside The Phluid Project,” said James R. Miller, chief executive officer of The Collected Group, which owns the Equipment brand. “Equipment’s French heritage is rooted in androgyny and Phluid brings along a fresh, modern approach with authenticity and community. Our partnership in creating a gender-fluid collection taps into our 44-year legacy and Phluid’s integration of human lives. These stories of self-expression embrace and celebrate the freedom of gender barriers that have held us back for so long. Together, we plan to scale our message on a global scale because, quite simply, the world is ready.”
Phluid hosted 250 events and welcomed tens of thousands of people at the store, Smith said. “We changed people’s minds when they had a concept that didn’t make sense. They were greeted warmly by loving people and left a different person. It was an incredible laboratory for people to break down their guards and their walls.”
Smith said Phluid is evolving to take on a thought leadership role as it helps other brands and retailers navigate the “substantial number of Gen Z and Millennials who are gender-nonconforming. I knew there was a void,” Smith said. “People tried [catering to this audience] in some ways, but no one committed to it.
“My biggest concern is that if someone is in a mall in Des Moines, Iowa, and they know and see Phluid and we work with a retailer that’s not ready for them, and they have a bad experience…. We [want to] come with the full force behind the Phluid Project,” Smith said. “This is about the long game, not the short game. This means saying, no, more than saying, yes. This all takes time and energy. Without this physical space and experience I couldn’t do it all. As an entrepreneur, I’ll continue to work seven days a week. Anyone who’s worked in brick-and-mortar space understands that it takes energy, so now, I can redirect that energy.”