NEW YORK – The Phluid Project, a 3,000-square-foot multibrand retailer, e-commerce site and private-label brand, bowing in March, is challenging the circumscribed gender binary boundaries that department and specialty stores strictly adhere to, blurring all notions of masculinity and femininity.
Rob Smith, who created The Phluid Project, wants the store at 684 Broadway in Manhattan’s NoLIta, to become more than just a place to buy products. With a coffee and juice bar and rotating art exhibits, Smith hopes Phluid will become a community space.
According to a study by Out magazine, only 48 percent of 13- to 20-year-olds identify themselves as exclusively heterosexual. Smith said 56 percent of Gen Z and 46 percent of Millennials are gender-nonconforming, which indicates the market is substantial and underserved. “I knew there was a void,” Smith said. “People tried [catering to this audience] in some ways, but no one committed to it.”
Smith said he chose the name “Phluid because nothing is constant and we should always be challenging ourselves and eliminating boundaries. Ph is for balance — masculine and feminine and the harmony balance creates, and a project is something you work on and collaborate with others, and it’s never finished.”
“There’s a cultural revolution happening,” said Smith, pointing to celebrities such as Mylie Cyrus and Jaden Smith, who’ve commented on how they view the gender divide. A comment from Rob Smith in his inspiration book says, “I don’t see man clothes and woman clothes, I just see scared people and comfortable people.”
“Half of the product is created by me and my team, and the other half is from innovative brands offering apparel, accessories, shoes, cosmetics and gifts,” Smith said. “I bought Champion men’s wear for the store and Levi’s 501s, as well as Doc Martens’ gender-neutral styles. I’ll have fun fashion and basic products like hats and socks.”
Phluid will sell State Bags not only for the quality of the backpacks, but also for their charitable component; for every backpack purchased, one filled with school essentials is donated to a child in need. “Everybody I bring in has to be about this mission,” Smith said. Prices will range from $25 to $400.
For Phluid’s private label, Smith is thinking outside the typical black-and-white box that’s defined gender-fluid apparel. Graphic tees, $35, bear the legends, “Being Human,” “Human Being,” “Free Hugs,” “Optimist” and “Fully Charged.” Cropped tops and hooded tops, $50 to $60, can be worn with joggers, $60 to $80.
There’s also denim overalls, shirts and coveralls; terry cloth crew tops and hoodies, and mesh tank tops and shorts. “Shirts have raglan sleeves because men’s shoulders hit differently,” said Smith, who’s also creating a series of seven candles for Phluid that marry masculine scents such as tobacco and leather with feminine ones like lavender and rose.
“Wherever you fall on the spectrum of gender, you can explore and play with cosmetics,” he said.
Throughout the store, there are designated areas for viewing art. A long runway in the center of the space will feature 30 mannequins merchandised by lifestyle, including sport, casual and contemporary. “I created a genderless mannequin,” Smith said. “It wasn’t easy.”
A photo studio will capture customers wearing Phluid product, then upload the images to the web site. “We’ll have a secret room made for Instagram,” Smith said. Channeling the now-defunct East 59th Street punk retailer, Fiorucci, Smith said staff and customers will be encouraged to dance beneath a disco ball in front of one of the store windows. If that’s too much exertion, bleachers with built-in phone-charging stations will offer a view of the bustle of the store.
“We’ll do something every night,” Smith said. “Fashion shows, speaker series and poetry readings.
“My inspiration for the store is Pat Fields. I loved the energy of that store,” Smith said. “I also loved Colette. Sadly, neither of them are around today. I also like American Apparel, that was the first genderless store.”
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 joined Haddad Brands as global chief merchant officer in 2013. In March 2017, Smith said he began “a pilgrimage of self-discovery,” traveling to Guatemala, Nepal and Tibet. “I realized I wanted to live a more honest, altruistic and authentic life. I envisioned creating a space where I could leverage my 30 years of fashion with decades of work fighting for human rights.”
On the lower level, Smith said he’ll turn a room with a large conference table into a community space. A former kitchen in the basement will become the staging area for shipping online orders. The web site, which will bow at the same time as the store, will exclusively offer Phluid merchandise at first, with other brands added later.