The evolution of a movement has to start somewhere.
More Americans are identifying as nonbinary, transgender and nongender-conforming, with members of Generation Z in particular embracing the notion of gender fluidity with open arms. Teens and young adults prefer shopping together, regardless of gender. The cohort has $44 billion in purchasing power, according to a study by IBM and the National Retail Federation, but the fashion and retail industries have been slow to address its needs.
“Gen Z are gender-free, nonbinary,” said Robyn Streisand, founder of The Mixx NYC, a female- and LGBTQ-owned-and-operated advertising and marketing agency. “In the next four years, Gen Z will be spending 40 percent of the worldwide income. Department stores aren’t paying attention to this.”
“It feels like we’re stuck in a rut now,” said Rob Smith, founder of The Phluid Project, a gender-neutral retailer in Manhattan. “It doesn’t seem like things are evolving. Nobody knows the inside workings and foundations and infrastructure and how much work it’s going to take to push this uphill as much as I do.”
Smith, who surmounted the challenges inherent in designing, manufacturing and merchandising to a gender-free audience, is a 30-year veteran of traditional retailers such as Macy’s Inc. and Victoria’s Secret Direct, among others. “Retailers will have to rearrange a lot of things, including reallocating floor space, sourcing gender-neutral brands and manufacturing their own products, which is challenging because of fit considerations — you need two fit models,” Smith said. “It’s a lot of people lifting this idea.”
“There’s nothing for Gen Z at department stores, as they are today,” Streisand said. “There’s a shift happening around educating them. They’re buying online like mad.” Attempts by retailers to address this population, “I see as a toe in the water,” Streisand said. “They’re unsure. This is about sizing, fit, and making people feel empowered because there’s something out there for them. Brands are working from the inside out. At the retail level, they’re starting to bring in new product.”
But products are only half the battle as far as Streisand is concerned. “Mannequins are a huge part and were very important to Rob [Smith]. The fact that sales associates can use genderless mannequins in terms of being able to style is huge,” she said. “That hasn’t been done by the mainstream before.”
One of the few retailers to address consumers who do not identify with traditional gender assignments is Selfridges, which in 2015 unveiled an ambitious temporary space, Agender, meant to challenge ideas around gender and present fashion, beauty and lifestyle products devoid of classifications or directives. Selfridges in April won the Best Department Store in the World at the Global Department Store Summit for the fourth time and reported sales growth of 18 percent last year.
Though today, there’s little evidence of Agender, which leads to the question of whether the groundbreaking and wildly creative concept was just a high-profile experiment. The Selfridges’ web site is back to traditional binaries, offering “the best new-in women’s wear” and “the best new-in men’s wear.”
“We never took gender into consideration,” said Maurizio Donadi, founder of Atelier & Repairs. “For us, a specific gender was never a thought. We wanted to do something creative and free in its approach to people. We’re not a brand, we’re a project, an initiative and a creative solution, so we don’t have to conform to the system of our industry. We don’t segment, but we include. It’s almost a spiritual approach.”
Donadi sells military to women and silk to men. “We’re a challenge to traditional retailers. If they ask, ‘Is this good for a girl or a guy,’ that retailer that doesn’t deserve our product. Everything we make is transformed. We source things that are already made in a way that we can create a consistency in the size range. We sanitize and repair and add our creative point of view. You can give me 150 white shirts, but they’re all going to be different.
“Lane Crawford is our biggest single client because they understand what we’re doing,” Donadi said. “Some of the things we’ve done for Lane Crawford belong in spaces that are in between departments. We’re treated in a very neutral way. At Harvey [Nichols] we were near Magazine, at Bergdorf Goodman, we’re next to Japanese brands. We’re neither casual nor fashion, and definitely not men or women. We’re in a very neutral spot.”
Emma Mcilroy, cofounder of Wildfang, a retailer whose men’s wear-inspired collection is designed for tomboys, said the brand takes men’s silhouettes and refashions them to fit various women’s bodies in sizes ranging from 2 to 20. While Wildfang is a women’s brand — its tag line is “a home for badass women” — Mcilroy’s goal is to crush gender roles through fashion.
“Wildfang is very much female-focused, but we create a safe space for anyone on the gender spectrum,” said Mcilroy, a former brand marketer at Nike Inc. The brand has collaborated with REI and streetwear brand Publish, but the nuances around the experience have made Mcilroy leery of wholesaling to other retailers because most don’t prioritize the necessary level of training and service. She’s also skeptical of how genuine larger brands and retailers are about speaking to this customer.
“I don’t know that they address fit or the heart and soul behind the movement and whether they’re giving back to causes or casting models that don’t fit the traditional [definitions] of what a woman should look like. But the fact that they’re coming into the conversation is exciting. When we go through the stats for Gen Z and how they will identify, I just don’t know that most retailers are ready for the future.”
Smith, who designs a Phluid collection, said other retailers aren’t rushing to buy the line. “It’s going to be easier to wholesale online,” he said. “Nordstrom Rack bought our excess spring inventory. My goal is to have a robust wholesale business as well as retail and e-commerce. I know there are other new avenues. There’s a new retail concept called Bulletin, and we’ve been talking to ASOS. We’ve been having lots of conversations and are bringing our product to consumers in different ways.”
Aside from selling Phluid, Smith needs a steady stream of brands to fill the store and keep it fresh. He took matters into his own hands. “We haven’t found a lot of brands,” he said. “We have open houses where we see artists and designers and have found people through that process,” he said. “We had a design contest in the spring where 20 designers from around the world gave us a submission. We taught them how to source fabric and all they need to know to bring a product to reality. We funded the winning collection and will be showcasing it in September.”
Daniel Friedman didn’t start bespoke tailoring company Bindle & Keep with the goal of dressing LGBTQ customers, but the community found him organically when Ray Tutera, who identifies as transmasculine, asked for an apprenticeship. That lead to a cameo in the HBO documentary “Suited.” Friedman appreciates brands creating gender-neutral lines, but he doesn’t think anything off-the-rack can be gender-neutral based on the human body.
Friedman described the challenge of fit for the gender-neutral consumer. “If you take a cis male and a cis female and they are the same body weight, the male will be two to three inches broader in the shoulder. That’s just anatomical,” said Friedman. “You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to make a sports jacket and it’s gender-neutral.’ You’re going to miss the mark for a lot of people. Some of it feels like smoke and mirrors.”
Like Bindle & Keep, Shades of Black, a lifestyle brand, wasn’t conceived to be gender-neutral. SOB cofounder Trey Alligood, former president and creative director of Gents, said, “As the collection was being developed, it seemed organic and the right direction for us. It also gives retailers that are strictly women’s or strictly men’s a way to sell to other genders.”
SOB, whose other founder is former Diesel Canada chief Joey Adler, is 90 percent gender-neutral and produced in Los Angeles. The brand, which uses Japanese silks, custom lava fabric, Italian leather and suede, and bamboo cotton, dismisses the notion of seasons and collections. “We keep consumers’ attention through new drops, content and influencer engagement,” Alligood said. “Having our production in Los Angeles allows us to turn around our product and deliver in three to four weeks.”
The brand became available on DeptOfGood.com and Planet Blue. Freestanding stores are “definitely in the pipeline,” Alligood said, adding that SOB’s first pop-up space in collaboration with Sene opened on La Brea Avenue in L.A. on Aug. 20.
“Department stores have the ability, however, they’re slow on pulling the trigger,” Alligood said. “They need to do something and do it quick. Innovation is key to keeping consumers engaged. It’s the logical next step. Once one of them does it right the others will soon follow.”
Swedish streetwear brand WeSC or We Are the Superlative Conspiracy last year made the decision to stop producing women’s — it was selling men’s and women’s lines — and produce a single gender-neutral collection. Joseph Janus, WeSC’s chief executive officer, said the line, which bowed in the spring, consists of eight sizes for men and women with a garment tag showing the size conversion.
Janus admitted that as a streetwear brand whose women’s category made up 10 percent of the business, transitioning to a genderless collection wasn’t as challenging. Still, it saved WeSC 50 percent in production and development costs. “The bottom line is my collection is serving as many people as other brands and we’ve gained customers with less production,” said Janus.
Whether or not nongendered brands can expand into a mass business has yet to be seen, but Fran Dunaway, who cofounded TomboyX, a gender neutral, eco-friendly underwear line that serves everyone, believes the potential is there. She hopes to grow TomboyX, which started with shirts in 2013 before pivoting to underwear a year later, into a full lifestyle brand.
TomboyX ships to 46 countries, and Dunaway sees more global opportunities. Apparently, investors do, too. The company this week closed a $4.3 million Series A round that was led through funds advised by TAU in conjunction with Redbadge Pacific and SBI Investments Korea. The round brings total funding to $6.3 million. With the deal, LVMH Group former chairman of North America, Pauline Brown, joins TomboyX’s board.
Besides getting fit right, one of the biggest challenges is talking about gender-neutral clothing to potential investors, Dunaway said. While TomboyX is an inclusive line, its marketing and imagery is female-centric and 90 percent of its customer base consists of women. Five percent identify as trans or gender nonconforming and 5 percent identify as male.
“Because fashion has been so gendered, there are marketing challenges to get men to wear our product,” said Dunaway, who added that there are plans to do a larger collaboration with a men’s brand to solve this issue.
She doesn’t foresee wholesale partnerships for TomboyX, but has noticed more retailers providing tomboy looks for women and not relegating customers to ruffles and floral prints. Dunaway said she was pleasantly surprised during a trip to Untuckit, the shirt brand, which has a women’s line but mostly caters to men. At the Philadelphia store, which is gendered, an associate steered her in the direction of the men’s shirts based on her preferences.
“That was refreshing,” said Dunaway, who still has to have men’s shirts tailored to fit her. “I’ve been buying some fun shirts from a new shirt company and in the men’s category the shirts are untucked and buttoned. On the women’s side, the same shirts are unbuttoned at bottom and tied in a feminine knot. It’s just so ridiculous to me. They aren’t speaking to what’s happening.”