“The future is female” might be the feminist slogan of the moment, but in the world of fashion, the future is neither female nor male — it’s genderless.
The concept of gender fluidity has only recently entered mainstream conversation, thanks largely to increased awareness of trans issues, as well as celebrities such as Jaden Smith and Young Thug flouting gender norms (and looking amazing while doing so).
But even as more people start replacing "he" and "she" pronouns with "them," the idea of genderless fashion can seem unnecessary or confusing. When I spoke to a friend about writing this article, he laughed and asked, "What’s a genderless piece of clothing, a hoodie?" Clothes have always crossed gender boundaries — jeans, T-shirts, and hoodies aren't exclusive to men or women — yet they are marketed and sold within a binary framework.
Now, a slew of designers are challenging this notion, offering a place in the industry for those who don’t find themselves on either end of the gender binary or those who want to subvert or ignore traditional gender norms.
In New York, genderless collections are making their mark on Fashion Week. Buyers, critics, and retailers are now looking beyond traditional men's and women's collections thanks to brands such as Telfar, Chromat, Vaquera, Gypsy Sport, and Eckhaus Latta, which have all put forward a genderless vision since day one. In February, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) even added a “unisex/non-binary” category to the NYFW calendar.
Via email, we got in touch with three key New York-based designers and one retailer helping propel genderless fashion into the wider fashion world: Telfar Clemens of Telfar, Becca McCharen-Tran of Chromat, Rio Uribe of Gypsy Sport, and Rob Smith, whose The Phluid Project is billed as the “world’s first gender-free store.”
What is genderless fashion anyway?
Of course, from a streetwear perspective, the idea of men, women, or non-binary people wearing the same clothes doesn’t seem new. But the key difference is that while streetwear is worn by everyone, the vast majority of it is made for and marketed to men.
The aim of genderless fashion is to break free from the gender restrictions codified in the clothes we wear. To put it simply, designers are seeking to give consumers the freedom to explore what they want to wear without worrying that their choices say anything about their sexuality or gender.
As Clemens puts it, “It's not about putting a dress on a guy or whatever — it's just clothes that look good on everyone.”
Gypsy Sport founder Uribe agrees. “All clothes are gender neutral," he says. "It’s really about who’s wearing the garments and how they gender themselves. I love when a piece can be worn by anyone, whether they are cis, trans, male-, female-, or non-binary-presenting. Personally, I think that if kids weren't told that blue jeans are for boys and pink dresses are for girls, then we would all be dressed as our true selves. So I design for people who think like me, who are themselves regardless of society’s expectations and regardless of what section of a clothing store they like to shop in.”
For McCharen-Tran, the only thing that makes an item genderless is “freeing ourselves of expectations of how we think someone should look while wearing a garment.”
At her swimwear brand Chromat, fit is important. “Being in a swimsuit can be a very vulnerable feeling," she says. "Our goal is to make swimwear that makes people feel empowered while wearing it.”
Chromat recently hosted a fit test with non-binary, trans, femme, and gender-non-conforming fans to get their input on the range of styles offered and see what the brand could do to improve. “We did notice that some trans femmes, non-binary, or gender-non-conforming people requested swimwear bottoms with more coverage, so that’s something we have started thinking about," says McCharen-Tran. "But beyond that, people of all places on the gender spectrum are each so unique in shape and silhouette that it’s impossible to make one garment that works for everyone. We are just trying to design as many options as possible.
“The most important message I hope to share through our swimwear design is one of acceptance and the celebration of individuality. It sounds so simple, but it’s a daily act of defiance to be yourself when so much of what we see on our screens and in our world is about conforming to unachievable beauty standards.”
It's about being inclusive
On its website, Chromat writes that it's "for strong, powerful women, femmes, and non-binary #ChromatBABES." McCharen-Tran tells me that gender-specific language can be exclusionary, and she wants everyone to feel welcome.
In the retail space, Smith wants to make shopping less alienating through The Phluid Project. “If you're sex-assigned male at birth and you want to shop in the female department, it's not a comfortable experience for anyone," says Smith. "Even in New York City, you'd think that it would be very free, but it's not.
"I can't tell you how many stories I hear about people going to major stores, like a woman in the men's department at Zara, and they ask her not to be in the men's fitting room, to go up two floors to the women's. Or a guy going into the women's department and people saying, 'I'm sorry, this is the women's department.' It's an incredibly uncomfortable experience.”
The Phluid Project is “for people who want to shop in a safe environment and explore and push the boundaries,” Smith explains. “My goal is to eliminate gender expression. To eliminate the concept that anything you wear or put in your body or makeup should define whether you're male or female. I think gender expression is over. The concept of gender is over."
Gender-neutral looks are going mainstream
Marketing clothes as genderless might be new, but people have always been pushing the boundaries of gender expression. As Rick Owens, one of the designers who pioneered a genderless view of fashion, told Refinery29, “I don’t understand why this generation thinks they invented gender fluidity. They did it harder, stronger, and louder in the ’70s… and 16th-century Japan.”
While gender fluidity might have existed in past centuries in Japan, we’re now entering a time in which genderless fashion may no longer be an anomaly or some kind of statement, but the norm.
For larger brands and stores, it’s hard to break from the women’s and men’s classifications because that’s how the market is set up — it would be a logistical nightmare to suddenly divest from the binary. Smaller, younger brands have more flexibility to experiment and react to changing expectations than a heritage fashion house, but the recent moves towards genderless fashion have been felt across the industry.
Half of the finalists on this year’s LVMH Prize shortlist, including the winner, Doublet, make gender-neutral fashion, with prize founder Delphine Arnault noting, "The nominations echo the recent evolutions in fashion." And it's not just brands that market themselves as genderless either. In recent seasons, Vetements, Gucci, and Balenciaga have shown male and female models in looks that transcend gender stereotypes.
Back in 2015, Selfridges installed Agender, a temporary pop-up section of the department store that focused on genderless or gender-neutral clothing, and even high-street brands such as H&M and Zara have released genderless lines, although they have been called out for utilizing a one-sided, more classically masculine selection.
The mainstream adoption of gender-neutral fashion has been met with mixed reactions. Speaking about the CFDA classification, Clemens cautioned against the separation of the lines. “I would rather just have the separation not matter as much, rather than drawing attention to it," he says. "It's almost more conservative to separate the non-binary rather than just let things mix.”
Uribe sees both sides of the argument. “The only downside is that most retailers won't support unisex designers, or they'll create their own line to cater to the LGBTQ community without understanding or respecting the core values of queer or trans designers," he says. "But the upside is that there's a massive revolution happening around the world where the youth are wearing whatever the fuck they want, regardless of gender stereotypes, and being completely unapologetic about it.”
Reflecting a changing world
When asked why he makes genderless clothes, Clemens responds bluntly, “It’s just clothes.” And he’s right — but fashion is also reflecting a societal change. According to a 2016 study by the Fawcett Society, 44 percent of the British 18-to-24-year-olds surveyed think that gender is binary, compared with 65 percent of over-65s. In a GLAAD survey of more than 2,000 adults in the United States published last year, 12 percent of millennials identified as trans or gender-non-conforming. And where society leads, fashion follows.
But even as attitudes change, wearing something that differs from gender norms can still be viewed as more of a political statement than a simple fashion choice. It's also often an unequal system: women can generally wear menswear without hassle, but for many people, a man wearing a traditionally feminine style still prompts a double take.
Yet as more and more brands abandon the rigidity of menswear and womenswear, gender stereotypes in style might hopefully become a thing of the past. Whether you want to wear a skirt or not shouldn't dictate how society views you, your gender, or your sexuality. But if you're still unsure about venturing outside the fashion binaries, Clemens has some advice: "Who cares if some idiot thinks you look gay? Just get the fear out of your wardrobe and you will look better.”
In other style news, here are the origins of the smiley face and how it became a counter-cultural symbol.