“Unisex,” the industry’s buzzword and symbol for inclusion and diversity, is now more mainstream thanks to brands casting male and female models for their look books and designers casting a broader spectrum of genders for their fashion shows. But with the advent of unisex collections comes a myriad of questions. For one, what makes a collection unisex? Also, where does it fit in a store or web site?
Few retailers, brands and designers are ready for this movement. Inhabit launched its first genderless collection last fall, Norma Kamali changed her storied brand to a unisex label last year, Umit Benan launched unisex line B+ and Equipment is launching a gender-fluid collection in spring 2020.
Nicopanda, Gypsy Sport and Charles Jeffrey Loverboy are among brands cited as genderless labels, as well as streetwear firms Aries and Les Tien, and Huemn, the Indian ready-to-wear brand and Vogue India Fashion Fund winner that offers gender non-binary pieces on its web site. Stefano Pilati introduced fluid men’s wear line Random Identities in 2018, which will be one of the guest presenters at Pitti Uomo, and newer designers such as Mowalola Ogunlesi and Barbara Sanchez-Kane create fluid men’s wear offerings for their respective labels.
Even global juggernauts like H&M and Zara have tried their hand at genderless collections, with the Denim United line and Ungendered collection, respectively.
Consumers are ready, especially Gen Z consumers. Phluid Project founder Rob Smith said at the WWD Culture Conference in November that 56 percent of Generation Z consumers shop “outside their assigned gendered area.”
But are retailers ready? Selfridges introduced a genderless concept called Agender in 2015, and Finnish retailer Stockmann added a genderless shopping floor called One Way in 2018. There’s Studio183 in Berlin that started as a pop-up in 2015, offering seasonless and genderless design, fashion and art, and operates as a permanent store today. Also, non-binary and gender-fluid shop L’Insane opened in Paris at the start of 2019 and the Phluid Project, which recently closed its store, developed a formula that shows retailers can be dedicated to gender-fluid fashion.
New and existing industry players are making strides to be more inclusive, but how much of the progress is actually steps forward? For one, established retailers and brands still separate their stores and web sites according to gender, and it’s for only two genders: men and women. Secondly, the words “unisex” and “gender-neutral” are being used interchangeably to refer to genderless collections, but the collections usually lean toward one gender.
So, what must be addressed for things to move forward? Retailers must reassess their merchandising strategies, designers must reevaluate what a genderless collection actually is, and the industry must learn the verbiage.
Smith at the WWD Culture Conference used a character called the “Gender Unicorn” to illustrate the proper way to address gender and sexuality. He spoke of five things related to identity, including the sex one is assigned at birth, gender identity, gender expression, who one is intimately attracted to and then who one is emotionally attracted to.
The parts that are pertinent to fashion are gender identity and gender expression. To start, a person can be assigned one of three sexes at birth: male, female or intersex. Then comes gender identity, which is what one identifies themselves as and gender expression, which is how one dresses to express themselves. Smith started his speech identifying himself as a “cis man,” meaning he was assigned male at birth and identifies as male.
Why is this important? Smith explained at the conference that when he was young, sexuality and expression were lumped together, “but now it’s all about separating your sexual orientation with your gender identity.”
Christina Zervanos, head of public relations at Phluid Project, said the non-binary consumer “combats the word unisex, because it has the word sex in it. For a lot of people, it speaks to sexuality when it’s about how you identify yourself.”
“Gen Z is begging for the non-binary language,” Zervanos said. “It takes a lot of learning and unlearning.” According to Pew Research Center, 35 percent of Gen Z is familiar with gender-neutral pronouns, followed by Millennials at 25 percent. Throw in Gen X at 16 percent and the total number of people familiar with gender-neutral pronouns reaches 76 percent.
Smith also said at the conference, “If I was going to represent a young community, especially a gender-expansive young community, I need to learn the language.”
“Personally, I find there is a difference between the two terms,” said Brigitte Chartrand, Ssense senior director of women’s wear buying. “Unisex feels like an older term, which refers to designs that are not made for a specific body type. Whereas gender-fluid is more of a loose term that can be applied to clothing that embraces or rejects typical gender norms of design. Regardless of specific definitions, I think both terms are about welcoming a community of like-minded individuals with a focus on inclusivity.”
Montreal-based retailer Ssense embraces gender-fluid fashion through store buys that blur the distinctions between men’s wear and women’s wear. Though the Ssense homepage opens with “shop men” and “shop women,” Chartrand said the lines have been blurred for five years and merchandising is determined by aesthetics, if a product appeals to the Ssense customer, and years of buying data.
“We don’t categorize our brands as ‘unisex’ or ‘gender-fluid’,” Chartrand said. “We’ve had this approach for many years. Our audience is predominantly aged between 18 and 34, so they’re generally more open-minded and readier to embrace new ideas. It’s more about differences than difficulties. Cut, fit, sizing and styling can all be major considerations.”
Many brands are adopting the language, describing their gender-neutral collections as genderless, like Official Rebrand, the genderless label from non-binary designer and creative MI Leggett. They actually coined the term “gender-free.”
“Gender is not a fixed thing,” said Leggett, whose pronouns are they/them. “I’d never heard people use the term gender-free when I started the brand. It’s kind of a play on gluten-free. If you don’t tolerate gluten, you don’t have to consume it, so I thought it was a funny play. A lot of people use gender-neutral. That feels a little stale to me. Free implies more freedom. Agender, genderless, there’s so many ways to describe your ideology as a brand. It all depends on what you actually mean. So to me it’s gender-free.”
Brands and designers are falling into the trap of producing a garment and slapping on the title “genderless” despite a piece leaning more toward men’s wear or women’s wear. Typical genderless garments are either oversize, formless and shapeless or are formfitting. Women have worn traditional men’s wear or men’s wear-inspired pieces for so long that now those pieces can really no longer be described as men’s wear-inspired.
Men adopting women’s garments didn’t translate as seamlessly, however. For instance, Kanye West wasn’t met with much favor when he wore a leather kilt by Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy during the “Watch the Throne” tour, but the look did help popularize the reverse layering trend from the mid-2010s (West comments that the kilt looks like a long T-shirt in the Watch the Throne tour behind-the-scenes web series, Voyr). On the flip side, the Celine spring 2011 silk foulard shirt by Phoebe Philo is a grail in the men’s wear community because of West, who helped popularize the piece at Coachella in 2011, and later Travis Scott, who donned the blouse in 2018.
Louis Vuitton stirred conversations by casting Jaden Smith for its women’s spring 2016 campaign. Rapper Lil Uzi Vert received praise on social media and in media outlets for wearing a kilt to the Thom Browne Thanksgiving football game in November, but Young Thug has had mixed reactions for his fluid style choices. Dennis Rodman was lambasted for his style choices in the mid- to late-Nineties, but Harry Styles had a successful Met Gala moment in 2019 in a sheer Gucci shirt, following in the footsteps of Marc Jacobs, who wore a sheer Prada top at the Met Gala in 2012.
Several brands have adopted the genderless distinction, but none quite like Rad Hourani, who was one of the first fashion designers to establish a unisex, gender-neutral label in 2007. Hourani said he never desired to be a fashion designer. He began developing his own line after he held an art exhibition for neutral clothes, which he described as “a tornado success where I started selling to department stores around the world.” Hourani noticed after moving to Paris at age 23 that all things were categorized according to “race, gender, age,” including fashion.
“When I speak of neutrality, I speak of any gender or non-gender,” he said. “Unisex is free of any gender categorization or limitation. Clothing is a discipline in which I can express myself and my vision around neutrality in general. Expressing gender neutrality is a big part of what I do. There have been unisex pieces like sneakers, jeans, T-shirts, but to create a full high-end collection for 13 years now, I needed to create my own base and sizes.”
Hourani sizes his garments from 0 to 3 and translates his sizing to more traditional sizing. For example, a belted coat in size 2 is the equivalent of a size medium, a U.S. men’s 38, U.K. men’s 38, or Italian men’s 48. It’s also a size 4 in U.S. women’s sizes, 36 in French women’s, 8 in U.K. women’s, and even a 9 in Japanese women’s sizing. The pants waist size equivalent is 29 to 31.
“In the past two years, [genderless fashion] became a bigger subject, but what I notice the most is they use designs that are loose-fitting, but I think it’s a much deeper look at unisex morphology. There’s nothing new about making a woman masculine or a man feminine. That’s not unisex, that’s making one the other,” Hourani said. “For androgynous, you can’t tell, but it’s not unisex. Unisex is free of any gender categorization or limitation.”
He also sees genderless fashion as less restrictive than gendered fashion. “If you only give a man a dress, you’re only limiting him to a dress. But if you give a human a neutral garment, they will wear it any way they want.”
No Sesso, the fashion label founded by Pierre Davis in 2015, is helping shape genderless fashion. The Italian phrase “no sesso” translates to “no sex/no gender.” Davis, like Hourani, started her line as an art project before establishing a proper fashion collection.
The brand web site offers a tank top and T-shirt in sizes S to XL, though the sizes usually range from XXS to XXXL, and the brand’s runway collection and custom pieces are available upon request.
“Back when No Sesso started, there was barely any market for people. Over the last couple of years, there’s been more changes, but I feel like retail spaces still mix up unisex as being big, oversize clothing instead of anything you want to wear. Not everything has to look like an apron or a caftan or oversize jeans. I think the sizing needs to be corrected,” said Davis.
Spring-summer 2020 is a more accessible offering from Davis, with graphic prints of a superhero on jackets, shorts and swimwear. The collection includes airbrushed graphic T-shirts, and multicolor and sequined pieces like cropped tops, jackets, and dresses, short-sleeve tops with one sleeve, and intricate handwork. This compares to fall-winter 2019, which included more dresses and corsets.
Leggett launched Official Rebrand in 2017 though their brand started in 2016. The label offers repurposed and reclaimed clothing, one-of-a-kind pieces, and an accessible line of screen-printed styles. It also held events at New York Fashion Week and at Miami Art Basel with Drøme.
Leggett will take part in New York Men’s Day in February and present a capsule collection that is an extension of the brand.
“I strive to have clothing that can be worn on multiple body types,” Leggett said. “One of my closest friends uses crutches and always loves wearing the clothes, and it’s always something I’m concerned about with the brand. Right now, I produce everything on my own, but in the next year I’ll be scaling up.”
Leggett distinguishes sizes according to measurements, though a size chart is not provided on the brand’s web site. Much of the current offering on the site is one size, with the exception of a few pieces, including the “Free from Desire” bomber jacket that is available from sizes XS to XL and is made to order. “Most of my work is on consignment. I have a rack of non-binary pieces and never label it by that,” they said.
Designer Willie Norris of direct-to-consumer brand Outlier launched his pro-queer brand Willie Norris Workshop in 2018 and held his first runway show in June in New York City. The collection included workwear-inspired ensembles that were adapted to the models cast for the show, many of which were of different body types and gender identities and made their runway debut at the show. In addition, Norris cast the models before the looks were finalized.
“The industry is so predicated on men’s wear/women’s wear,” Norris said. “Everything is set up to work within those confines. That doesn’t necessarily bother me, because there will be a group of people who are looking for either, which is why I adopted the queer sensibilities.”
Norris presented his collection on a range of body types — slender frames, broad shoulders, varying heights and weights. Black, transgender and disabled model Aaron Philip wore the final look of the show. The collection still mirrored most genderless lines today that push T-shirts and jeans, though Norris broke denim conventions with a zippered jacket that can transform into a cape. The brand is offering its signature “Promote Homosexuality” T-shirts and socks on its web site “that sell themselves,” according to Norris.
“I’m not making clothes that everyone can wear,” Norris said. “My sizing is not universal, it’s men’s wear rooted. There wasn’t anything [in the collection] overtly feminine. There was one dress, but that was almost like a nod to my culture. It just made sense to have that there with the denim and workwear.”
Norma Kamali last year re-branded her women’s collection as a genderless line. Men have been wearing her designs since she launched in the Seventies, such as her signature sleeping-bag coat and jumpsuits, but she felt that 2019 was the best time to remove gender distinctions. Now her clothes are offered in a new size range and feature new hangtags to signify the change.
“We have multiple sizes for male and female sizes on our web site,” Kamali said. “There’s two different sizes, but they apply to that one garment.”
Fluid fashion is nothing new to Kamali. She had seen men in the Seventies wear traditional women’s garments and styles like blouses, lipstick and high-heeled shoes, which was more modern at the time, and she believes that the feeling and energy of that “liberated time” mirrors today. The look book for her spring collection has female and male models in the same collection styled how they wish.
The web site has a gender-fluid size chart that applies measurements to sizes. On the chart, a size S for women translates to a 4 and a 26 waist, while a men’s size S is a 4 and 32 waist. The tapered pleat pant is worn by male and female models, and is offered from a size 28 waist to a size 38. The sleeping-bag coat has two sizes, XS/S and M/L.
“How we express ourselves through clothing is how we come alive, like the balance of feminine and masculine at the same time, which I think more of a gender-fluid description. I know specifically men are buying them, but if I look at a store we sell to like Net-a-porter or Matches, I wouldn’t be able to tell which one is male or female,” she said.
“Since I’ve started, [Palomo Spain] has been tied to agender,” said Palomo Spain founder and designer Alejandro Gómez Palomo, “but I feel like it’s absolute freedom, freedom of choice, and being your most extravagant self. I think freedom is what I crave more in life and what empowers me to have a different conversation with men’s wear.”
Palomo founded his fashion label in 2015 in Madrid after studying at London College of Fashion. He is now based in Seville in Andalusia, Spain’s southern region, where he creates his universe without influence.
He said his label is not strictly a men’s wear brand, though he shows during the men’s schedule, and presented most recently in Paris for the spring 2020 collection and will do so again this month. Men comprise 90 percent of the Palomo Spain customer, although Palomo does couture for women. When the brand operates pop-ups, women tend to try and buy all of the product. “I was very stubborn in the beginning, but now I see a real possibility of dressing women,” he said.
The Palomo Spain silhouette is “tall and thin, sophisticated, slow-moving,” said Palomo, and the brand’s size L is not a “traditional L,” according to the designer. The brand also has a size chart with sizes corresponding with measurements taken with breathing. A size L chest is 100 centimeters (the site does not list a unit of measurement), which would be a 39-inch chest, and the size L waist is 84 centimeters, or 33 inches.
The spring 2020 collection inspired by Pompeii included white tunic dresses paired with a black skirt, caftan tops in sheer chiffon and corsetry, while the fall 2019 runway show was bookended with dramatic dresses. This collection, which is available now, is also comprised of a gold sequined halter top, wrap blouse and a black velvet cape, as well as taffeta bomber jackets and satin robes.
“We try to be very democratic in the way we produce clothes,” Palomo said. “A lot of meaning of the house is that everyone can feel welcome and live a fantasy in their mind. We want to be very inclusive, but women’s shapes change the stories completely. It’s a very difficult point to get because men and women have different bodies and it’s a different line in the pattern making. Once you put a chest dart in a shirt it looks awkward on men. But we’re working on shaping for women at the time as well.”
Palomo shared more thoughts on gender-fluid fashion today. “When brands do unisex, they’re just doing a tracksuit, oversize sweats. Unisex should be something glamorous that could be for men and for women. We’ll need to find a way and that’s what we [at Palomo Spain] work to all year. When we get into the whole word of ‘gender’ — and I’ve been promoting from the beginning — that you may feel in between and it’s a reality. I don’t want to make that distinction, but when you get on the site you see that it works for both men and women.”
Men are styled in the collection on the brand web shop, but women have appeared in editorials. Model Crisgery Stalman is featured in one of the brand’s editorials for the fall 2019 collection, “1916.”
Designer Ludovic de Saint Sernin also produces inclusive garments and said, “It fits in the gender-fluid world, but for me it’s more the idea of being the garment and being defined by the wearer. If it’s on men then it’s men’s wear, if it’s on a woman it’s women’s wear, if it’s fluid then it’s fluid.”
The 2018 LVMH Prize finalist, 2018 ANDAM prize winner and Woolmark Prize finalist presented in Paris his spring 2020 collection that includes sheer garments that are supposed to look like someone walking out of water, open-shoulder tops and tops with cutouts that expose the chest. He introduced his first women’s offering as well after noticing a “real demand on girls wanting to wear the brand.”
De Saint Sernin designed women’s wear at Balmain under Olivier Rousteing before founding his namesake label. He works with a male fit model, but since his experience was previously in women’s wear, his mannequin is a female body. He is also working with an androgynous fit model “to see a women’s look and a men’s look.”
“I introduced this dress called the swan dress that has done really well,” he said. “It was actually a piece I had in my first collection as an apron dress and worn with a pair of pants, and for spring 2020 I transformed it into a sexy party dress. A piece that looks like a strictly women’s piece comes from a piece that was meant for a guy.”
The brand web site is currently offering only underwear, but the label is available on Farfetch, Matchesfashion, Totokaelo and Garmentory under men’s wear and at L’Insane. L’Insane is the only retail partner that does not classify the brand as men’s wear, because the web site does not specify collections by gender. Garmentory has a unisex section on its web site, but merchandises Ludovic de Saint Sernin in men’s wear.
When selling the collection to retailers, de Saint Sernin said, “The message that we have is so clear that when the buyers come in, they know if it will work for them and if it won’t work for them. We sell directly to buyers, it’s a very genuine relationship.”
Still, gender-fluid fashion does not have a proper home at retailers that adhere to gendered fashion, with the exception of the newer non-gender-conforming stores that have opened, or longtime retailers like Selfridges and Stockmann that have launched shops dedicated to gender-fluid fashion.
New York-based Totokaelo has women’s and men’s sections on its web site, but is “not afraid to blur lines between categories and genders,” according to Fanny Damiette, director of brand and marketing strategy for Totokaelo’s parent company Need Supply. The Totokaelo Archive collection that made its debut for spring 2019 featured a pleated skirt for men and sheer shirts in organza.
“Archive was created for this person,” Damiette said. “We doubled down and have products that are genderless. There’s a consciousness of being mindful of different body types and genders, but since our customer is more on the mature side, we are well aware of that and it’s definitely in our mind in terms of sizing and proportion.”
Despite the push for gender inclusion, the retailer cannot be a fully gender-fluid store yet. “We have to merch the site with women’s and men’s and it’s a tricky thing,” Damiette said. “Right now, we can’t, but it’s on our radar.”
She added, “In the store, it’s more interesting because here we can blur the lines in a more interesting way. We still have a women’s and men’s side, but since it’s physical, our customers go from one side to the other.”
Ssense also embraces fluidity. Chartrand said “Blurring the lines between women’s wear and men’s wear feels very authentic to our buying direction and we’ve had this approach for many years.”
The openness is exhibited through the diverse brand mix, which includes Palomo Spain and Jil Sander-plus, among others that are either genderless brands, encourage all genders to shop their collections, or challenge traditional men’s wear conventions and norms. Ssense hosted a Random Identities runway show at its headquarters, featured Aries founder Sofia Prantera on its web site, and recently had an interview with 69, the Los Angeles-based non-demographic clothing brand.
“Since 2014, we have always blurred the lines between what ‘belongs’ where in terms of women’s wear and men’s wear,” said Chartrand. “We have and continue to purchase men’s wear brands like Raf Simons, Wales Bonner, Mowalola for the women’s wear side of Ssense.com, buying a women’s wear knit or jacket and uploading it on a male model and making it available to the men’s wear side. It’s always been part of our buying direction to not buy brands or items strictly as women’s wear, men’s wear, or even ‘unisex’.”
But Chartrand said Ssense has no plans to open a dedicated genderless section.
At the recently closed Phluid Project brick-and-mortar store, the buying process followed a designer open call every Tuesday, and brands were accepted to the store according to their mission and concept. “We have an ongoing artist residency program, taking Gen Z into consideration and having a high-low lens for all those that appreciate non-binary fashion,” said Zervanos.
The store carried brands such as Levi’s, Fila, Dr. Martens, Champion, Chrishabana, Gypsy Sport, Happy Socks, Heurueh, Nicopanda, Vasilis Loizides, WeSC and Wilde Vertigga, among others. Only Levi’s, Fila, Happy Socks and Heurueh are available on the Phluid web site now.
“The first thing we often do is go to their Instagram page, what is their casting?” said Zervanos. “You can look at a nine-image grid and know if they’re gender-inclusive or not.”
But how do designers sell to stores that are gender-specific? Palomo said Opening Ceremony, his first retail partner, bought his brand for the women’s section, but moved the collection to the men’s section after more men were buying. He said the retailer clued him in to men buying the brand. Palomo sells to men or women depending on the retail channel.
Rad Hourani said he had requested stores merchandise his collections in men’s and women’s sections or create a unisex section if they did not want to stock the brand in either section.
“One of the major online stores, we had to really dispute every time and finally we stopped selling to them and now they shoot unisex,” Hourani said. “I don’t think all of the stores really understand the distribution of unisex yet. I hope it’s not just a trend moment.”
Norris said, “My plan for the time being is I don’t want to work in any sort of traditional wholesale model. I’m in a fortunate place right now, because I do have a full-time job that I really like so I’m not in a rush to blow this thing up and get wholesale accounts at the end of the year. My dream is to have one to five products, identifiable signature styles that can carry the brand.”
“I find most commercial floors alienating,” said Leggett. “If you go into a big store, the way the stores are laid out is very binary and with mannequins saying this is how you should be.”
In regard to selling their collections to stores, Leggett said, “I definitely trust other people to tell the brand story as well. If you’re running a store, you should feel passionate about the brand.”
No one knows for sure what the future holds in terms of shopping trends, but what is known is that 56 percent of Gen Z consumers shop outside of their assigned gendered area. The generation is also slowly entering the workforce, with just a small majority there today. By 2030, the youngest member of Gen Z will be 20 years old.
The generation has a buying power of $143 billion, and an influence of up to $200 billion, according to Smith at the Culture Conference, and that is before all members have entered the workforce.
Millennials, the second largest group to accept gender-inclusivity, were projected last year to have a buying power of $1.4 trillion in the U.S. annually and represent 30 percent of total retail sales, according to Accenture.
Regardless of which generation is leading the charge, consumer spending will have an impact on the industry and its shift.
“We’re already beginning to see a shift in the industry through multiple waves; through casting of androgynous, trans and gender non-conforming models, as well as combined women’s wear and men’s wear runways,” said Chartrand. “We’re seeing the shift take place through how products are being bought, whether it’s unisex, gender-fluid items, or women’s wear items on the men’s wear side. I’m sure the success of brands like Telfar is inspiring to new designers who will emerge in coming years with this inclusive mentality.”
“I think because the gender subject has been raising up in the past five years that it’s all over the world,” Hourani said. “It’s definitely because we talk about gender in so many ways.”
“The 2020s is going to be more progressive,” said Davis. “I definitely see things shifting a lot more and already things have shifted. Brands need someone on the design team who absolutely gets it and having fit analysis with all different fits instead of the same models they use. I do see a change hopefully in the new year and new decade brings more awareness and allows more people to participate in fashion.”
“I think the problem is the industry is not that progressive,” said Tibi designer Amy Smilovic. “This industry recycles people all the time and doesn’t let in new people all the time.”
Smilovic had been inspired by men’s tailoring when she founded her label 22 years ago, and prior to unveiling men’s wear, she cast male models for her runway shows “to take away that overly feminine feeling,” Smilovic said. The brand office is “30 percent male,” she added, and “it was starting to feel more and more wrong that I didn’t have things they could wear easily as well.”
She said, “As a mom of two sons who are Gen Z, they don’t care if something is men’s or women’s at all. The younger generation is growing up in this world where they’re driven by what they like. They don’t discern by men’s and women’s. We live in Greenwich [Conn.] and one of my son’s best friends transitioned and it’s a part of their daily conversations with their friends.”
Palomo said, “I think this decade is going to be a really big change. It was big in the Twenties and I’m expecting the 2020s to be the same.”
He said he believes men’s wear will be of more importance and will “hopefully” merge with women’s wear for a non-binary customer.
“I know a lot of retailers are playing into that already,” he said, “but everyone is kind of scared so it’ll be up to society to dictate that. In fashion, we have very optimistic views of the future, but we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Leggett said, “I think that people are starting to realize these norms are just norms and don’t really make that much sense for being comfortable. The fact that [New York Men’s Day] recruited me and actively recruited gender-free brands says a lot. This is just the beginning and I think it really comes through with queer creatives. This is our lives, this isn’t a trend.”