The future of fashion is non-binary.
That was the message at Project in Las Vegas, where leaders in the non-binary fashion space discussed the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the burgeoning category.
“Previously, fashion was very binary—it was men’s or women’s and you never could transgress between the two,” said Preston Souza, chief of staff and a buyer at The Phluid Project, the New York City boutique touted as the world’s first gender-free store. “And what is really beautiful, generationally, [is how] Generation Z is rejecting these labels. Sixty percent of Generation Z will shop across gendered sections, so this is proof that this is where the future is going and that these binary traditional structures are slowly phasing out.”
Non-binary fashion is increasingly on the radar of fashion watchers. This week alone, Victoria’s Secret announced that it has cast its first transgender woman, model Valentina Sampaio, for its catalog, and The New York Times wrote a deep dive on non-binary teenage fashion. But the fashion category, its designers and consumers are still in the peripheral view for most retailers and brands.
While fashion shows have become a stage for designers like John Galliano, Raf Simons and Teflar Clemens to express their support for gender fluidity, by either featuring trans models or non-binary fashion, Bárbara Sánchez-Kane, the founder of experimental menswear label Sánchez-Kane, pointed out that the majority of shows and collections are labeled menswear or womenswear. Brands are more open to casting diverse models, but the move is, in part, a means to show buyers the breadth of their sizing, she added. And merchandisers still rely on designating spaces by gender.
“I think we could always have more representation by using more trans, non-binary, gender non-conforming people in marketing,” Souza said. “And not only that but by also offering them a seat at the table and getting their input on those conversations.”
These voices, Souza added, help develop The Phluid Project’s private label. The collection spans bra tops and tanks, to denim and tees with positive messages. “We do focus groups, we listened to the community, ask them questions about what would they would like to see and we design with solution in mind,” they said. “[We] are listening to our audience and making sure that we’re providing what exactly they need.”
If the impact The Phluid Project has made on this overlooked community is any indicator on the commercial potential of a non-gender fashion category, then all retailers should wake up. “From a financial perspective and a business perspective, the topic of gender fluidity provides brands and retailers with a new market to sell to,” said Willy Chavarria, designer of the eponymous streetwear line.
The void of non-binary fashion led Neil Grotzinger to launch Nihl, a line of menswear that challenges masculinity. “The reason why I started my brand was feeling like there was nothing out there that I actually wanted to wear,” he said. “And I think we’re coming out of like decades and decades and decades of social restriction. And I think restriction breeds an immense desire in people for something different.”
Comparing the current status of gender fluid fashion to the plus size and curvy categories a decade ago, Chavarria said it will take well-known designers to step out the confines of what’s typical in fashion to discover and accept this new customer. For instance, early in their careers plus size actress Melissa McCarthy and curvy songstress Beyoncé had difficulty finding designers to dress their shapes, he said. Designers like Christian Siriano and Zac Posen helped rewrite the narrative by embracing inclusive sizing and including plus size models in their presentations, turning plus size into a $21 billion industry.
And in some areas, fashion gets it right. As an instructor at Parsons in New York City, Grotzinger says he has seen firsthand how the next generation of designers are viewing fashion through a fluid lens. And in turn, Grotzinger has had opportunities to rethink and rewrite courses at the progressive school, including renaming the Thesis Collection Unisex course to Gender Non-Conforming Thesis. “I got to state my case around how that was terminology that wasn’t as inclusive as it could be,” he said.
As with most things in fashion, the normalization of non-gender clothing, he added, will likely come from the next generation of designers—the kids who are currently deconstructing thrift items in their bedroom, like Grotzinger did as a teen, so they can dress in a style that feels comfortable for their identity.
“I see so many students who are completely rejecting sort of gender stereotypes in the work that they do,” he said. “It’s very exciting to see what students wear and what they gravitate toward now because it’s so different from what we’ve seen before.”