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How The Phluid Project Designed Gender-Free Denim

The Phluid Project, the New York City-based retail-meets-community center for the LGBTQ community, marks its one-year anniversary this week. Touted as “the world’s first gender-free store,” the boutique—located in the heart of New York University on the corner of Broadway and West 3rd Street—finds itself at the axis of several generational shifts.

Whereas most Gen Z retailers are chasing experiences, The Phluid Project aims to fill a void for an underserved consumer base. The store serves as both a source for gender neutral fashion, accessories and beauty products, plus information and support for members of the LGBTQ community.

The store was founded on the values of acceptance, balance, integrity, intention and openness—all with the goal of challenging boundaries and celebrating differences. And those messages are carried through to the products it stocks.

“We bring in brands that are aligned with our concept and mission,” said Christina Zervanos, The Phluid Project director of public relations.

It’s a mission that resonates with Gen Z consumers, a cohort that’s prone to siding with companies that share their viewpoints in matters related to race, LGBTQ issues and feminism. A recent McKinsey report found that seven out of 10 Gen Zers say it’s important to defend causes related to identity. And 70 percent say they try to purchase products from companies they consider ethical.

The Phluid Project
The Phluid Project Courtesy

And with Pew Research indicating that 35 percent of Gen Z (and 25 percent of millennials) know someone who prefers that others refer to them using gender-neutral pronouns, the need to accommodate consumers who relate outside the gender binary is becoming more pronounced.

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“You can see through people,” Zervanos said, adding that the store tries to sidesteps opportunistic brands that only roll out a rainbow tote and T-shirt every June for Pride Month. “It feels disingenuous and it is important to us to filter through it. Every brand doesn’t need to be queer-owned, but they do need to appreciate the expression. It’s not a trend, its people’s lives.”

Re-thinking denim

Levi’s is among the labels that share The Phluid Project’s values. Zervanos says the brand, which has a history of supporting LGBTQ communities, “is in touch with and recognizes gender fluidity.”

The Phluid Project
The Phluid Project The Phluid Project

Along with stocking Levi’s limited edition Pride collection, Phluid also carries items like Levi’s Trucker skirt dress, mini-skirts, 501 taper jeans and jean jackets with sequin tuxedo stripes.

In January, The Phluid Project expanded its denim offering with the launch of its first capsule collection of gender-free denim. The collection spanned indigo and black comfort stretch skinny jeans available in waist sizes 24-38, to novelty items like a $110 indigo crop top or “denim bib” and a denim pleated skirt.

“What’s nice about the store is that we have different members of the community working the floor and representing the denim,” Zervanos said. “It’s been really appreciated.”

The denim line, which Zervanos said has been a retail success, was a passion project of founder Rob Smith, who relied on feedback from focus groups to develop the line with an in-house designer. For weeks, members of the gender fluid community tried different styles to figure out what was ultimately needed in gender-free denim. And in the process, Zervanos said they discovered takeaways like how women’s jeans tend to have pockets that are more shallow than men’s. The collection aims for a happy medium.

Price and style conscious

With the eldest Gen Zers just entering the work force, Zervanos said the retailer has been conscious of keeping fashion accessible to the people who want it, particularly with its house line of slogan and sentiments-driven hoodies and T-shirts that retail for around $35-$65.

The Phluid Project
The Phluid Project The Phluid Project

The denim collection retails for $110-$125—a price point that veers toward the higher end of The Phluid Project’s price range.

However, Zervanos said the store is “increasingly becoming a high-low store,” thanks in part to a series of in-store designer pop-ups.

A/C Space brought its genderless “Made in USA” streetwear collection made with reclaimed fabrics to the store. Travis Oestreich’s silk kaftans offer versatile fits, while sunglass brand Spiltmilk sells its minimalistic frames with its signature bold brow design for upward of $400.

The pop-ups, Zervanos added, shine a spotlight on elevated gender-neutral fashion. “Initially, gender-neutral fashion meant it is shapeless, but that doesn’t have to be the case,” she said. “People are paying attention to this space.”