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How Back Office Decisions Make or Break Gender-Inclusive Apparel Collections

Fashion month not only shines a spotlight on the next trends, fits and colors, but the globetrotting event also offers insight into how the industry is becoming more gender-inclusive.

“In recent years, the runway has shifted from a gatekeeping exclusive experience to more of a gate opening, an all-inclusive one,” said Danny Goldstein, Fashion Snoops women’s wear strategist, in a recent webinar. “More than ever before and increasing year after year, we see nonbinary and transgender models featured alongside cisgender models on the runway. This brings proper representation of marginalized communities to the fore.”

Rob Smith, founder and CEO of The Phluid Project, a brand designing fashion and accessories beyond gender constraints, said he’s seen a 30 percent increase in searches with gender-neutral terms and a 50 percent rise in press mentions with the word genderless. “Almost 60 percent of Gen Z shops across gender lines,” he told attendees Tuesday at New York City’s 2022 CEO Summit, a joint conference run by the Jay H. Baker Retailing Center at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the Retail Leaders Circle. “This number is staggering: almost a quarter of Gen Zers expect to change their identity at least once in their lifetime. So gender is becoming very fluid for young people.”

Rob Smith, founder and CEO of gender-free fashion brand Phluid Project
Phluid Project founder and CEO Rob Smith Julie Stapen

On the runway, Gucci, No Sesso and A.Potts are among the labels that presented fashion in non-gendered ways for Fall/Winter 22-23, but the catwalk is just one area that brands need to consider before they make a concerted effort to court nonbinary consumers.

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Here Goldstein shares “actionable bite-sized” steps for companies to strategize with internal teams to expand in this growing market and reach a new consumer set.

Uplift gender queer voices

“Always include trans, nonbinary and gender non-conforming people in the development, creation and promotion of gender inclusive lines,” Goldstein said.

A successful example of this is intimates brand Parade’s “Color Outside the Lines” collection for Pride last year, notable for its use of unconventional colors. “It’s a bit more subtle, and this was strategic as not to come off as rainbow washing but rather be more thoughtful in their color choices,” he said. Additionally, he said the campaign was directed by drag performer, model and activist West Dakota who Parade specifically hired so it would be “true and authentic to the community that it was serving.”

In general, Goldstein urged brands to look within their own companies for diverse voices that can provide advice, insight and help encourage the use of “proper language” which will be essential to impactful marketing communications.

“If you’re thinking about creating a gender-inclusive line, I’m sure there must be people in your company who identify as LGBTQ-plus and would like to be a part of the strategic conversations from the onset,” he said. “Or maybe there are allies who just care about the community and want to support their advancement that would like to be involved as well.”

Don’t forget retail

Goldstein urged brands to consider creating a specific section on their e-commerce platforms that “highlight a curated selection of de-gendered items targeted for the nonbinary market or everyone else that identifies outside of just male or female.”

Gucci provides this shopping experience with MX, a selection of the luxury house’s gender-fluid apparel and accessories.

For brick-and-mortar, he suggested that retailers dedicate physical space to nonbinary items and organize them by color, item, fit and style instead of gender.

“There’s a way to position products to everyone even if you’re traditionally a women’s wear or men’s wear [brand],” he said.

Consider the environment

Genderless collections tee up new opportunities for brands to adopt more responsible sourcing and design strategies.

“Create gender-neutral lines with eco virtuous standards in their DNA. Consider how you can reduce waste by manufacturing all-gender lines, and promote circularity through sharing,” Goldstein said.

Pangaia’s recent denim collections reflect this mindset. The materials science-focused brand recently introduced unisex workwear-inspired jackets and jeans made with organic cotton and hemp fabrics. Part of the collection is dyed with Archroma’s EarthColors derived from renewable, non-edible waste products such as nut shells and leaves leftover from the food and herbal industries.

Design beyond binaries and consider how patterns and construction techniques could be innovated to fit customers of all gender identities, Goldstein added. “Explore methods that make garments more inclusive by incorporating modular pieces with adaptive fits,” he said.

Additional reporting by Jessica Binns.