Gender-neutral is here to stay. While the idea itself is certainly nothing new, in the last year retail has—if not entirely pushed aside outdated gender categories—then at least created new, agendered spaces for those who simply wish to enjoy utilitarian basics without the need for traditional labels. Helped in measure by the booming athleisure trend, retailers such as Selfridges have introduced gender-free spaces within their stores, while fast fashion behemoth Zara last year debuted “Ungendered”, a line of unisex athletic wear including sweatshirts, joggers and T-shirts.
With apparel already moving in the direction of offering more unisex options, footwear too is increasingly taking cue, or at least, tastes are changing.
In the last year Nike, Converse and Timberland, brands who have long been identified by their iconic unisex styles, ranked among the top five fashion footwear growth brands for both men and women in a report by The NPD Group. But of course, it’s not just giants like Nike and Converse who are are benefiting from changing tastes, smaller brands are helping to drive trends too.
One of the coolest brands to debut at FFANY this year was NIN, a New York City-based company which this fall will release its inaugural collection to wholesale accounts. Inspired by its hometown, the line is broken up into nine smaller mini-collections, each taking cues from a famous New York City neighborhood. Customers can try on the likes of Williamsburg, the Upper East Side or Chinatown, and most interestingly, six of the collections are unisex, offering the same shoes in sizes for both men and women.
For NIN Founder Ninive Giordano, the idea of gender-neutral goes beyond mere aesthetics. Hand-made in Italy and offering luxury details like leather lining, the collection touches on larger ideas of utility and wardrobe versatility.
“This brand isn’t the standard format you’re seeing [in the market] for a unisex line. Not every women’s shoe is a smaller version of a men’s shoe. Not every men’s shoe is on the same heel height or a lower heel height than the women’s shoes. So it’s really not about a formula where everything is identical, it’s really more about the concept of pragmatic dressing, and how staples have always been beyond gender,” said Giordano. “Even though I’m very excited that the industry has finally brought the gender-neutral conversation to the forefront, I think that this sensibility has been going on in New York for quite some time, and it just happens naturally when we started thinking about the concept of our brand.”
With a long history in the footwear industry designing shoes for men, women and children, Giordano says that she felt the time was finally right to bring her own brand into the marketplace. Inspired by what she saw happening in the men’s market, the line was initially going to be purely focused on men’s footwear, but evolved naturally into a line for all genders. The concept of a uniform, she says, was central to how the collection developed.
“I just found myself gravitating to the concept of a uniform. I think that New Yorkers and urbanites in general have long understood the value of this. So we wanted to take the concept of a uniform and identify what are the staples. In ready-to-wear we have jeans, hoodies, flannels, etc. that live in everyone’s wardrobe regardless of their sensibility. And it’s not about gender, they’re just very utilitarian and very pragmatic. So we wanted to make sure that the classic staples of footwear were addressed the same way. At the same time, we wanted to make sure that we elevated them, so that they’re made with a lot of attention to detail, in really fine materials.”
Part of how NIN promises to elevate their shoes is in how light and functional they are. The line draws inspiration as much from the world of performance sneakers as it does from the pragmatic classics it re-imagines. For urban customers who walk every day, Giordano said that comfort was a must, but that it couldn’t come at the cost of style, or else customers would not be interested.
“One of the things that was really rewarding when we launched the collection was just how surprised people were when they felt how light the shoes were,” said Giordano. “Two of my favorite styles from our line are the ‘Bear’ and ‘Beanie’ styles. I love the idea of a hybrid, and I love the idea of borrowing new components that would normally be used in performance footwear i.e. a really light bottom—and taking the details that we would normally see in sneakers, like a racer stripe or a color on the lace—and bringing it to a hiker. I think that an urbanite will appreciate and naturally gravitate to a hybrid style like that, because you give them the lightness, you give them the comfort but it’s still very stylish.”
While just one brand, NIN is another indicator of where the footwear industry is moving as a whole, with less emphasis on restrictive labels and more on what actually looks good. Though it’s yet to be seen if gender-neutral can take over the world, Giordano says she eventually would love to see the brand distributed globally.
“I think that our sensibility is very much a New York sensibility, but it can be transported other places. What I love about the collection is that if you look at it on a first pass, they’re very much the core staples that you’d want to have in your wardrobe of shoes, regardless of gender. To me those styles are as relevant as wanting to have the perfect trench in your closet.”