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Is the Future of Fashion Genderless?

Men in womenswear and women in menswear is nothing new, but clothing has taken a turn toward a less gendered appearance of late. And it’s not just avant-garde designers—even Zara has a unisex collection called Ungendered.

At the same time, however, the move toward genderless fashion has occurred as growth in menswear outpaced womenswear: a recent Fashionbi report revealed that menswear sales grew 1.9% in 2015, compared to 1.6% growth in womenswear. Coincidence?

“From a business standpoint, a move toward genderless categorizations for clothing has been a boon for the menswear market, which already possesses a lot of other pieces with a cross-gender appeal, like a drop-shoulder crewneck sweatshirt, for example,” said Jian DeLeon, senior menswear editor at WGSN, moderating a panel discussion last week at the trend forecaster’s Futures Conference. “To what extent do you think [gender notions are] changing amongst generations and where do you think it will go?”

“We are talking about a pendulum swing,” said panelist Mary HK Choi, a writer and culture correspondent, noting that body-con was still a huge trend up until recently. “There are things that to me, in hindsight, feel very retrograde, like this illusion that a nude pump with a stacked heel and platform would elongate your leg and that was a sleight of hand or foot or whatever and so now I feel like a lot of people dress without that objective which is a very free. You’re not thinking about things in terms of what is flattering. You’re not thinking about thinks in terms of the male gaze.”

Case in point: oversized suit jackets and men’s shirts were big at the Spring/Summer 2017 women’s shows. Even Tommy Hilfiger’s “see now, buy now” collaboration with Gigi Hadid featured oversized hoodies and bomber jackets.

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Image: Courtesy of WGSN
Image: Courtesy of WGSN

“Will men and women still want to shop in gender-specific sections or are there certain apparel categories that don’t have this crossover appeal?” DeLeon asked.

Raif Adelberg, owner of Herman Market, argued that all fashion has always been genderless.

“It’s a matter of what one wants to purchase to express themselves,” he said. “Fashion is up to the individual and how they want to present themselves, how they want to represent themselves in an authentic way that they feel strong, they feel confident, they can enter a room and have presence. To me, fashion is like a dictionary. It’s how you take those words and create your story.”

Choi attributes the recent rise of genderless fashion to the popularity of casual clothing, #fitspo (fitness inspiration, as tagged on Instagram) and “health goth,” a trend that some say was a fusion of athletic apparel and gothic sensibilities and others describe as just all-black sportswear.

“And with that I do feel like there’s a fustiness to ascribing to a gender. It feels sort of formal and uniform-like,” she said, adding, “When you have someone like a Rihanna or a Kanye wearing [an expensive oversized sweatshirt] that gives a little more license for people to experiment with those shapes that don’t ascribe to any specific gender.”

Jey Van Sharp, business advisor, analyst and strategist at MyÜberLife Consulting Group, pointed out that what’s considered oversized to one person might be not see that way by someone else. The same might be said of genderless clothing.

“Maybe I like wearing oversized clothing but my crowd doesn’t consider it oversized—we consider it clothing. It makes sense to my collective and my group and that’s what matters most,” he said.

Daniel Friedman, owner of custom suiting service Bindle & Keep, explained that his customers—90 percent of whom are women looking for gender-neutral clothing—have never fit into the binary retail experience, but that doing away with gender is not necessarily the answer.

“People do want to feel like they have a gender. People do want to feel like they are binary and that they exist. One of the big challenges is if you create a situation where everything is nothing that’s not good either because then no one is anything,” he said. “We find that there is nothing overtly gendered about a men’s suit, but when you start to factor in certain anatomical things about the bust and the curvature of the hips it does become gendered, whether we like it or not. We can dismiss that it’s gendered but it starts to take on certain signifiers that give it a body type.”

The lines, however, will likely continue to blur, though traditional department stores, which usually house their men’s and women’s assortments on separate floors, may find it harder to adapt than a boutique would. But there’s a clear opportunity for retailers to cater to consumers who don’t want to subscribe to one category.

As a recent NPD Group report concluded, “With a growing millennial segment that finds sex and gender less relevant to their shopping, it seems time for mainstream retailers and brands to participate in the dialogue by offering more options. Because this genderless approach toward fashion is proving to be more than just a passing fashion—it’s a trend.”