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These Niche Brands Take Gender Out of Fashion

Two in five U.S. consumers have purchased clothing or footwear outside of their gender, according to a September survey conducted by NPD and CivicScience.

About one-half of female respondents and three-quarters of those 18 to 24 years old—Gen Z’s eldest subset—reported buying outside their gender. A report released by the advertising agency Bigeye earlier this year suggests this isn’t just a matter of women opting for the occasional men’s hoodie. In an online survey of 2,000 U.S. adults, just 45 percent of female Gen Zers said they primarily wore clothes designed for women, while 28 percent said they wore clothes designed for women or men depending on how they felt. Of the men in Gen Z, 71 percent said they primarily wore clothes designed for their gender—a rate significantly higher than their female peers but still below older generations.

Women’s spending on men’s apparel has soared in the past couple years. According to NPD Consumer Tracking data, women spent more than $3 billion on men’s apparel for themselves—a 43 percent increase from the prior year and a 74 percent jump compared to 2019. The top men’s categories they purchased were knit shirts, pants and sweatshirts.

The most common reasons consumers purchased outside their gender were practical in nature, with 22 percent pointing to size and fit and 21 percent citing comfort. Price, color selection and availability ranked third, fourth and fifth, respectively. Other options offered by the survey included “fashion statement,” “aligns with gender expression” and “social statement.”

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Brands and retailers have looked to meet the moment by introducing their own gender-neutral products and lines. In July, Gilly Hicks unveiled plans for a 100-item underwear, loungewear and activewear assortment that matches “everyone’s styles, regardless of gender identity.” Just last month, the denim label Replay introduced Sartoriale, its first gender-fluid collection.

PacSun has rapidly expanded its gender-neutral selection since introducing the category in September last year. By the time it launched its first gender-neutral brand, Colour Range, this September, the category accounted for more than one-quarter of its offering.

The 1,435-square-foot Pacsun Kids store is connected directly to PacSun's adult store at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.
The 1,435-square-foot Pacsun Kids store is connected directly to PacSun’s adult store at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. Jackie Adelmann Photography on behalf of Pacsun

The retailer took another step toward expanding its gender-neutral footprint Thursday with the opening of its first PacSun Kids store. Aimed at children ages 4-14, the new concept “was designed entirely without gender,” according to PacSun. The company introduced PacSun Kids in June and has since organized several Kids livestreams and popups. It plans to open an additional five PacSun Kids stores next year.

These companies, however, are not the only ones designing for those unsatisfied with fashion’s binary options. A rash of online-first brands have cropped up in recent years to meet this demand. Often led by individuals with little background in fashion, these labels are using firsthand experience to create clothes that don’t just fit their customers’ style, but their bodies as well.

TomboyX

Fran Dunaway wanted a “cool button-up shirt.” To pay for the shirts, she and her wife, Naomi Gonzalez, launched a Kickstarter, ultimately raising more than $76,000 in the process. Though the two soon shifted to focus largely on underwear, they held on to the brand name they created for the campaign—TomboyX.

“We realized that the name was resonating in a very powerful way such that we had an instant brand, and it’s a brand recognition from a whitespace of customers that had never been seen or heard from in the fashion industry,” Dunaway, TomboyX’s now-retired CEO, said. “We really felt like there was an opportunity there for us to figure out how to build a brand as opposed to a shirt company, and a brand that would be responsible and thoughtful about the community that we are a part of and that a lot of our customers are a part of.”

In September 2014, about a year and a half after its original Kickstarter, TomboyX introduced its first boxer brief. Without the money to pay for its first order, the brand offered a pre-sale two weeks early.

“Lo and behold, they sold out before they arrived,” Dunaway said. “It was great because we had found our hero category that we could build a brand around.”

Today, underwear makes up more than three-quarters of TomboyX’s business. It sells two lengths of boxer briefs—designed for a woman’s body, the silhouette “fits all bodies,” according to Dunaway—as well as 4.5-inch trunks, a range of typical women’s underwear styles and bras, tucking bikini bottoms for transfeminine folks, and compression tops for transmasculine individuals. Its apparel selection includes swimwear, activewear, sleepwear and loungewear with some items offered in up to 6XL. The “biggest bulk” of its customers, Dunaway said, are in the 25- to 45-year-old range.

Though TomboyX attracts some cisgender male customers and has featured the same swimwear on models of all genders in the past, Dunaway said that “at the end of the day,” the brand “embodies the tomboy spirit.”

“That’s what we want to continually be pushing forward on and if our underwear appeals to you or our swimwear appeals to you or works for you, then great,” she added.

Kirrin Finch

Kelly and Laura Moffat founded Kirrin Finch— the menswear-inspired brand takes its name from literary tomboys Georgina Kirrin of “The Famous Five” books and “To Kill a Mockingbird” heroine Scout Finch—in 2015. When the couple started, Kelly Moffat said there were “a few” others in the space, but that custom was the main option.

“We got custom suits made from a Brooklyn-based company when we were getting married and it was this ‘aha’ moment of, ‘Wow,’” Moffat said. “We didn’t want to present ourselves in a way that didn’t feel authentic, and a dress certainly was not going to do that for us. And when we put on those suits for the first time, it was this, ‘Oh, wow, there is this option that makes us feel really good. And not only feel good, but look good. And when someone sees us, we feel comfortable, we present ourselves in a way that the outside matches our inside.’”

Six years later, Kirrin Finch has created a niche for itself catering to those who, like the brand’s founders, are masculine-of-center. A purveyor of suits and blazers, as well as sweaters, jackets, T-shirts and chinos, the brand caters mostly to women, but also includes trans and non-binary individuals in its customer base. And though it is seeing “a lot of potential” with Gen Z, Moffat said, Kirrin Finch’s higher price point means its main customer base largely ranges from 30 to 50 years old.

Aesthetically, Moffat said, the brand tries to include “little, unique details” like elbow patches that “you often see in menswear that you don’t really see in women’s wear.” On the structural level, it is addressing bodies that menswear doesn’t consider, solving for button-spreading in the chest and designing around broader hips.

“We’re not necessarily trying to create something that hasn’t existed before, but we’re trying to create something that is fitting them in a way that works for their body,” Moffat said.

Both&

Finnegan Shepard was not trained in fashion, or even business.

Rather, his background is in academia, in writing and philosophy. He is the co-founder of the monthly Substack newsletter Limns and the author of an as-yet-unpublished short story collection named “Tilt.”

In some ways though, Shepard has been training his whole life to launch Both&, his growing apparel brand centered around meeting the specific design challenges of transmasculine and gender-nonconforming individuals.

“I think it’s sort of a heightened version of what all of us experience in terms of you see a certain person modeling clothing and you extrapolate yourself on that,” Shepard said. “But I think when you add gender identity into it, it becomes even more complex. The erosion at a sense of confidence or empowerment in the body, I think, can be even more acute, when you put on those clothes that you want to not only fit a certain way, but to make you a certain way and they fail to do that.”

Shepard came up with the idea for Both& as he was healing from top surgery last year. Googling trans swimwear and apparel, he said, he discovered that what he wanted simply did not exist yet. Some had produced functional items, like binders and packing underwear, but none he found “had really meaningfully thought through” the different shapes and proportions of trans bodies.

Both& launched with three T-shirts designed for transmasculine and gender-nonconforming individuals

This lack of options leaves many creating solutions of their own. Shepard pointed to a common trend that involves buying a shirt a couple sizes too big and then cutting off a couple inches at the bottom to create a boxy shape that doesn’t bunch up around the hips. “Then the problem is you have a really loose color because the shirt’s bigger and then the binder shows, so it looks like you’re wearing a bra, which kind of undermines the whole look that you’re going for,” Shepard said.

“When you go on testosterone, your fat redistributes and you build more muscle, but your bone structure never changes,” Shepard said. “The proportions of length-to-width are just fundamentally different and always will be different from cisgender bodies.”

Uncertain how many others were facing the same issues he was, Shepard reached out to as many trans and non-binary people as he could. Very quickly, he said, it became clear that he was not only not alone, but that the struggles he was facing were common enough that he could create something that might not necessarily “solve” the problem, but would at least offer a better option.

To create Both&’s first three T-shirt styles, the design team first surveyed hundreds of potential customers, asking them the shirt sizes they typically buy and where they do and do not fit. From there, it created the first prototypes, including one based off Shepard’s body. The boxy shirt features a raised collar that sits tight around the neck to cover binder lines, side slits and a longer back for extra movement around the hips and a narrowed shoulder width so the top fits snuggly around the chest and shoulders. Heavyweight cotton ensures the shirt keeps its structure. After five rounds of samples and fine-tuning, Shepard said, the brand arrived at a place where it felt confident in its design.

Pre-orders opened in the second week of April and in June the first orders began to ship. In late September, it introduced another three designs—a crop top, a tank top and a “baseball-inspired” long-sleeve shirt. Since picking up traction on TikTok last month, Shepard said his brand has experienced “enormous growth,” quadrupling its email list and social media following. After seeing sales leap 430 percent, it has since sold out of most styles and sizes, the CEO added. Looking ahead, Both& is raising a seed round of funding and working on “a variety of design developments” for next year.

“There’s no way we can create a T-shirt that’s perfect for all trans and non-binary people,” Shepard said. “But, I do think—I’m hopeful—that across the range of these different shirts we have created and with our transparency of outfit and sizing and trying to be really open and communicative with people about how the shirts work, that a lot of people will be given a much better option than anything that’s currently on the market.”

Re-Inc

In 2019, Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press, Tobin Heath, and Meghan Klingenberg—all current or former players on the U.S. national women’s soccer team—joined forces to launch Re—Inc. Though the brand has since become a platform that also sells home goods and accessories, its central business is gender-fluid apparel.

“[Our founders] really felt like—as people, as athletes—they really loved brands regardless of if it was made for men or women and they shopped a lot of streetwear brands that were kind of made by men for men and they just saw the opportunity for a group of women—like non-gender-conforming women—to create a brand for everyone,” Jessica Tillyer, Re—Inc’s chief brand and experience officer, said.

Designing a brand for everyone, however, brings its challenges, particularly when it comes to sizing. Creating a single size chart means customers have to put in the extra work and figure out the right sizes for them, Tillyer said. Ultimately, though, she indicated that the extra bit of work for the consumer doesn’t prove too big of a speed bump. And should a customer come back to buy apparel again—80 percent of customers buying day-of-drop are repeat customers—the website’s sizing chart offers helpful data showing how each collection’s sizes compare to the others.

“In terms of products, we always do tees and our tees just do really well, and folks that come back again and again, they want to buy the tees from all of our collections,” Tillyer added. “Our products that have a clear message and a perspective are also really requested and do really well. So, I think that something that we learned is like our purpose matters to people, but then they also care about how it was made, and getting the size that’s right for them and then our products having a message that helps them convey to the world how they feel about different subjects.”