Menswear depart­ment may dis­ap­pear

Orlando Sentinel - - EXTRA FASHION & SHOPPING - By Alexis Ben­veniste

While gender-free cloth­ing has been on run­ways and in fash­ion mag­a­zines for years, build­ing a re­tail space around the con­cept was un­til re­cently seen as fi­nan­cially risky. Now, some com­pa­nies are out to prove that the cul­tural ful­crum has shifted enough to give it a try.

Ac­cord­ing to Pew re­search, 35% of Gen­er­a­tion Z knows some­one who iden­ti­fies as non­bi­nary and prefers gender-neu­tral pro­nouns — and mil­len­ni­als and even Gen­er­a­tion X aren’t far be­hind. Re­tail­ers, and in par­tic­u­lar clothes sellers, have taken no­tice.

“I do be­lieve gender-neu­tral fash­ion is the fu­ture,” said Fash­ion In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy pro­fes­sor Dawnn Karen. “I feel like we’re mov­ing to­wards that.”

Hold­ing it­self out as the first gender-free store in New York, The Ph­luid Project in Man­hat­tan’s Soho neigh­bor­hood is part of this nascent segment. The space is a com­bi­na­tion store, cafe and event space geared to­ward the LGBTQ com­mu­nity.

Ph­luid Project founder Rob Smith, 54, spent 30 years as a re­tail ex­ec­u­tive be­fore open­ing the store. While Ph­luid has been up and run­ning a few years now, only re­cently has the con­cept of mak­ing a com­mer­cial go of gender-free cloth­ing spread to big­ger cor­po­rate re­tail.

The as­cent of Gen­er­a­tion Z, Smith said, is the mov­ing force.

“There is a par­a­digm shift that is cur­rently hap­pen­ing in our so­ci­ety. An un­learn­ing and a re­learn­ing,” Smith said. “By next year, Gen Z (will ac­count) for one-third of the na­tional pop­u­la­tion, which ac­counts for 40% of U.S. spend­ing power. It’s time to change with the times and gen­er­a­tions, be­cause their voice and power is un­de­ni­able.

“It be­came clear to me,” Smith said, “that there was a need to shat­ter the his­toric in­fra­struc­ture of com­pa­nies we’re op­er­at­ing un­der.”

On a visit to the Ph­luid Project ear­lier this year, there were none of the tra­di­tional signs to send you to spe­cific cloth­ing de­part­ments. Non­gen­dered man­nequins stood atop ta­bles, sport­ing dresses, pants, shirts and graphic tees that say, “They Power,” a ref­er­ence to the pro­noun pref­er­ence of many non­bi­nary in­di­vid­u­als.

The com­pany said that, af­ter spend­ing its first year fo­cus­ing on estab­lish­ing the brand and a unique open sales floor ex­pe­ri­ence, it’s now look­ing to bet­ter de­velop its so­cial me­dia and e-com­merce plat­forms, as well as strate­gic part­ner­ships.

This sum­mer, Ph­luid part­nered with HBO and its se­ries “Eu­pho­ria,” a drama about grow­ing up in Gen Z Amer­ica, and set up sev­eral pop-ups across the coun­try, of­fer­ing shop­pers a cap­sule col­lec­tion and panel dis­cus­sions. Ph­luid also has a part­ner­ship with French cloth­ing la­bel Equip­ment on a gender fluid col­lec­tion.

Big cloth­ing re­tail­ers like H&M are start­ing to in­cor­po­rate gender flu­id­ity into a larger re­tail strat­egy, launch­ing col­lec­tions such as Denim United and last year’s col­lab­o­ra­tion with Ey­tys. Still, H&M doesn’t plan to com­pletely elim­i­nate gen­dered cloth­ing or gen­dered cloth­ing sec­tions. LVMH-owned Sephora also started a cam­paign this sum­mer aimed at an im­age of broader in­clu­sive­ness.

Fifty-six per­cent of Gen Z con­sumers al­ready shop out­side of their gender, ig­nor­ing cloth­ing that’s la­beled and cat­e­go­rized into gen­dered sec­tions, ac­cord­ing to a study by ad­ver­tis­ing agency J. Wal­ter Thomp­son. Smith is very much ac­quainted with how those de­ci­sions are made. Be­fore the Ph­luid Project, he worked for Nike, and even­tu­ally moved on to be­come an ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent at Macy’s, and then Vic­to­ria’s Se­cret. He also served on the board of shoe-seller Steve Mad­den.

“I started to share the idea with friends and busi­ness part­ners and got a cold re­ac­tion,” Smith said of the Ph­luid Project’s be­gin­nings. “It is dif­fi­cult, and un­der­stand­able, to go to in­vestors with an un­proven con­cept.”

“Other brands have to worry about los­ing cus­tomers be­cause their con­cepts and mis­sions are of­ten an­ti­quated,” Smith said. “We are a blank can­vas.”

His store not only sells gen­derneu­tral cloth­ing, it seeks to guar­an­tee that its cloth­ing comes from de­sign­ers who sup­port the gender-free cloth­ing mis­sion. The store’s orig­i­nal cloth­ing only makes up 50% of its in­ven­tory. The rest is made by de­sign­ers aligned with the com­pany’s mis­sion and con­cept. The store doesn’t shop vin­tage or buy from whole­sale.

The Ph­luid Project isn’t the lone re­tailer in this space. La­bels such as Radimo and Of­fi­cial Re­brand — which em­pha­sizes sus­tain­abil­ity — are on the same path.

Ac­cord­ing to Busi­ness of Fash­ion’s 2018 State of Fash­ion re­search, 66% of mil­len­ni­als world­wide are will­ing to spend more on brands that are sus­tain­able. In re­sponse to this data, Of­fi­cial Re­brand is “turn­ing un­sold goods into new, one-of-a-kind col­lec­tions,” said MI Leggett, its founder. Of­fi­cial Re­brand mod­i­fies dona­tions with de­sign and al­ter­ations, in­clud­ing by paint­ing cloth­ing with phrases and fig­ures.

“The first pieces came from my own closet,” Leggett said. “Now I take cloth­ing dona­tions from friends, fam­ily, and clients com­mis­sion­ing cus­tom work.”

GETTY

Ac­cord­ing to Pew re­search, 35% of Gen­er­a­tion Z knows some­one who iden­ti­fies as non­bi­nary and prefers gender-neu­tral pro­nouns.

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