For Christina McCann, shopping at the mall involves sifting through the women’s and the men’s aisles in search of the perfect outfit.
McCann, who is nonbinary, often starts out by perusing dresses, which tend to be a better fit for a female body type. Then, McCann will shift to the men’s side of a store to pick out more masculine items: combat boots, oversized tees and sweatpants. McCann, who uses the gender-neutral pronoun they, mostly spends time and money on resale apps like Depop, and shopping vintage goods from thrift shops by browsing by size instead of by gender.
“The way that I dress has changed a lot to reflect what I want people to think about my gender,” the 24-year-old retail worker said. “I really truly believe that clothing has no gender.”
There are more consumers like McCann, who are seeking gender-neutral apparel. And retailers want to meet that demand. Gender-neutral brands — such as Les Girls Les Boys and Tomboy X — are marketed as options for everyone. The brands attempt to disregard traditional gender constructs and labels. Gender-inclusive clothing, which is mostly found on websites as unisex, can range from basic T-shirts and jackets, to dresses and skirts, for all body types.
Several initiatives are kicking off in June in honor of Pride Month, further testing the waters. But analysts and fashion experts say the gender-fluid fashion trend is here to stay.
“Retailers and brands should be looking at gender-fluid apparel as an opportunity,” said Erin Schmidt, senior analyst at Coresight Research, a global advisory and research firm specializing in retail and technology. “It absolutely can’t be ignored. It will definitely be impacting the fashion trends of the future. And the retailers and brands that are doing it now are really going to be ahead of the curve.”
Gender-neutral fashion is heavily influenced by younger, Gen Z consumers who are more vocal when it comes to expressing themselves and what they stand for. They’re thinking creatively and outside of the box. Many of them, like McCann, shop secondhand clothing on platforms such as Poshmark and Depop. As this demographic gains more spending power, analysts’ say, this is another facet of fashion that brands cannot ignore.
The global fashion shopping platform Lyst found that searches for fashion pieces including agender-related keywords have increased 33% this year. Specifically, Lyst has tracked spikes for searches of oversized T-shirts, skirts and pearl necklaces (like the ones worn by rapper A$AP Rocky.)
‘A dress is a dress’
When the Covid pandemic hit the U.S.in March 2020, it was still early days for gender-fluid fashion lines, according to Schmidt. But over the past year, she said, some notable brands have entered the space.
“It’s really been driven by the conversations around gender identification, … everything from updating your signature in your email to schools having conversations about how to refer to students,” Schmidt said.
The movement has started with smaller clothing brands — The Phluid Project, Les Girls Les Boys, Tomboy X and Wildfang — that are looking to challenge gender norms. Catering to people looking for gender-fluid clothing options, these companies embrace diversity, equality and inclusion, and their efforts are reflected in their marketing.
Wildfang’s website reads, “Why is the fashion industry still clinging to outdated gender norms that serve no one?” Les Girls Les Boys defines itself as a “shareable label.”
And more recently, inspired in part by the upstarts, a wave of designer brands have started to embrace gender neutrality — giving the movement a bigger voice and even stronger backing.
It’s an important backing, too. Luxury brands often kickstart fresh fashion cycles as their models preview the next season’s looks on the runway. Crocs was an obnoxious foam clog that many people had written off until it started appearing on the feet of Scottish fashion designer Christopher Kane and Balenciaga models. Now, Crocs are the “it” shoe of the pandemic.
Last fall, Marc Jacobs launched a polysexual capsule collection called “Heaven,” which the designer described as a clothing line for “girls who are boys and boys who are girls [and] those who are neither.” Stella McCartney recently started selling a genderless and sustainable apparel line called “Shared,” taking cues from streetwear. Also last year, Gucci debuted a gender-fluid section on its website called “MX,” using only models who identify as nonbinary in its marketing.
“Playing with the constructive nature of gender, the MX project underlines the performative nature of what we wear, presenting masculinity and femininity as relative concepts,” Gucci said.
Coresight’s Schmidt said the Gucci launch in particular was “the biggest push the industry needed.” The Gucci styles — which range from silk shirts to canvas jackets to wide-leg denim pants — have since been donned by celebrities including Jared Leto and Billie Eilish. That, and Vogue magazine’s cover late last year showing musician Harry Styles wearing a skirt, were pivotal moments for gender-fluid styles to take center stage.
The Phluid Project, a gender-free fashion brand that also operates its own nonprofit organization, is helping to lead some bigger-name retailers’ gender-inclusive initiatives tied to Pride Month. Founded in New York in March 2018, the group runs a diversity and inclusion training program to educate workplaces on how to have safe spaces for the LGBTQIA+ community — specifically transgender, nonbinary and gender nonconforming individuals.
“A dress is a dress, a skirt’s a skirt, a jacket’s a jacket, lipstick is lipstick,” said Rob Smith, founder of Phluid Project. “We tend to gender everything. Our entire world is built on a binary construct, and the objective of Phluid Project is to allow folks to express themselves in the way that they feel comfortable — the way that feels authentic to them.”
This month, Phluid Project has partnered with Saks Off Fifth to create a line of gender-fluid apparel that will be available for sale on the off-price retailer’s website, as well as in select stores. Some of Phluid Project’s other retail partners during Pride Month include Francesca’s, Nordstrom and Macy’s.
“This is a big system to undo,” Smith said about the fashion industry historically catering to gender norms. “But this is where the conversations begin to happen. Creating a gender-neutral selection, and then putting it into Saks Off Fifth, is going to make people go, ‘Wow, this T-shirt can be worn by a man, or a woman, or anyone else.'”
Phluid Project will also conduct diversity, equity and inclusion training internally for Saks’ employees, with workshops and classes called “Gender 101.” Smith said the goal is to educate workers on how to “not make assumptions when you see someone, and how to how to navigate language to be more inclusive.”
Thinking outside of the norm is becoming the new norm, according to Molly Taylor, Saks Off Fifth’s head of merchandising.
“There’s not really rules anymore, and I’m seeing that across all tiers of product,” Taylor said. “Look at what silhouettes are trending: oversized. New and emerging contemporary designers are really thinking differently about how they position their lines, from the very beginning, to be more inclusive.”
“That could be a size component or that could be a gender fluidity component,” Taylor added.
‘A big conversation’
Analysts point to streetwear — such as that designed by Off-White, Supreme and Bape — and makeup as two categories within retail that offer examples of how gender lines can be blurred. With streetwear, many women have been quick to put on baggy pants and oversized hoodies that were designed more with men in mind. It has showed how many female consumers are comfortable — literally and figuratively speaking — dressing that way.
“I don’t know if any of these streetwear [brands] are even geared toward a specific gender, but with a lot of them men and women are wearing the same thing,” Jefferies retail analyst Janine Stichter said. “With the whole streetwear movement, over the last two years … there’s been blurred lines of what men and women are wearing.”
Influencers on social media are also playing a key role in driving discourse around new fashion trends and representing gender-fluid brands.
“TikTok has been a platform that has really grown the inclusivity conversation,” said Rachael Robbins Kachko, a merchandising strategist for women’s clothing at consumer insights agency Tobe TDG. “We’ve seen that from Instagram for a while.”
Kachko said the beauty industry has been progressively marketing products to men in a way that makes them feel more comfortable using makeup. As one example, the former baseball star Alex Rodriguez last month debuted in a campaign with the men’s wellness brand Hims, for a concealer “Blur Stick” created for men.
“A lot of it started within the beauty world, where we saw a lot of men wearing makeup — and not in what was typical drag,” Kachko said. “But it was just a guy dressed the way he wanted, but was also wearing makeup.”
Shoppers will start to demand more of this from retailers, she said, as more and more conversations around individuality and self-expression spark greater cultural change.
“It is a big conversation, and just like any movement, it takes years to really make your stance,” Kachko said. “The gender-neutral perspective is still very new to the larger community, which is why I think it’s so surprising to most to see how much this younger generation is sort of defining themselves in this way.”
Catering to Gen Z, the teen apparel retailer Abercrombie & Fitch this month is launching a 24-piece gender-inclusive adults collection, as well as an 11-piece gender-inclusive kids collection, in celebration of Pride Month. The merchandise was designed with help from The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ young people.
According to Kristin Scott, president of global brands at Abercrombie, customers’ interest in gender-inclusive products has greatly increased in recent years. The company’s Hollister brand recently debuted a new line called “Social Tourist,” with the help of TikTok stars Charli and Dixie D’Amelio, that is entirely gender-fluid.
“Our goal across our brands is to ensure our customers feel comfortable and can be themselves,” Scott said. “As we see the interest in gender-inclusive offerings increase, we’ll continue to build on those ideas.”
While the gender-fluid merchandise from companies like Nordstrom and Abercrombie is a strong start, McCann hopes that one day, there will be even more progress across the retail industry beyond just the products that companies sell. McCann hopes to see more changes in stores, similar to how Target in 2015 removed gender-based labeling for categories including toys, bedding and entertainment.
“As real retail worker, I would like to see nonbinary sides of the store,” McCann said. “I don’t want women’s clothing on the left, and men’s clothing on the right. I want to see them mixed together.”
‘Anybody can shop here, in any section. We’re not judging you. We’re going to accept you,” McCann said.