In 2017, the idea of unisex or genderless clothing is at the center of the cultural zeitgeist, but it's proven a tricky subject to broach. Last month, Vogue was put through the ringer (though not without cause) after publishing a cover story by Maya Singer about "gender fluidity" in the industry. Singer used It-couple Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik and their proclivity to shop each other's closets as an example of millennials' tendency to eschew labels like "men's" or "women's" when it comes to their sartorial choices.
Talk of blurred gender clothing has been ongoing in high-fashion for some time, as top luxury designers such as Gucci's Alessandro Michele, Rick Owens and Raf Simons push the boundaries of what differentiates menswear from womenswear, showing men in skirts, men in pearls (see Pharrell Williams in the Chanel ad), men and women on the same runways and more.
But what has been largely overlooked in the conversation is how genderless clothing will filter down to the mainstream and change the way people shop. If the trend continues, retailers will be tasked with modifying their operations — everything from marketing and merchandising to pricing and buying. Even fitting rooms will be impacted.
The mastermind behind 69, who prefers that identifying characteristics such as gender, age and even names be omitted from the press so as to let the brand’s product offering do the talking, tapped into the world of unisex clothing in 2014, long before the current mainstream saturation. The made-in-L.A. label has plenty of competitors in the unisex space, including Not Equal and Tilly and William, each of which launched in the past 3 to 5 years, to fill the market void for apparel that is not only comfortable and ethically sourced (two key factors for the millennial consumer) but also sits somewhere between the masculine and feminine extremes of gender’s sliding scale.
“Our invented buzzword is 'non-demographic' because it totally goes beyond gender even, we’re designing for the species,” adds 69’s designer.
Streetwear brands and minimalist lifestyle labels were the first of the more mainstream avenues to test the waters with unisex apparel. Roc-a-Fella Records co-founder Kareem “Biggs” Burke, who co-founded Roc96 with Jay Z, as well as A$AP Ferg, who recently collaborated with denim retailer Agolde on unisex denim, both tell The Hollywood Reporter that their decision to enter the market was bred out of consumer demand. “A lot of times the women feel like they’re left out,” said Burke.
But slapping a “unisex” label on men’s denim or a T-shirt presents its own set of problems. Though they are marketed to both men and women, A$AP Ferg’s “unisex” denim is sized according to men’s sizing.
M/F is one of several unisex labels to arise out of the minimalist lifestyle market, created with simplicity in mind. The direct-to-consumer label, founded by Alternative Apparel founder Greg Alterman, uses male and female models interchangeably, and Alterman is able to exercise complete control over the presentation by avoiding wholesalers who might muddy the message. The resulting look is similar to H&M's recently launched unisex denim line.
Just this week, YouTuber/blogger Jenn Im of Clothes Encounters, who boasts 1.9 million YouTube subscribers and 1.5 million Instagram followers (many of them belonging to Gen Z), announced that she is launching a collection of "gender neutral" ready-to-wear pieces for her new label, Eggie. The pieces will be exclusive to EggieShop.com, meaning that like Alterman, Im will have complete control over the marketing of the product.
But as the unisex trend trickles down into the mainstream, how will traditional brick-and-mortar boutiques and department stores, who are in enough trouble as it is, adapt?
Marshall Cohen, chief industry analyst at The NPD Group, says retailers will have to fully commit to the unisex trend because the movement is a generational one. "When you start to recognize how [Gen Z shoppers] live socially, it makes more sense than ever to do something that’s part of the fashion cycle," he says, noting Gen Z's distaste for labels in their social lives. "It will be a bit expensive, but the stores can’t afford not to do it. They can’t afford to not market to the younger generations. In ten years, these people are going to be spending the most when it comes to apparel, and that’s a really important component. You can’t ignore where we’re heading."
A few retailers have already begun to experiment with ungendered shopping experiences. In 2015, British department store Selfridges launched “Agender,” a gender neutral pop-up within the store that removed typical gendered merchandising like men’s and women’s mannequins. In July, Abercrombie & Fitch revamped a few of its stores with what it calls "Refresh," to include gender-neutral fitting rooms.
Sizing, however, is one of the bigger issues. Women, obviously, come in all shapes and sizes. But add men to the mix and the variety doubles. Height, hip width, busts — all of these factors create a buying issue. So what’s a retailer to do? Stock a few units in a vast size-range, and pray that they all sell? Offer only a few sizes, only to have to explain to customers that the fit isn’t going to be like what they saw on the model? (The issue of size availability is one that has been regularly cited as a reason that some boutiques don’t carry sizes larger than a 10 or 12.)
Cohen says that in the digital age, perhaps a retailer won’t have to carry a range at all. "With the ability to be able to ship from one location to another through the internet, stores don’t have to stock everything at once," he notes. "[Gen Z is] perfectly comfortable with waiting because they deal with that every day when shopping online. ”
Another issue that has been arisen before in context of the straight vs. plus debate, is price. How will retailers adjust to the increased cost of creating that much more inventory? For 69, which already has a relatively steep price point due to the cost of its American-made production, price is something the designer believes customers will come around to because of their belief in the brand and its message.
So far, the most visible aspect of the unisex movement has been in image marketing. Jaden Smith starred in Louis Vuitton’s womenswear ads; men and women walked the runway at Raf Simons' most recent menswear show, their gender obscured by oversize, billowing silhouettes that required a second look in order to answer the question, “man or woman?” The point, it seems, was that the answer to the question didn’t matter. This is most evident with the rising popularity of gender fluid and androgynous models like Elliot Sailors; even the styling of catalog models for Zara — arguably as mainstream as it gets — is sometimes gender ambiguous.
Ken Downing, fashion director of Neiman Marcus, doesn’t think that these trends will affect the presentation or merchandising of his stores. At least not yet. “If it’s a men’s collection we house it in men’s, and if it’s a women’s collection we house it in women’s, but the customer finds what they want," says Downing. "We find that we have guys — be it for size or for the look — shopping in the women’s department, and we have girls who equally have no issue purchasing items from the men’s area."
Cohen, on the other hand, believes that in order to keep up with younger start-ups like 69, more traditional retailers will have to take leaps of faith and alter the presentation and marketing of unisex clothing if they want to compete. But what’s most important, he says, is that the execution is authentic. “This younger generation is all about discovery. They want to discover new, unique, legit, genderless brands."
He continues, "They want brands that they can say, 'This is built into the DNA, not a copy cat. Not just somebody who’s trying to get my attention and is doing this today and not doing it tomorrow.'”
This article was originally published on Billboard's sister site, THR.com.