The fashion industry embraces nongendered clothing
Author Boyd Farrow Illustration Stephen Cheetham
Hemlines are high this season, so guys might want to tone up those calves. Meanwhile, chunky high-tops are seeing a revival, so women will probably want to stock up on athletic socks.
If you’ve been anywhere near a fashion magazine over the last few months, you’ll know what we mean. The headlining fashion trend for spring will not emerge from menswear or womenswear, we’re told, but from somewhere in between. Brands ranging from Gucci to Kanye West’s new streetwear label, Yeezy, are set to launch collections that are being called genderfluid.
Vogue, never one to miss out on a trend, is gushing about how “athletic midriff-baring tops” speak “to the ambisexual vibe reverberating in menswear,” while pop-culture journal Dazed & Confused is so consumed by all the “pussy-bow blouses, shrunken knits, and peekaboo lace” hitting menswear shelves that it suggested that industry fashion weeks should simply go coed. Reveling in the erosion of conventional boundaries, Kanye himself has appeared onstage rocking a black leather Givenchy skirt, which oddly makes him look more macho than Russell Crowe in Gladiator.
Historically, unisex clothing has tended toward something seemingly inspired by the Chinese Communist Party pantsuit circa 1949, which boils down to everyone looking like a man (a style rarely seen today, except during Pyongyang Fashion Week). The slightly more glamorous sibling of unisex is androgyny, which has flared up within various pop-cultural movements over the years—the frills and flounce of the 1980s New Romantics, the sexual ambiguity of mascara-smeared emo kids in the dying days of the 20th century. Today, however, the spirit in which fashionistos and fashionistas are blurring the gender line is moving away from shock value and toward a collective shrug. Boy George is fast becoming the boy next door.
This trend, rather than being driven by the fashion-industrial complex, appears to be arising at least in part from a genuine shift in societal attitudes. “Millennials and, in particular, Generation Z don’t see traditional gender roles and sexuality definitions as relevant to how they construct their identities,” says Lucie Greene, worldwide Innovation Group director for the marketing and communications firm J. Walter Thompson.
As society has become more comfortable with the likes of Laverne Cox, it has gotten tougher to find a hot designer who is not bucking his-and-hers conventions. As Greene has observed, there’s “a whole slew of genderless labels cropping up.” These include Hood by Air and Public School, two brands that have helped carve out a whole new athleisure market by appealing to both genders, without overtly marketing to either one. The savvy U.K. department store chain Selfridges, meanwhile, recently opened a “gender-neutral” pop-up zone across three floors of its Oxford Street flagship, debuting scores of unisex collections.
At the high end of the genderfluid market are East London designers Faye and Erica Toogood, whose minimalist, sculptural garments are named after professions—the Photographer Jacket, the Fishmonger Coat—introducing a little workplace politics into the mix. Belgian designer Mats Rombaut, meanwhile, makes all-natural unisex sneakers that sell for $500 on Madison Avenue.
Joining these more rarefied brands are trendy upstarts such as New York–based 1.61, whose slogan is “Utilitarian. Uniform. Unisex.” The company makes natty casual-wear outfits, including plain shirts and matching drawstring pants, with a marketing strategy that seems to be pegged to the idea that men and women are equally inclined to shell out a thousand bucks for an outfit you’d wear while reading the Sunday paper.
At the wiggly-finger end of the spectrum is the Los Angeles–based 69 Worldwide, a “non-gender, non-demographic” denim brand whose signature look is a marqueelike stonewashed onesie. The company’s cavernous unisex dresses would scream boho chic if worn by Zooey Deschanel, or “I’ve come to paint your house” if worn by someone slightly burlier.
Both 1.61 and 69 Worldwide represent what Emily Anatole, co-author of a recent Cassandra Report trend study into Generation Z consumer habits, believes is the future of fashion: totally genderless clothing that can be worn in different ways or tweaked by both sexes, “almost in the way that the school uniform is.”
For Mackswell Sherman, founder of streetwear brand FONY, the school uniform analogy is especially apt, in particular the tendency for boys and girls alike to tuck, hike, fold, stretch, and scrunch various bits of their uniforms in order to make them look, well, less uniform. “There is unisex clothing and androgynous clothing, and there is what we’re now doing,” he says, “which is modular clothing.”
With the industry evolving so rapidly, Sherman says he cannot imagine why designers would now restrict themselves to creating clothing for a specific gender. “That’s just so limiting,” he says. “On the other hand, Kanye in a skirt—now, that’s progress.”