His, Hers, Theirs

Words by
Josh Sims

21st April 2022

Fashion’s exploration of gender- neutral collections for both men and women is being taken up by niche labels and big brands alike.

To my mind fashion is increasingly about individuals finding their own style, about their personality shaping what they wear, not our conditioning as to what menswear is and what womenswear is,” says Tan Saxena, ex-business analyst turned clothing entrepreneur with his London-based label Lane Fortyfive, which debuted in 2016. It’s an arty collection of loose-fitting pleated trousers, boxy jackets and outsize shirts that quite deliberately isn’t divided by sex. Indeed, sales are evenly split between men and women. “If a jacket is beautiful then it should be beautiful for any gender,” says Saxena.

He is not alone. Recent years have seen the progressive fashion world look to break away from the age-old binary paradigm of clothing for men and clothing for women, one which shapes how clothing is designed, made, marketed and sold, and which in turn can shape how people think about themselves. There has been a proliferation of independent brands declining to pitch their camp as being one or the other: Cold Laundry, Official Rebrand, Olderbrother, Ijji and Story MFG are just a few to sell their wares online without reference to which sex they’re for.


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Major brands have cottoned on to this too: Urban Outfitters, Abercrombie & Fitch, Zara and H&M have all created gender- neutral lines, as have Gucci, Marc Jacobs, Stella McCartney, Umit Benan and Norma Kamali. Rad Hourani describes his clothes as “genderless”. Telfar Clemens — Cooper Hewitt National Design Award winner and 2020 GQ designer of the year — has been grouping all of his clothes under the unifying banner of “apparel” since 2002.

In 2018 the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which awards the Oscars of the fashion industry, added a unisex/non-binary category for its Fashion Week shows. It saw a change coming: the share of fashion products labelled genderless, gender- neutral or unisex more than doubled in the US from October 2020 onwards, according to a WGSN study.

The shift, of course, has come in parallel with an often-controversial discussion in the wider culture about gender identity.

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But there’s sound business at play here too: 56% of Gen Z consumers shopped for clothing outside of their assigned gender in 2019, according to a study by gender-free activist brand The Phluid Project, which opened the first gender-free fashion store in 2018 in New York. In other words, the fashion industry is, a sceptic might suggest, virtue-signalling its inclusivity to tomorrow’s key shoppers.

Yet, in seeking to deconstruct the gender bias of its products, the fashion industry is also following in the footsteps of other huge industries: toys, bedding and cosmetics, for example. It’s an ethical, intellectual and, perhaps above all, an experimental exercise: just why do we continue to define certain products by gender? Should clothing be without gender, or, conversely, even seek to cater to a multiplicity of genders?

 “Everybody is curious about how it will play out but really, this is a market that has long existed but just wasn’t really spoken about. Social media has given it a focus,” says Rob Garrett Smith, futurist and founder of The Phluid Projec:

. “Clearly a generational shift towards the acceptance of fashion that isn’t binary is well under way. To a lot of kids it’s all just no big deal, because it feels the way it should be.”

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Yet, as with the wider discussion of gender identity and the new sexual politics, the fashion world too is still working through its confusions and the challenges this slippery new market is throwing up. The terminology alone can be conflicting: whether clothes that don’t aim to cater for one gender or another are best described as “unisex” —

not a new or difficult idea in fashion, but problematic to some who stress the distinctions between sex and gender — or non-binary, androgynous, equalist, gender- neutral or perhaps gender-free. Designers are exploring their own perspectives. But it’s indicative of how this space is, for the moment at least, replete with mismatched and often confusing options.

“When I launched it was all more ‘unisex’ but has slowly become more described as relating to ‘gender’, which I think to the uninitiated can be harder to handle. Describing clothes as being without gender will take time to settle,” reckons Saxena.


Certainly the push towards more gender- neutral clothing is not without more practical complications too. There’s the issue of sizing, for example, with a very wide range required for any single garment if it’s to cater to both male and female physiques. Providing such can be expensive, especially for a small brand. Jessica Glasscock, professor of fashion history at New York’s Parsons School of Design and author of Making a Spectacle, notes that historical attempts at gender-neutral clothing — for this has happened before, in the liberated 1960s/early 1970s — invariably resulted in clothing “that only worked for a very youthful, ectomorph body”. It’s easy for waifs to dress gender-neutrally.

Small wonder then, that commentators have noted how many collections now pitching themselves as gender-neutral, or similar, tend to end up being based around the kinds of baggy street and athleisure clothing that men and women have worn without distinction for decades; or are skewed towards the more masculine. These brands’ gender-neutrality is arguably more performative — in presentation than in pioneering product.

“From the terminology perspective, in terms of describing what we do, we’ve gone round and round in circles,” laughs Laura Moffat, co-founder of Kirrin Finch. The Brooklyn-based label is named after the tomboyish protagonists of To Kill a Mockingbird and the Famous Five books for children. It focuses on making what would traditionally be deemed masculine clothing — suits, blazers, shirts — cut for women who have struggled to find, as Moffat puts it, “clothes that matched their inner core.” The company settled on “gender-inclusive”.


“Although most people think of gender- neutral clothing as clothing for anyone, for both men and women, that’s impossible, at least if you want to make nice, well-fitting clothes. If everything is made from stretch fabrics then you can make for everybody. But if you want to do anything else you have to choose a body type to work with,” Moffat explains. “That said, this [movement] is a positive thing if it provides more acceptance, and more options, for people who don’t subscribe to or fit into that traditional fashion binary approach. It’s a trend that’s giving credibility to the idea that anyone should be able to shop anywhere.”

And, maybe, wear anything. But there’s a difference, Saxena stresses, between clothing that doesn’t impose a gender divide, and traditionally gendered clothing that seeks to cross the divide that has long existed. It might be argued that while women have long broken with convention to wear stereotypically masculine clothing — think Joan of Arc, pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, Amelia Bloomer, Marlene Dietrich — so men should be able to wear the more feminine kind. Garrett Smith is working on a new line that will encompass “everything from dresses to heels, blazers to sneakers, for whoever wants them — these [items] don’t have to be gendered.”

That may work for influential celebrities, be that Harry Styles in a dress on the cover of Vogue, Kanye West in a leather kilt, Travis Scott in a blouse or Jaden Smith in a crop top, much as Mick Jagger, Steven Tyler and David Bowie previously broke with gendered clothing conventions. Yet it remains a hurdle for the separation of sexuality and self- expression to find social acceptance — and a tough call to make for the bottom line of anything but an extremely niche business.


“We have to recognise that there is a lot of baggage that shapes how and why [the sexes] dress differently, that we’ve all been conditioned to think about clothing in certain ways and that conditioning is hard to overcome,” says Saxena. “I’m still exploring why but I wouldn’t be comfortable wearing a skirt, for example, and so don’t put any in my collections. I think with clothing most men still feel comfortable in an obviously male space. But this move towards more gender-neutral fashion isn’t about pushing out more traditional clothing. It’s about having it as well as, not instead of.”

This renaissance in gender-neutral fashion is also, suggests Glasscock, potentially more about the exploration of a complicated idea — perhaps the necessary exploration — than an attempt to fundamentally change the way we dress or necessarily the beginnings of a major shift for the fashion industry. It’s an exploration that may yet prove as much a passing trend as any other, she adds. We have to wait and see.

As Glasscock notes, a Bohemian, hipster culture often underlies ideas about gender-neutrality in fashion. “People want to be part of that avant-garde, creative ideal

— that’s really what they’re engaged with, rather than the clothes,” she suggests.

The big brands that chased this idea 50 years ago, she points out, typically failed because “nobody wanted hideous matching outfits”, while the more Bohemian early pioneers who were focused on the avant- garde weren’t looking for a mainstream take on the concept.

“And you can imagine that when the mainstream adopts the trend now, again they won’t be so interested,” she adds. “Besides, the early adopters haven’t ever needed gender-neutral clothing to be marketed to them. They’ve just gone ahead and created the idea of gender-neutral clothing for themselves.”