Gender neutral has also gone more mainstream with the popularity of trendy streetwear brands like Supreme and Palace Skateboards, Picquot explained. These brands are more focused on being of the moment than defining themselves along gendered lines. The trend toward non-gendered clothing has been reinforced by a lot of the young models, such as skater girl and fashion darling Natalie Westling.
Retail has met the gender neutral trend with spaces that offer gender-free shopping. The most publicized example has been Selfridges’ store-in-store called Agender that specialized in gender-fluid labels. The concept has gotten a mixed reception. Picquot said that the space seemed to function as more of a marketing tool than a functional store, and it was confusing enough that it didn’t really appeal to anyone.
WGSN Youth Editor Shanu Walpita commented on gender neutral retail, “Commerciality of a trend like this is always a bit tricky, as retailers have the potential to come across as fake, or as if they are appropriating a youth zeitgeist in a generic way.” Walpita suggested that the easiest way for mass market retailers to adapt the genderless trend would be to focus on basics, which have a natural capacity for unisex dressing.
Retailers that attempt to cater to a more specific customer within the gender neutral sector have received more positive receptions. Wildfang, a retailer in Portland, Ore. begun by two Nike alums, meets the market’s perceived need for tomboy styles. The store stocks men’s, women’s and unisex brands.
Emma McIlroy, CEO and co-founder of Wildfang, said that traditional menswear silhouettes have done the best for the retailer, as Wildfang’s customer has difficulty finding well-fitting versions of these items elsewhere. The retailer also works to make sure that the items will suit a diversity of customers. “We work really hard, trying on every item we buy on multiple body types to ensure we feel good about offering it to our community,” McIlroy said.
Kirrin Finch, a menswear-inspired shirting brand that targets a female and trans audience, also knows the importance of fit. When the brand held its first fit event, attendees said that they had not found any options for menswear-inspired women’s clothing that fit them correctly. Kirrin Finch Co-founder Laura Moffat said women often end up choosing a good fit instead of the style they prefer, “They’ll end up settling with something that is a bit too feminine or frilly for them.” She continued, “It’s a bit of a conundrum.”
In adapting the traditional men’s button-down for women, Kirrin Finch grapples with a number of fit issues. One of the challenges the brand encounters is that men’s button-down shirts gape over the bosom, a problem which the designers are trying to solve by adding extra buttons and removing darts. The brand is also making the circumference around the neck smaller and putting in a strong fusible for a bow tie or tie, since women’s shirts often scrunch around the neck and don’t keep a clean line.
Most mainstream labels have given nothing more than a head nod to women looking to dress in a more masculine style, adding a single button-down shirt or blazer. Kelly Sanders Moffat, Kirrin Finch’s other co-founder, succinctly summed up the issue, “I don’t want a boyfriend fit. I want a fit for me.”
Formalwear is an especially important category to address for individuals who don’t want to conform to gender norms, explained Mary Going, founder of Saint Harridan, a formal menswear brand for women and trans men. The company specializes in suits, shirting and vests. “The farther you go on the spectrum of formality, the more differentiated it is to be one gender or another.” She continued, “When you’re going to a baseball game, you can get away with khakis and a T-shirt no matter your gender.”
It is these small brands that have proved there is a growing market for clothing that does not apply to traditional gender roles. Both Saint Harridan and Kirrin Finch got their start on Kickstarter, and both brands easily exceeded their goals. Going said, “That Kickstarter was designed to answer the question ‘Is this a good idea?” She continued, “We got emails from people all over the world saying, ‘This is what I have been waiting for my whole entire life.’”
If larger brands and retailers are able to find a genuine way to address the growing individuality of consumers, gender neutral could become an established category in contemporary apparel.