Fashion has always responded to what’s happening next. The movement that’s happening right now: genderless apparel.
In March, H&M announced the debut of their first unisex collection, a 19-piece line of oversized denim basics called Denim United.
Recently, Parisian brand Avoc, which proudly totes their offerings as gender neutral, won the prestigious ANDAM award, which granted them $129,000 to grow their business.
While gender non-conformity and gender expression are headline topics right now, the question remains for fashion, is this just a trend, or something that has a profitable future for the retail sector?
Liusal, a streetwear brand that officially launched during New York Fashion Week: Men’s, has made being genderless a core part of their brand identity. Their main reason for this was a matter of economics on their part.
Founder and creative director Tony Stephens adjusted his whole design approach because he saw genderless apparel as the money-maker of the future. Recently, he and his artistic director Loulou Nguidjol presented their collection at the Capsule tradeshow, and buyers were very responsive.
“Buyers do feel like the money and the customer is there for genderless,” Nguidjol said. “Retailers are getting used to genderless, because socially and politically more people are blurring the lines. Brands like Thom Browne are pushing for a more genderless aesthetic, and this is where the industry is going.”
Nguidjol also pointed out how other high-fashion and streetwear brands have been playing on gender for years, and now other designers are coming full force with it.
For other brands, they still find retailers can still be a challenge for genderless clothing to get more market share.
Benjamin Fainlight, the founder and creative director of Life in Perfect Disorder, originally started his brand five years ago as a T-shirt project, but rebranded a year and a half ago and made being genderless part of the brand’s core identity because he felt that’s where the world is going.
“Labels of menswear and womenswear are becoming arbitrary,” he said.
The issue he’s run into with his brand is customers and buyers are reluctant to respond, and he has to do a lot of explaining about what being genderless means. The idea is still very much in its infancy.
His primary customer market is in Japan, and the majority of his product is placed in the men’s section. He doesn’t sell a lot of skirts or dresses there, but his t-shirts and outwear do well among both male and female customers because they aren’t seen as strictly masculine or feminine.
If genderless apparel is going to become a money-spinner, international perception of the genderless idea will have to change. Socially and culturally, most people aren’t there yet.
Major department stores still have to think about their older customers, who are more conservative about the genderless idea.
Genderless apparel is seeing traction now because it is an emerging market, but brands are reliant on social media and e-commerce to help them craft their message. Ultimately, if it is going to become highly profitable, it’s all about marketing.
According to Brian Trunzo, menswear editor of WGSN, the category is still such a small segment of the market, it’s hard to even call it a trend yet. However, many digital influencers, millennials and members of Generation-Z are helping to perpetuate the idea that clothes are just clothes, not men’s or women’s. In the future, he sees genderless apparel potentially having robust growth.
In the short-term, he sees it as something restricted to the upscale, high-end market. In the long-term, if it is going to become mass market, it first needs to be done in a very modest way.
“To capture the minds and wallets of your average consumer, who isn’t that fashion forward, the clothes have to be presented in a neutral way and not have a ‘borrowed from the boys’ or ‘men in skirts concept,” Trunzo said.
In the long-term, he could see this being an economic savior for some retailers. Gender neutral apparel would cut down on excess inventory because two sets of customers would be buying, and advertising dollars would be saved because they wouldn’t need marketing budgets for two different genders.
Of course, as Nikki Baird, managing partner of Retail Systems Research pointed out, if this is ever going to be mass market, retailers will need to change their whole organizational structure. Buyers are traditionally broken up into men’s and women’s, and then by category like ready-to-wear or accessories. For genderless apparel to continue getting traction, there would need to be buyers who look at both sides of the market.
One of the main issues Baird foresees with the future of genderless apparel is fit issues. “Fit is an important part of successful apparel sales,” Baird said. “When I hear genderless apparel, I ask myself how that would work for a curvier woman. Consumer questions around fit need to be addressed if this is going to take off. A woman with curves doesn’t want to buy the equivalent of a trash bag for her clothes to fit. Bad fits lead to high return rates, and that can kill a brand’s business.”
Despite her concerns over the fit issue, Baird does believe that given the current fashion tastes of millennials and Gen-Z who value comfortable and relaxed fit clothing, genderless apparel has a future. Eventually, she forecasts that people will be less concerned about clothes being distinguished as men’s or women, and rather focus more on just being comfortable.
That is something all genders can perhaps agree on.