Is the future of fashion gender fluid?

The growing influence of Gen-Z is helping shape the new landscape of gender-bending fashion brands and retail experiences. We speak to Scandi label Rains and Open Studio’s Sara Hildén Bengtsson about where unisex fashion is set to head next

As an industry largely built on the idea of self-expression, the movements of the fashion world have long been intertwined with wider societal discussions about gender and identity. Over the last few years, we’ve begun to see non-binary models such as Hunter Schafer and Indya Moore make waves on the catwalk. Meanwhile, in pop culture, the cult of Harry Styles is arguably as much down to his penchant for flowing silhouettes and frills as his music, resulting in him becoming the face of Gucci under creative director Alessandro Michele, and Billie Eilish has reclaimed the expression ‘tomboy’ with her oversized streetwear looks and various-shades-of-fluoro hairdos, much to the delight of her angsty teen fanbase.

As with other industries, fashion brands are having to move fast in the hope of keeping up with the demands of their rapidly changing customer base. Even the differences between millennials and Gen-Z are stark: a 2016 study by J. Walter Thompson found that 48% of Gen-Zs identified as exclusively heterosexual, compared to 65% of millennials, and only 44% said they always bought clothes designed for their own gender, versus 54% of millennials. With Gen-Z boasting an estimated $143 billion worth of spending power, it’s not surprising that the fashion world has been more willing to embrace the idea of gender fluidity of late.

Mother’s recent campaign for online retailer Zalando

An array of new labels tailored around non-binary dressing have been cropping up across the world’s fashion capitals, including London-based Loverboy and One DNA in New York. In haute couture, Gucci has been been leading the way with Michele at the helm. Its catwalk shows typically cross-pollinate across genders, with women wearing pieces from the men’s collections and vice versa, and the gender fluid casting in the campaign for its new unisex perfume, Mémoire d’une Odeur, is a far cry from the hyper-gendered fragrance ads we’re used to seeing.

Elsewhere, Burberry, JW Anderson and Dolce & Gabbana have all taken the decision to stage their men’s and women’s collections together as one catwalk show, and campaigns such as Chanel for its unisex ‘It’ bag, Gabrielle, which starred celebs including Kristen Stewart and Pharrell Williams, have been making headlines worldwide.

The greater acceptance of gender fluidity in high fashion circles also seems to be filtering down to the high street and retail experiences more broadly. 2016 brought us Zara’s Ungendered, a line of unisex separates from jeans to hoodies, H&M launched a gender neutral collection in collaboration with fellow Swedish label Eytys last year and, established in 2018, the ASOS-backed unisex range Collusion pitches itself as being “designed by Gen-Z, for Gen-Z”.

In 2016, department store Selfridges went one step further, creating a gender neutral pop-up shop called Agender at its site in London. Created in collaboration with designer Faye Toogood (who also runs her own unisex label, Toogood, with her sister Erica), the space had an almost art installation feel to it: accessories were wrapped up in white, unmarked boxes, while the clothes were all logo-free, and came bagged up in cases made from stiff artist’s canvas.

While all this is evidence that progress is being made, considering that the fashion industry is worth an estimated $758 billion globally, you could argue that launching a temporary pop-up store or a one-off collection feels more like dipping a toe in the water than a wholesale change. So, are brands viewing gender neutral fashion as a marketing trend or a long-term investment?

“I don’t believe it is a trend but as the industry is sometimes too conservative, they are treating it more as a trend,” says Open Studio creative director, Sara Hildén Bengtsson.

Bengtsson knows a thing or two about how to build a fashion brand, having launched H&M-owned fashion and beauty retailer & Other Stories in 2010, and overseen its expansion to 13 other countries. She co-founded Stockholm-based creative agency Open Studio in 2017, and now works with clients including Chloé and Christian Dior to develop new campaigns and retail concepts. For Bengtsson, retailers still aren’t responding strongly enough to the demand for gender neutral fashion, particularly when there is a wealth of evidence staring them in the face.

“For a very long time people have been dressing in gender neutral fashion, maybe forever,” she says. “I think we all have our own gender neutral fashion stories, I can remember the joy of taking my dad’s Levi’s 501 jeans as soon as I could fit into them…. In my experience a lot of fashion-interested men and women shop wherever they want to shop. When I was at & Other Stories – a women’s brand – men still bought the clothes or used the beauty products.”

Rather than half measures or headline-grabbing publicity stunts, some retailers are beginning to take a more nuanced approach to unisex fashion. Founded in Denmark in 2012, Rains’ brand has been built less on its gender fluid credentials than on a problem which unites people of all backgrounds: the weather. The label’s first product was a reimagined version of the traditional rubber raincoat, but it has since expanded its range to include an array of waterproof products, bags and accessories designed to mix fashion with function. Apart from a couple of exceptions, its range also happens to be entirely unisex.

“We design some silhouettes of jackets and bags with specific genders in mind, but we always offer all apparel products in dual-sizing – small/medium, medium/large – the design doesn’t change. We design all our products with a Scandinavian sensibility, based on classic archetypes and functionality,” says Rains’ UK country manager, Tom Bettison. The way the brand communicates with its customers doesn’t play into gender norms either; products are shot on both men and women for its website and campaigns, and in its retail spaces everything is displayed by style rather than gender, with pared-back fixtures and materials that don’t feel gender specific.

While Bettison says he sees non-gender specific collections and retail spaces becoming more popular in cities like London, particularly with niche brands in the footwear and accessories spaces, he believes bigger and online-only brands still have much work to do if they hope to compete. “I think there are still challenges in creating ready-to-wear concepts that resonate well to a unisex customer base,” he says. “As online shopping’s popularity continues to rise, it will be interesting to see how brands navigate non-gender specific collections, because customers want to see apparel shot on people, not just flat lay imagery.”

Rains’ SS20 campaign

While fashion designers have arguably always flirted with gender neutrality, up until now unisex fashion has felt like more of a PR exercise than a long-term strategy. But with smaller brands and the next generation of influencers leading the way, perhaps the industry is finally ready to put to bed the old cliché of sticking men in dresses and women in suits.;