Why the fashion industry is blurring the lines between genders for a fashion forward future

Billy Porter in Christian Siriano for the 2019 Academy Awards. Photography by Dan MacMedan. Image via Getty Images.
ASOS’ very own gender-neutral line, Collusion, launched in 2018. Image courtesy of ASOS.
Jaden Smith donning a skirt for the Louis Vuitton Spring 2016 campaign. Photography by Bruce Weber. Image courtesy of Louis Vuitton.
David Bowie wearing the bodysuit designed by Kansai Yamamoto for the musician’s 1973 Aladdin Sane Tour. Photography by Masayoshi Sukita. Image courtesy of Masayoshi Sukita.
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CoBo Social Market News Reports

 

As the fashion industry transitions towards a more inclusive and accepting space, is gendered clothing truly necessary?

TEXT: Carina Fischer
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

 

Billy Porter in Christian Siriano for the 2019 Academy Awards. Photography by Dan MacMedan. Image via Getty Images.

 

Fashion has had a longstanding record of dividing its runway collections and ready-to-wear retail into what it saw as two distinctive genders: male and female. And while this certainly stems from consumer desires, there has certainly been a shift with calls for inclusivity coming from Gen Z and millennials that should not be ignored—particularly as these consumer groups are predicted to account for $143 billion in spending in the next four years. Additionally, according to a study done by Phluid, a ‘gender-free’ New York-based brand, 56 per cent of Gen Z consumers shop outside of the gender they identify with. As more and more consumers choose to shop outside the confines of the gendered offerings available, where does that leave brands when it comes to pinpointing consumer desires and appealing to the masses?

Nowadays, retailers are quick to dole out oversized variations of basics and streetwear, slap on a ‘unisex’ or ‘gender-neutral’ label and call it a day. For the most part, consumers are keen to support brands that, at the bare minimum, outwardly present a conscious, ethical and inclusive narrative. As a result, many brands slide in buzzwords like ‘gender-neutral’ to cause a stir whilst creating positive associations between consumer and brand. ASOS released their first gender-neutral line in 2018 titled Collusion, featuring an affordable array of trendy basics from the 90s and 2000s. Within a week, the collection ranked fourth out of 850 brands featured on ASOS. Yet, the clothes were far from revolutionary, and seemed to be more reflective of a basics collection, featuring oversized tees, skinny jeans and the occasional loud tropical or animal print. That being said, the launch of the collection itself and the unwavering stance it took on gender-neutral clothing was pivotal for the fast-fashion retailer, and based on sales was certainly a positive start in line with what consumers are looking for.

 

ASOS’ very own gender-neutral line, Collusion, launched in 2018. Image courtesy of ASOS.

 

The last five years in particular have seen extensive strides made in bringing genderless fashion to a more visible, public eye, often through major brand campaigns, celebrity style at widely reported events and even through the specific delineation of genderless accessories, such as fragrances. Louis Vuitton made waves with their inclusion of Jaden Smith for their Spring 2016 campaign, decked out in various outfits from the womenswear collection, including skirts. Louis Vuitton artistic director Nicolas Ghesquière described Smith as representative of “a generation that has assimilated the codes of true freedom, one that is free of manifestoes and questions about gender.” For the 2019 Met Gala, Harry Styles was met with global appraise upon wearing a sheer, ruffled Gucci blouse. That same year at the Academy Awards, Billy Porter donned a breath-taking Christian Siriano gown with a tailored tuxedo from the waist up, and a draped, bell skirt from the waist down. The outfit choice was coined by Variety as a gown that “changed the world.” Billy Porter profoundly stated, “I think that we as artists…have the power to change the molecular structure of people’s hearts and minds and change the world.”

 

Jaden Smith donning a skirt for the Louis Vuitton Spring 2016 campaign. Photography by Bruce Weber. Image courtesy of Louis Vuitton.

 

While Gucci has certainly upped the ante, it is not the only brand taking strides on the gender-neutral front; among a host of other luxury fashion houses taking a definitive stance, Burberry (September 2016), Tom Ford (September 2016), Vetements (2017) and J.W. Anderson (2018) also adjusted the format of the shows for Fashion Week, combining their men’s and women’s shows for each season. For such prominent brands to shake up something so intrinsic to a brand’s DNA was revolutionary. Combining two seemingly distinctive shows made waves in the industry and across the media, creating further publicity for gender-neutral clothing whilst enhancing the credibility and legitimacy of what many then perceived as a novel concept.

Beyond combining shows, Saint Laurent takes it one step further by strengthening their existing history of genderless apparel. Founding designer Yves is known for altering typical menswear shapes into slimmer, tailored iterations that were suitable for a woman’s smaller stature but still implicitly gender non-conforming. Under the creative direction of Hedi Slimane from 2012–16, Saint Laurent saw the continued reproduction of gender-neutral pieces in the form of skinny jeans, leather jackets, heeled ankle boots and more, for both menswear and womenswear. And current creative director Anthony Vaccarello continues the narrative, calling upon Mick Jagger for inspiration for the Men’s Spring/Summer 2020 show—shirts were sheer, tunics were embroidered and an array of stereotypically ‘feminine’ materials and prints such as velvet, sequin and zebra-print were employed, steering away from the trim tailoring of Slimane whilst still holding true to the original values of the house of Saint Laurent.

But what does it mean to have authentically gender-neutral apparel? Surely offerings that attempt to be truly gender fluid would seek to normalize something such as men in dresses, tulle and crop tops as opposed to ushering every gender into a ‘unisex’ oversized t-shirt? Brands such as Gucci have been at the forefront of underpinning what it means to be more authentically gender-neutral, launching a campaign for equality across all genders called Chime for Change. They also presented a short film called “The Future is Fluid at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where 13 individuals from across the globe explored blurred lines and borders, with genuine, compelling stories that take place between languages, cultures and gender binaries.

Yet the concept of genderless dressing is certainly not a recent development. Kansai Yamamoto began designing costumes for David Bowie in 1973, playing a prominent role in the creation of gender-bending icon Ziggy Stardust. Going back even further to the 1950s, the original Gucci Jackie bag was in fact launched as a unisex bag under the moniker Constance.

 

David Bowie wearing the bodysuit designed by Kansai Yamamoto for the musician’s 1973 Aladdin Sane Tour. Photography by Masayoshi Sukita. Image courtesy of Masayoshi Sukita.

 

Brands have certainly made significant headway in the journey to be more gender-inclusive, with some luxury fashion houses such as Gucci and Saint Laurent taking the lead in paving a more inclusive path. And with Gen Z and millennials putting increased pressure on brands to hold them accountable, there will be added expectation for brands to navigate this space with integrity as they move forward, in order to appease these consumer groups that value authenticity and advocate for social change more than ever before.

As designer Yohji Yamamoto said in an interview with The New York Times in 1983, “I think that my men’s clothes look as good on women as my women’s clothing… I always wonder who decided there should be a difference in the clothes of men and women.” Delineating clothes into male and female categories can allow customers the ease of shopping for specific items of clothing that fall under masculine or feminine stereotypes. But as society moves to remove gendered tropes and to create a more inclusive space, it raises the question of the need for labels at all.

Clothes need not be designed as ‘genderless’ or ‘unisex’—by nature a piece of clothing is not ‘born’ with an assigned sex nor gender. Thus, it comes down to a question of respecting an individual’s right to self-expression, and pushing for the normalisation and celebration of that right—regardless of whether their choice is gender-conforming or not.

 

 

 
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