January 6, 2020

Can gender-free shopping be scaled?

Rob Smith // WTF GENDER

Clothing has defined humans for millennia, especially when it comes to gender.

But as people increasingly see gender as a spectrum, Rob Smith saw an opportunity to create The Phluid Project, a gender-free retailer in New York. When he thinks What the Future, Smith envisions a world where anyone can dress without binary gender rules.

WTF: Fashions from skirts to high heels have moved between male and female fashion over history. Do you see a future where clothing binaries become irrelevant?

Rob Smith: As more young people identify as nonbinary and transgender, we’ll start to see more and more elimination of this binary concept around fashion.

WTF: Do you see gender-less fashion as having mainstream potential?

Smith: I don’t think Walmart’s going to convert to genderless fashion. It’s hard to go as a sex-assigned-at-birth-male to a woman’s department and buy an outfit. One, because the fit’s not going to be right, and two, because there might not be acceptance and it might not be a comfortable, safe environment. You can still buy online, but every shopping experience when you come to fashion is gendered male and female.

WTF: A lot of other companies have tried and failed to market gender-neutral fashion. How can they do it better in the future?

Smith: It’s hard, because whatever you do is the opposite of what people are used to, right? Everyone’s used to shopping and hitting the male or female button. This is about starting with the fit, getting the fit right. It’s about getting fit models that reflect the people that are buying them. People have done gender-neutral and missed it because they tend to be more masculine, like sweats and T-shirts, and not gone into categories like skirts and dresses and blazers. They try to stay in the middle, which is a little bit more masculine-presenting. It’s too safe.

WTF: Even the construction of clothing is gendered, like buttons on one side for men and on the other for women. How do you reconcile that?

Smith: It’s funny, we created dress shirts and they were done with the way women do buttons. It was very uncomfortable for me. I had to retrain my fingers to button a shirt. It’s one of those things that doesn’t have to be that way.

WTF: You’re also very careful about the language you use. Should we be using other clothing terms so that they are available to anybody?

Smith: That’s a good question. Is there another word for a dress? Call it a kimono. It has a little less expectation around it. Language is important.

WTF: What are some operational things that help create a more expansive environment?

Smith: We had to create gender-free mannequins. It starts with the type of people that work in the space that reflect our community. We have a conference room that at night is used for a community space. Then we put all of our marketing energy behind events and panel discussions, which creates press, which creates our marketing campaign. We don’t spend any money on traditional marketing.

WTF: Could other retailers adopt these strategies?

Smith: I don’t know. Probably not. Any company can elevate their social consciousness. More and more companies are doing that and a lot of them are looking at diversity and inclusion and recruitment and retention. We started building a job-readiness program for the trans and nonbinary young people that are part of the Phluid family. Then I realized once they were done, I had nowhere to place them because companies aren’t ready for them. It can really be an uncomfortable and unsafe space. So, we’re launching a Phluid certification, which is a training program helping companies get ready for this gender-expansive workforce, so they can recruit and keep the best talent.

WTF: On Dec. 31 you closed the brick-and-mortar Phluid store. What didn’t work and how do you plan to move forward?

Smith: Brick-and-mortar ended up being 80 percent of my business. It was a struggle to maintain the brick and mortar piece as such a large percentage. It will exist again after we do pop-ups, partnerships and wholesales because then we’ll have the financial funding at that point to do that.

WTF: If there was a single lesson or two that you think would help propel this through the future, what do you think it would be?

Smith: It’s undeniable that this is the future. It’s about inclusion at its truest form. This conversation is fashion and celebrating how you show up with your full expression. It’s so new and most traditional retailers that I speak to don’t know how to do it. They’re interested but they’re incredibly afraid to do that because it means downsizing certain areas, recruiting new areas and its already a challenging business.

WTF: Do you think that this is an idea that’s ahead of its time or where do you think this idea fits with how ready society is for it today?

Smith: I worked for Les Wexner for a few years for the Limited Brands and Les used to say to me, “Rob, you never want to be the first that anything. Always be the first, second.” So, he sees it as let the first person make all the mistakes. And actually, it’s how most people build their business. In some ways, Phluid is at the very, very front and that means it’s harder and more challenging. But people will look back and go, “Wow.” I think in my lifetime and being in retail for over 30 years to be the first is something that’s pretty exciting.

Rob Smith
CEO and founder
The Phluid Project
He, him, human

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55%
of Americans aren’t sure if the people they see are male or female.
(Source: Ipsos survey conducted between Oct. 23 and 24, 2019 among 1,004 U.S. adults.)

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What the Future is a quarterly deep dive into different aspects of consumer and social thought and behavior. Each edition features exclusive new data from world-leading research firm Ipsos. WTF explores how a single industry or behavior fits into the broader culture now and in the coming decades. Read Previous WTF Issues »


Younger Americans are more aware of women wearing men's fashions.

More and more I notice women wearing men's fashions or clothing.

Strongly agree Somewhat agree Neither agree nor disagree Somewhat disagree Strongly disagree
4% 17% 32% 36% 11%

18-34

7% 18% 35% 29% 11%

35-54

10% 20% 35% 31% 4%

55+

(Source: Ipsos survey conducted between Oct. 23 and 24, 2019 among 1,004 U.S. adults.)

More and more I notice men wearing women's fashions or clothing.

Strongly agree Somewhat agree Neither agree nor disagree Somewhat disagree Strongly disagree
7% 12% 30% 33% 18%

18-34

13% 20% 30% 25% 12%

35-54

24% 26% 30% 18% 2%

55+

(Source: Ipsos survey conducted between Oct. 23 and 24, 2019 among 1,004 U.S. adults.)

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, CEO and founder, The Phluid Project



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