Op-Ed | The Key Element Most Brands Miss About Genderless Fashion

In fashion, trans and gender-non-conforming people are often the inspiration but rarely the intended customer.

That’s changing fast: brands are incorporating genderless designs and nonbinary models on the runway and in stores, campaign imagery and social media. But while there is no denying the positive impact of that inclusive messaging, the work does not stop there.

After all, what is so great about a gender-inclusive campaign if actual non-conforming customers cannot fit in the clothes? Many clothes labelled genderless are still sold in stores and on websites that are built around men’s and women’s departments. And sizing for these items tends to be limiting and sometimes prohibitive for the customer who shops across the binary.

Binary size charts are challenging, since the customer has to make their own size equivalences while shopping, usually relying on generic conversion charts that don’t always apply directly to brands. Binary gender-specific fit particularities like bust, hip, and waist measurements only make this more confusing for shoppers.

All this can make shopping across the gender binary an overwhelming experience. I personally shop more in the womenswear section, though out of frustration I now mainly shop brands that are genderqueer from inception, like Phlemuns and Stefano Pilati’s Random Identities. By shopping for clothes that are meant to fit all genders, I don’t have to shop with the concern that the pieces I purchase won’t fit my body.

If brands are serious about creating a gender-inclusive industry, they need to commit to offering degendered sizing and proposing alternatives to the cut of their products. Few do, even as the number of labels marketing to genderless customers grows.

Last year Gucci introduced Mx, a non-binary shopping section on its website. When clicking on the Mx tab, one is welcomed by the following quote: “Gucci’s collections set out to deconstruct preconceived binaries and question how these concepts relate to our bodies. Celebrating self-expression in the name of all gender equality, the House presents Mx.” But when a customer clicks on an item, they are redirected to the binary portion of the website and to binary size charts. What about this deconstructs preconceived binaries? If the point of Mx is to create a safer space for gender-non-conforming customers to shop (which it should be), why is the focus only on the aesthetic and not on sizing? In the end, what matters is not how the clothes look on a sample size model but how they look on our bodies.

About his new “genderful” collection Altu, Joseph Altuzarra told Vogue that each style in the offer went through several fittings to ensure they would work for “all genders, different sizes, and different shapes.” The brand’s site offers an easy to read and comprehensive size chart that translates binary sizing to the brand’s own and offers measurements and an image guide for each piece, and suggests shoppers call or email customer service if they need further help (all great things). But the sizing for leather pants – the hero pieces of the collection – stops at 34 US men’s, and the lookbook offers little to no size diversity. It is puzzling to imagine how this is serving “different sizes and different shapes.”

The industry’s struggles with sizing inclusivity extend to brands’ reliance on hoodies and knits to convey gender-neutral fashion. Heron Preston’s collection for Calvin Klein is a recent example, consisting of all knits save a pair of cotton twill pants. Knits easily adapt to our bodies and different sizes. These will always sell. But what is the point of a genderless offer if it consists mainly of cut & sewn knits? What is it about a hoodie that defies binary gender norms?

This oversimplification of fluidity in fashion has a long history, including the “his and hers” craze of the 80′s and 90′s, when brands would sell “unisex” items marketed through attractive couples. While the language has evolved, and so has the marketing, little has changed with the actual clothes. These efforts often feel more like merchandising strategies than projects aimed to serve the community. When creating these collections, brands must consider if they are designing for us or if they are simply assigning products to us.

Some bodies have bulges and reliefs where others don’t, and as designers we are trained to identify them and design around them, to accentuate them or de-emphasize them through cut and seam placements. Being gender inclusive is not about cutting the same pair of trousers in two extra sizes or simply casting an array of androgynous-looking sample size models. It is about considering the nuances of different bodies and designing for them.

This takes extra time, knowledge, and bigger budgets. It requires expertise, usually that of a person who would be the target customer. But brands could see a return to their investments if gender non-conforming and/or trans customers are approached correctly. Fashion design is not only about fantasy and a great mood board; at a product level it is about problem-solving. It is about targeting a persona and designing for their needs.

For instance, when designing pants, consider: where does the intended rise fall on different bodies in the spectrum? Should the crotch be patterned to include ease for different genitalia? Should the pants be cut on a mid-rise or sit on the high hip versus a natural waist to work around bodies that are curvier versus those that are straighter?

When designing tops, should the armhole and shoulder have ease to allow for variance in bicep and shoulder width? Are bust darts necessary for all “womenswear” styles? Or can the style be designed to work for bodies with and without breasts?

A successful gender-neutral collection will embrace the idea that there is nothing inherently gendered about clothes.

A skirt is just a skirt until a designer labels it as womenswear and a merchandiser assigns it to a female customer. When brands create third options and separate lines, they other gender-non-conforming folks by design. It is like saying, not everything is for you.

Brands should think of the fashion we dream of, and the fashion we already wear and make work on our bodies. Odds are we are already eyeing a product in your assortment but don’t purchase it because we know it is not made for our bodies. In the end, the work is not about adding separate options that categorize and divide us, but about erasing the divide that limits all of us to experience fashion under our own terms.

Brands over-complicate gender fluidity in fashion by feeling the need to find new products to market. Maybe the solution is to simply expand current offerings in sizing and cut and let the customer choose.

José Criales-Unzueta is a handbag designer for a large affordable luxury brand in New York

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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