A gay man, a gender-fluid person, and a straight guy walk into a gender-neutral clothing store to try on some clothes.
While this may sound like the beginning of a bad millennial joke, this actually took place when I and two others headed to The Phluid Project, the world’s first gender-free clothing store that opened in downtown Manhattan in March.
The Phluid Project was founded by Rob Smith, a fashion industry expert who worked for almost 30 years for brands such as Macy’s, Victoria’s Secret, Levi’s, and Nike. Inspired by his travels and studies of different cultures after spending a year on a “journey of self-discovery” in 2017, Smith came back to the United States and opened the store.
“The store is basically a manifestation of everything I love and believe in,” Smith said. “I wanted to do something a little more purposeful than just make money, so I decided to do this.”
Having a deep admiration and love for fashion, retail, and the LGBTQ community, Smith wanted to give back in the best way he could, which in this case was stylish non-gendered clothing. Clothing options in the store range from latex overalls and athleisure wear, to fashionable skirts and mesh crop tops, all products are designed to fit any body type.
According to a survey in 2016 by J. Walter Thompson Intelligence, 56 percent of Gen Zers (Americans that are ages 13-20) “know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns.” Adding to this, “only 44 percent said they always bought clothes designed for their own gender.”
Referencing this exact study, Smith was determined to appeal to a demographic that was beginning to grow.
“The space was born from Rob’s idea of taking masculine and feminine energies and blending it together to make this third gender option,” Phluid Project clothing designer Kristina Keenan said.
Keenan, who also worked with Smith in the fashion industry for around 10 years, helped coordinate what brands would be suitable for the store’s brand. On top of designing original Phluid Project merch such as tank tops, shirts, and hoodies, Keenan was also in charge of creating clothing that would fit male and female physiques.
“We’ve gone through different fitting and had to work with a male and female model to get the fit,” Keenan said. “It’s really hard and we’re still perfecting it. Men and women are born with different body shapes, but every human is born with a different body shape, so there aren’t any standards.”
In order to put this clothing to the test, The Daily Beast brought on three models of varying gender and sexual identities.
Aside from myself, a gay man, there was Tatyana Bellamy-Walker, a reporter at The Daily Beast who identifies as gender-fluid, and Ryan Chau, a straight male New York University student. Together, the three of us took on the exciting challenge of not just trying on the clothing, but also seeing how we all personally felt in it.
“I’m definitely the type of guy who dresses really basically,” Chau said in his gray T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers attire. “So wearing a lot of the more pizazzy stuff made it hard for me not to feel a little corny.”
Chau had tried one of the latex overalls at the store from London-based fashion brand Meat, as well as a mesh crop top and joggers. Definitely outside of his T-shirt and jeans comfort zone, Chau was a good sport throughout the entire process, but was not sure if the clothing was really his style.
“I’m pretty plateaued,” Chau said after taking off his crop-top outfit, “It’s definitely about your headspace and whether or not you can pull it off and not care what other people think. I did like the casual kimono and their basics though.”
Aside from the latex and spandex clothing, The Phluid Project does offer comfortable shirts, sweatpants, and hoodies that are designed to fit all bodies. So for those who are like Chau who want to keep things simple, the store offers a decent collection of these items.
Walker really enjoyed a lot of the variety the store had to offer. As someone who identifies as gender-fluid, Walker tends to have a hard time finding clothing that she is comfortable in.
“I felt more like myself when I wore the clothing here because I’m always trying to find that right blend of masculine and feminine,” Walker said after changing out of a tracksuit. “I definitely feel like I’m going to come back to the store because the clothes definitely fit nicely—I see myself in the mirror the right way.”
Prior to the experiment, both participants had preconceived notions about what constitutes as “gender neutral clothing.” Adjectives that were associated with the style of clothing were “bland,” or “shapeless.”
However, after seeing the numerous possibilities and outfit combinations available in the store, both Chau and Walker were surprised by what “gender neutral clothing” can encompass.
“I think in terms of clothing, gender has a lot to do with shape, so when people think gender neutral, they don’t think of shape, they think of formlessness,” Chau said. “The Phluid Project definitely showed that’s not necessarily the right notion.”
Walker was also in agreement, especially in regards to the diverse color and styling of the outfits in the store.
“I think it’s a stereotype, or like an ‘either or’ type of thing,” Walker said. “People wonder ‘how can it be both masculine and feminine without it being one flat color?’—that’s where it comes from I think. But just being here, we’ve seen something way different and stylish.”
For someone like Walker, having a genderless clothing store like The Phluid Project takes away the anxiety many gender-fluid and transgender people feel when they are shopping for themselves.
The drawback of The Phluid Project is the price of the clothes.
“It’s a nice store, but I’m not sure if it’s accessible for people our age who are in the teen to early adult range,” Walker said. “I mean if you can spend $105 on a jacket I’d definitely recommend this store, but if you can’t maybe you can buy a $48 perfume?”
Phluid Project exclusive knit beanies and trucker hats are set at $24, and graphic T-shirts, crop tops, and tanks are at $35. The more expensive items are oversized hoodies at $79, tapered joggers at $89, and a coach coat at $98.
Smith said the prices were made to be “accessible” for the exact demographic Walker and Chau fall into.
“When you create a store for young people, you have to create a product they’re going to be able to afford,” Smith explained. “The concept was that you can come in and spend $100 and get four amazing things, or one amazing piece.”
In other mainstream stores, prices for similar products are considerably less.
Women’s tops at Forever 21 range from $1.50 if it is on sale, to $88 for a Beaded Chiffon Cardigan. Prices for the store’s hoodies and sweatshirts selection, range from $8 if on sale, to $68 for a Hooded Colorblock Shawl. Aside from The Phluid Project exclusives, other expensive brands such as Gypsy Sport, Meat, and Zero Waste Daniel have products at the store that also go above $100 threshold.
However, mainstream stores such as Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, Gap, and Uniqlo still separate their sections by gender. Different floors, or sides of a large space, are often used to indicate where men and women clothing can be found.
“When I shop at Forever 21 or Marshalls the women and men’s isles are still divided into binaries (men and women) and mirror our world’s outdated notions of gender,” Walker said. “I’m hyper-conscious of people staring at me, especially, as I bring male clothes to the ‘woman’s’ dressing room.”
She added, “What is cool about Phluid is that I felt normal because there were no labels. I could just enter the dressing room as me.”
The Daily Beast reached out to these stores to see if they were aware of the growing trend of gender-neutral/fluid identifying market, and if they planned on taking action to design, or order products that would cater to this demographic. Forever 21, Gap, and Uniqlo did not return comment. Urban Outfitters declined to be interviewed about the topic.
It is not impossible for someone who is gender-fluid to find clothing at these mainstream stores—it may even be cheaper in some cases. T-shirts, hoodies, tank tops, and many other types of clothing tend to be unisex. However, the style or shape of these products may not be ideal for certain gender-fluid customers.
The main issues when searching for clothing as a gender-fluid person are the constant backtracking between sections, clothing not fitting properly, and dealing with anxiety when shopping in the specifically gendered departments.
The significant factor that allows The Phluid Project to justify its pricing is that it completely negates this trying experience. The store’s layout and sections are arranged by clothing type (T-shirts, joggers, sweaters, etc.) rather than by anything that even hints at male or female.
For someone like Walker, who struggles to find clothing in both the men and women’s departments in mainstream stores, The Phluid Project serves as a safe haven. By eliminating having to go back and forth between gendered sections, the store creates a comfortable environment for people of all gender identities to shop.
“It really was an empowering experience because usually in stores I get a lot of anxiety when I’m in the men’s section because I feel like everybody is looking at me,” Walker said. “But here, there aren’t any men or women sections. Just having a section be a specific type of clothing makes it so much less stressful.”
Aside from being a clothing store, The Phluid Project also serves as a community space for “Tuesday Talks” about the fashion industry and LGBTQ issues.
“I thought it would be great to have a gender-free store, but it’s gotta be so much more,” Smith explained. “There has to be a reason for people to come in the space. My goal is to somehow make the world a better place through fashion, human connection, and generating discussions and ideas between people.”
Smith remains hopeful that the idea of a gender neutral clothing store will push other mainstream stores to adopt a similar idea. Walker also agrees and hopes that the store will spark change in the way the world sees fashion and gender.
“I think as our world becomes more progressive with gender and identity, concepts like this store won’t be so different,” Walker said. “It will be something that everyone will be able to participate in.”
Chau, who gamely showed off his midriff for our photographer, also agreed.
“If you’re cool enough to pick it up and run with it, then hey, fuck it,” Chau said shrugging his shoulders.