Breaking the Binary Fashion’s Next Frontier

Breaking the Binary: Fashion’s Next Frontier
Breaking the Binary: Fashion’s Next Frontier

Over the last century, milestones in equity and inclusion led by figures in the queer liberation and feminist movements have advanced the understanding that gender is a spectrum rather than a rigid binary. Now fluidity is one of the defining characteristics of the current age, with a growing number of people identifying as non-binary, trans, and gender noncomforming. It is important to note that while gender-inclusive discourse is now gaining mainstream acceptance, gender nonconforming individuals were widely recognized and revered by cultures across the globe for millenia, and contemporary Western societyis just catching up.ABOUT

For today’s generation, social media platforms, such as TikTok, play an instrumental role in providing a safe space for genderqueer people to find community and carve new paths in a world historically designed for neatly boxed identities. Key fashion figure, acclaimed writer, and public speaker ALOK, who created the Breaking #DeGenderFashion movement, has utilized digital platforms to build community through belonging. In response to efforts made by these influential figures, the fashion industry is developing product lines designed and marketed as “gender-inclusive,” “gender neutral”, “genderless,” and “gender fluid.” While many of these collections have often resorted to oversized and shapeless silhouettes in neutral colorways that primarily favor masculine styles, embracing a fluidity that blends gender expressions is vital to the advancement of this movement.

Here, we delve into the present day shifts and innovations that are driving the future of gender-inclusive apparel and further solidifying it as a new industry standard with clear impacts across runway, retail, design, accessibility, and sustainability.

The Runway Gates Are Open

In recent years, traditional runway strategies have begun to shift from a gatekeeping, exclusive experience to more of a gate-opening, all-inclusive one. This contemporary approach is in-part due to social media’s impact on the greater cultural zeitgeist, as live-streamed shows and runway looks posted in real-time have now become the norm. This has democratized the consumption of fashion and resulted in new perspectives that have infiltrated the traditional runway–namely, that gender is a vast expanse.

In 2020, the British Fashion Council announced that London Fashion Week would officially transition to a gender-inclusive platform–an approach that combines physical shows with digital presentations, and presents womenswear collections alongside menswear. Now, more than ever, luxury houses and emerging brands alike feature transgender and non-binary models, as well as bodies of all shapes and sizes, alongside cisgendered models on the runway. This brings proper representation of marginalized communities to the fore and further represents our diverse realityDuring the most recent Fall/Winter 22/23 Women’s runway season, Black, Antiguan-American model, disabled person, and trans woman Aaron Rose Philip modeled for Collina Strada, a brand founded on the values of elevating social issues and awareness. ‘Euphoria’ star and trans woman Hunter Schafer closed out Prada’s show, wearing an extra-ordinary white tank top, juxtaposed with a delicate and embroidered sheer midi skirt. The white tank top’s presence across multiple runways this season points to the reinterpretation of a traditionally menswear-associated item by women–with clear nods to the queer community. Another example is Coperni’s mini dress made completely of upcycled suit ties. This progressive design further demonstrates how womenswear designers are creating new narratives by repurposing male-favored items through fresh and modern twists. With gender fluid high designer Harris Reed gracing the April 2022 cover of Harper’s Bazaar UK, the bright glimmers of an industry reboot is well underway.

Retail: Shop Safe in Shared Space

Brick-and-mortar retail layouts have long been defined by the binary of female and male sections. From the product assortments available to how they’re merchandised and styled on mannequins, there’s a clear delineation of what is for who–an almost invisible line that can’t be crossed–until now. Physical retail layouts and digital shopping environments are being upgraded to surpass gendered-merchandising strategies in order to create a safe shopping environment for all identities and forms of expression

Among the early adopters of gender-inclusive retail concepts, London-based retailer, Selfridges launched an in-store genderless experience titled “Agender” in 2015 that organized product by color, item, fit, and style instead of gender–a merchandising tactic that still serves as a guiding principle today. In 2020, Adidas launched a new store in London that reinvented their classic retail model with products organized by the sport they were designed for instead of gender. Kering-owned fashion house, Gucci, launched Gucci Mx in 2020, an all-gender shopping section on their e-commerce site that features a curated selection of fluid pieces styled on models of all identities and gender expressions.

Further, online shopping provides customers with the space to freely pursue items that feel most natural to them–without fear of external judgment. SSENSE, the high-end, multi-brand online retailer, strategically merchandises menswear in their womenswear section and vice versa, with the aim of appealing to all customer gender identities. In 2021, they launched SSENSE KIDS, a new department of gender-inclusive apparel, accessories, and footwear for children, as well as capsule collections designed in partnership with brands including Collina Strada, the Museum of Peace & Quiet, and Acne Studios.

Design: Revise & Reconstruct

Fashion design’s current methodology is largely limited to gendered notions of apparel, making it burdensome for gender nonconforming people to find clothing that affirms their identity, which can further fuel body and gender dysphoria. This demonstrates how our present and prevailing mode of design is not yet accessible to all.

A number of LGBTQ+ and women-owned brands have pioneered the gender-inclusive design space for years. Since 2013, the brand TomboyX has designed intimates, apparel, and activewear for all sizes and identities. Their adaptive clothing made for trans and gender nonconforming customers also offers extensive sizing options that run up to 6X. The next generation of design students as well as emerging brands are increasingly looking to reframe the future of design in order to address all wearers–regardless of gender. LA-based brand, No Sesso, which is Italian for “no sex/no gender”, has inclusivity built into the bones and DNA of their design process. Their mission is to empower people of all colors, shapes, and identities by creating wearable pieces for everyone. In 2019, founder and lead designer Pierre Davis showed her first No Sesso collection at New York Fashion Week, and was the first Black and trans designer on the official CFDA calendar. Finnish designer, Ella Boucht creates tailored garments centering non-binary, trans, and gender fluid people. Ever since Ella was a student, they had been challenging gender binaries by combining both womenswear and menswear pattern-making methods.

The traditional binary thinking has informed centuries of design, inhibiting not only inclusivity, but the potential for innovation and novelty that designers and brands can continue to offer. By designing outside of these binaries, brands can integrate the specific fit nuances required, and further provide garments with the flexibility that trans and gender-various people need.

A Sustainable Solution

In addition to the identity-affirming role that gender-inclusive clothing can play for consumers, it’s also a potential solution for building a more sustainable fashion industry. In a broad sense, gender-inclusive apparel lines give brands the ability to produce less and serve a larger market of consumers, thus ultimately reducing waste.

As mentioned, finding the right size and fit continues to be a key obstacle for consumers looking to shop outside of gendered departments, and ill-fitting items account for a significant percentage of clothing returns. In designing more adjustable garments and size-inclusive lines for all identities, brands can reduce returns and, in turn, lower their carbon footprint. Gender-inclusive lines also have the potential to promote a sharing economy in which garments are handed down between wearers of different gender identities, facilitating re-use, and further extending the life cycle of garments. A great example of this is peer-to-peer marketplace and mobile shopping app, Depop–a closed-loop system and community that offers a diverse set of thrifted sellers and buyers to converse and support each other. The app’s search tool makes it seamless for the LGBTQ+ community to find items outside their gendered categories.

Direct-to-consumer brands, such as Big Bud Press and Older Brother, also combine an ethos of sustainability with gender-inclusivity in their apparel. French designer, Ludovic de Saint Sernin, brings gender-inclusive design to the menswear runway while consistently maintaining his sustainable design principles. The designer, who received a Woolmark Prize for garment traceability, challenges the dominance of workwear in the sustainable fashion space with a sexy and minimalist aesthetic.

From designers on the runway, to retail and direct-to-consumer e-commerce brands, there is great potential for the evolution of gender-inclusive apparel in creating a sustainable and equitable future for all–beyond global Pride celebrations. As the fashion industry continues to face issues of economic hardship, lack of resources, as well as a too-fast calendar that results in overproduction, gender-inclusive apparel can contribute to a solution the industry needs by taking a slow-focus approach and leading with compassion, community, and inclusion


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