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Emboldened by the celebrities and designers they admire, a growing number of consumers are buying across gender-specific categories. Silhouettes, fabrics and colours no longer need to conform to traditional dress codes to sell to these consumers. For brands, the shift may be at an inflection point, prompting industry leaders to consider how to best act on changing consumer expectations.
Gender has long influenced fashion and, even amid the shift to casualisation, gender is embedded in today’s merchandising practices. Introducing gender fluidity into product collections therefore may require a practical update of operational systems that have been used in the fashion industry for decades. A garment’s size, fit and shape determine the key differences between menswear and womenswear, but there are subtler distinctions too. Buttons largely continue to appear on different sides of men’s and women’s shirts, for example, a practice thought to stretch back as far as the Renaissance when upper-class women were dressed by servants, but upper-class men dressed themselves.
The shift towards gender-fluid fashion is partly driven by evolving cultural and social attitudes towards gender in different regions and across generations. In recent years, many people have developed a greater acceptance and understanding of sexual orientations and gender identities, with younger generations today often viewing gender identity as a spectrum, rather than a binary.
Examples of these attitudes are even discernible in many countries or regions where gender inclusivity and sexual inclusivity are less established. For instance, in Kenya, local labels such as Vivo and Sevaria are creating collections based around gender-inclusive designs and working with fabrics that traditionally appear only in womenswear, such as silks, but for menswear.
“Gender neutral is not a trend, it’s a reality,” said Jonathan Anderson, creative director of Loewe and founder of label JW Anderson, in 2021. “My whole philosophy is that you cannot tell people what to wear. You’re not allowed to say: I want this to be bought by a woman or by a man.”
According to research conducted by fintech company Klarna, around 50 percent of Gen-Z globally have purchased fashion outside of their gender identity, and around 70 percent of consumers say they are interested in buying gender-fluid fashion in the future, with younger generations leading the way.
Another survey found that Gen-Z respondents under 20 years of age are more likely to buy products that were not designed specifically for their gender, with 56 percent of the cohort stating they buy clothing that is not classified by gender at all. This viewpoint will likely become more prominent in the market given that Gen-Z will soon become the largest cohort of consumers globally. (In the US, Millennials outnumbered Baby Boomers in 2019; Gen-Z consumers are expected to surpass Millennials in 2036.)
The combination of shifting attitudes and pop culture influence has boosted consumer demand for gender-fluid fashion. On the fashion app Lyst, searches for terms including “genderless” and “gender neutral” increased 33 percent in the first half of 2021. In South Korea, the number of posts about genderless fashion more than doubled in 2020 on search engine Naver. This shift is already translating into sales, as can be witnessed in handbags, a category that traditionally caters to women. Luxury resale site The RealReal reported growth in interest for Birkin bags has grown twice as fast among men than women, and resale marketplace StockX said there is an even split of men and women among consumers shopping within its handbags section.
Luxury and designer fashion labels have embraced their own versions of gender-fluid fashion by casting androgynous models or dressing masculine models in feminine looks — and vice versa. In fashion capitals, some labels have explored gendered expectations in their recent casting and styling of runway shows: Raf Simons styled male models in dresses and nail polish, while Maison Margiela sent male and female models down the Paris runway in skirts and high-cut boots. Meanwhile in New York, emerging labels like Private Policy and Eckhaus Latta present gender-fluid collections each season with a diverse cast of models. The shift can also be seen in footwear: Christian Louboutin has released a capsule collection featuring high-heeled boots in men’s sizes.
Embracing gender-fluid fashion can be complex, especially when taking cultural differences across markets into consideration. Fashion leaders can consider creating diverse workforces to help strengthen their understanding of the discourse and ensure companies avoid tokenistic projects which may be perceived as lacking sincerity or authenticity. Brands and retailers could also train store associates to help customers shopping across gender lines find the right fit, with an understanding of how sizes translate across gendered items.
Aligning gender-fluid fashion with how consumers conceive of gender is critical. In the past, some brands have responded to changing norms by introducing a third, distinct “unisex” category, often with smaller assortments of oversized, minimalist clothing. A number of commentators have criticised these attempts for being “dull” or “baggy” and lacking in authenticity. While unisex fashion has been around since the 1960s, having a unisex line today may not be precise enough to serve younger generations’ perspectives of a gender spectrum.
As fashion leaders seek to meet the demand for gender-fluid fashion in 2023, they should consider how they may evolve their marketing, product design, store design and merchandising. One factor is fit, given that sizing conventions in the fashion market are established along gender lines. Even brands that have embraced gender-fluid clothing, like Gucci, still design some of those items based on women’s or men’s sizing conventions. Brands that commit to offering gender-fluid fashion can develop new sizing charts, which address a wider range of customers. Retailers with brick-and-mortar networks can also address challenges around fit by offering in-store alterations or made-to-measure designs.
Modernised merchandising techniques can help brands sell products to a wider range of customers. Online luxury boutique Ssense, for example, presents men’s pieces in its womenswear offering based on “cut, fit, size or styling,” according to Brigitte Chartrand, its senior director of womenswear buying.
Other brands have removed gender categories for all or parts of their collections. New York-based label Phluid Project does not segment its clothing by gender, and creates designs using a custom sizing model. Uniqlo designed a “Made For All” collection that was merchandised in with men’s and women’s collections, both online and in stores. Resale platform Depop does not filter its inventory by gender unless customers opt for it, and recommends products based on a shopper’s past purchases instead of gender categories. These strategies offer shoppers options to choose to navigate gendered categories as they wish, and consider more products to purchase than they might have otherwise.
Brands that decide to make more space for gender-fluid collections could start with small changes that target their most receptive customers first. Younger shoppers, especially those under 20 years old, are the most likely to seek out and shop across gender lines. Marketing can be adapted accordingly, through casting and campaign images. When Uniqlo announced its 2022 collaboration with Marni, for example, its campaign featured men and women wearing a mix of pieces from across the offering.
Some geographies may have a ready customer base, like North America, Europe, Japan and South Korea, where perceptions around gender identity in fashion are more nuanced.
Fashion companies can consider the many ways in which they already interact with customers seeking gender-fluid products and use those points of contact as learning opportunities. Brands that offer cosmetics and fragrances can also share learnings with their fashion teams. Gender-fluid fragrances represented 51 percent of all fragrance launches in 2018, up from 17 percent in 2010, and more than 50 percent of men today say they use facial cosmetics.
Customer focus groups or employee taskforces can help brands hone their understanding of what gender-fluid products their existing customers want to see. Collaborations are another way to test gender-fluid products, especially for larger brands that want to learn from smaller ones that have more experience catering to customers across gender lines. When Calvin Klein collaborated with Palace in 2022, for example, the collection of oversized denim, sweatshirts and underwear was not categorised by gender.
Similarly, brands can trial different merchandising approaches in stores and online, removing or mixing gender categories and observing how customers shop differently.
After building a foundation of knowledge and product testing, companies can progressively integrate gender-fluid products and strategies across their businesses. From the design process to major seasonal campaigns and store design, brands can tap a range of strategies to modernise their approaches and evolve ideas around gender norms. These shifts will likely only become more important as Gen-Z consumers mature — and their purchasing power grows.
This article first appeared in The State of Fashion 2023, an in-depth report on the global fashion industry, co-published by BoF and McKinsey & Company.
The seventh annual State of Fashion report by The Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company reveals the industry is heading for a global slowdown in 2023 as macroeconomic tensions and slumping consumer confidence chip away at 2022′s gains. Download the full report to understand the 10 themes that will define the industry and the opportunities for growth in the year ahead.
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