In fashion, trans and gender nonconforming people are often the inspiration but rarely the intended client.
Things are changing rapidly: Brands are incorporating genderless designs and non-binary models on runways and in stores, in campaign images and on social media. But while there’s no denying the positive impact of that inclusive messaging, the work doesn’t stop there.
After all, what’s so good about a gender campaign if actual non-compliant customers can’t get into the clothes? Many clothes labeled as genderless are still sold in stores and on websites built around men’s and women’s departments. And the sizing of these items tends to be limiting and sometimes prohibitive for the customer making purchases across the track.
Binary size charts are challenging, as the customer has to create their own size equivalencies while shopping, usually based on generic conversion charts that don’t always apply directly to brands. Gender-specific fit binary features like bust, hip and waist measurements make this all the more confusing for shoppers.
All of which can make shopping across the gender track an overwhelming experience. Personally, I shop more in the women’s clothing section, although out of frustration I now mainly buy brands that are genderqueer from the beginning, such as Phlemuns and Stefano Pilati’s Random Identities. By shopping for clothes that fit all genders, I don’t have to shop with the worry that the pieces I buy won’t fit my body.
If brands are serious about creating a gender-inclusive industry, they must commit to offering degendered sizing and proposing alternatives to cutting their products. Few do, even as the number of labels marketing genderless customers is growing.
Last year Gucci introduced Mx, a non-binary shopping section on its website. When you click on the Mx tab, you are greeted by the following quote: “The Gucci collections intend to deconstruct preconceived binaries and question how these concepts relate to our bodies. Celebrating self-expression in the name of all gender equality, the Chamber presents Mx. But when a customer clicks on an item, they are redirected to the binary part of the website and the binary size charts. What about this deconstructs preconceived binaries? If the point of Mx is to create a safer space for non-gender compliant customers to shop (as it should be), why is the focus only on aesthetics and not on size? In the end, what matters is not how the clothes look on a sample size model, but how they look on our bodies.
Regarding his new “generous” Altu collection, Joseph Altuzarra told Vogue that each style in the offering has undergone several adaptations to ensure it works for “all genres, different sizes and different shapes”. The brand site offers a comprehensive, easy-to-read sizing chart that translates binary sizing into branded sizing and offers measurements and an image guide for each piece and suggests buyers to call or email customer service if they need more help (all great things). But the sizes for the leather pants – the hero pieces of the collection – stop at 34 American men, and the lookbook offers little or no diversity of sizes. It is disconcerting to imagine how this serves “different sizes and different shapes”.
The industry’s struggles with sizing inclusiveness extend to brands’ reliance on hoodies and knitwear to convey gender-neutral fashion. Heron Preston’s collection for Calvin Klein is a recent example, consisting of all the shirt except a pair of cotton twill trousers. The jerseys easily adapt to our bodies and different sizes. These will always sell. But what is the purpose of a genderless offer if it consists mainly of cut and sewn knitwear? What is a hoodie that defies binary gender norms about?
This oversimplification of fluidity in fashion has a long history, including the “his and hers” craze of the 1980s and 1990s, when brands sold “unisex” items marketed through attractive couples. As language has evolved, and so has marketing, little has changed with real clothes. These efforts often feel more like merchandising strategies than projects aimed at serving the community. When creating these collections, brands need to consider whether they are designing for us or simply assigning us products.
Some bodies have bulges and reliefs where others don’t, and as designers we are trained to identify and design around them, to accentuate or de-emphasize them through placement of cuts and seams. Being gender inclusive doesn’t mean cutting the same pair of pants into two extra sizes or just throwing in a series of androgynous-looking sample size models. It is about considering the nuances of the different bodies and designing for them.
This requires more time, knowledge and a larger budget. It requires expertise, usually that of a person who would be the target customer. But brands could see a return on their investments if gender non-compliant and / or trans customers are approached correctly. Fashion design is not just about fantasy and a great mood board; at the product level, it’s about solving problems. It’s about targeting a person and designing for their needs.
For example, when designing pants, consider: where does the expected increase on different bodies fall on the spectrum? Should the horse be shaped to include ease for the different genitals? Should pants be cut mid-rise or sit high hip versus a natural waist to work around bodies that are more shapely than those that are straighter?
When designing tops, should the armholes and shoulders be easy to account for the variation in bicep and shoulder width? Are pleats necessary for all styles of “womenswear”? 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 in clothes.
A skirt is just a skirt until a designer labels it as women’s clothing and a merchandiser assigns it to a female customer. When brands create separate third options and lines, they are other gender non-conforming people by design. It’s like saying, not everything is for you.
Brands should think about the fashion we dream of, and the fashion we already wear and work on our bodies. Chances are we’re already looking at a product in your assortment, but we’re not buying it because we know it’s not made for our body. Ultimately, the job is not to add separate options that classify and divide us, but to close the gap that limits all of us to experience fashion on our own terms.
Brands overcomplicate gender fluidity in fashion by feeling the need to find new products on the market. Perhaps the solution is to simply expand the current offerings in terms of sizing and cutting and let the customer choose.
José Criales-Unzueta is a bag designer for a large accessible luxury brand in New York
The views expressed in the editorial pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The business of fashion.
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