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"The great gender blur," Ruth La Ferla called it in the New York Times, writing about the fall collections coming out of the most recent New York Fashion Week. "That deliberate erosion on the runways of a once rigid demarcation between conventionally feminine and masculine clothes." It was a season of girls in roomy pants and coats, guys in slit shirtdress combos, and runways populated with both male and female models walking the same show. She pointed to lines like Public School, Hood by Air, and Telfar for examples of gender-neutral styles.
The New York City-born and Liberia-raised Telfar Clemens describes his namesake line of minimalist denim, leather, and thigh-high leg warmers as "a fusion of fashion and functionality." He's happy to leave further analysis to the critics, though. "I feel like if something looks good on you, it’s for you to wear," he says. "I've always felt this when it comes to my personal style and it’s what I want to achieve with Telfar."
"Guys like girls' jeans as much as men’s jeans," says Rox Brown, a personal shopper and stylist at VFiles. "But sportswear made unisex a thing. If you think about sweats, hoodies, leggings underneath shorts—that’s a sports thing. That opened the gate." Louis Terline, the cofounder of Oak, agrees: "It happened when the sweatpant became a fetish object for designers, when they began playing with the notion of the T-shirt."
But gender-neutral fashion doesn’t begin and end with a futuristic take on sportswear. Look at the male and female dandies at Gucci last month. It's not unusual to see men in women’s lines like Céline (think Kanye West at Coachella in 2011), and women have long been encouraged to dabble in men’s (Hedi Slimane-era Dior Homme, anyone?). Men’s clothes are "becoming more feminine. Culturally we're in a phase where we're leading towards that. It’s becoming more mainstream," says Nik Kacy, who identifies as genderfluid and designs traditionally masculine shoes in an inclusive spectrum of sizes, in the same vein of lines like Sharpe Suiting and St. Harridan.
Over the last several years, the broader cultural shift in how we view gender has also picked up speed in the fashion industry.
In fact, fashion has a fairly rich history of experimenting with, and even embracing, androgyny, from the suiting favored by Katherine Hepburn all the way up through decidedly non-girly grunge (both the original and rehabilitated versions). Over the last several years, the broader cultural shift in how we view gender has also picked up speed in the fashion industry, where they like to think they’re on the forefront of these things. Trans models like Lea T and Andreja Pejic have both broken barriers and helped spark wider discussions of gender fluidity. It’s a conversation that's ongoing.
"We have been engaged in this dialogue for years," says Terline. "That's always been part of our buying and designing discussions." The store he started with Jeff Madalena is the kind of retailer that specializes in drapey, all-black-everything looks that both a male and female clientele enjoy. Their locations in New York and Los Angeles are divided into men’s and women’s sections, chiefly to avoid size confusion, with some items are merchandised on both sides of the divide. "Sometimes the difference between men’s and women’s is just in sizing or arbitrary function like pocket size," he says, noting that he often sees men shopping in the women's area.
Terline notes that there are really two aspects to unisex dressing: "the idea of men's clothes on women and vice versa, and then garments that are mid-space." Indeed some designers, like Baja East, don’t bother to differentiate between genders. Then there's Acne, APC, and Assembly New York, who have all made virtually identical styles in slightly different cuts for men and women for years. Personnel of New York, a boutique in the West Village, has its online shop divided into men, women, and "everyone."
One designer Personnel carries in that neutral zone is 69, the Los Angeles-based line of cocoon dresses and tunics in cotton, linen, and denim modeled by both men and women (and worn by the likes of Rihanna). "The lines are blurring," says the designer of 69. The brand and its designer take unisex very seriously: "In an attempt to embody the idea of a genderless non-demographic brand, I as the designer choose to remain anonymous both by name and gender. Please do not share these details."
It turns out selling genderless clothing to guys hasn’t been all that difficult for 69. "Everyone can relate to denim, everyone can relate to neutral shapes. It's a little Japanese," the designer explains. Women will wear the brand's tunics with leggings or as a dress with bare legs and men will pair the same thing with pants and sneakers and maybe throw a jacket over it: "I haven't found it a challenge for men to buy my clothes at all."
In New York, the line is largely sold in stores that house both men’s and women’s apparel; in LA, mostly in women’s stores. It helps that 69 started to refer to what might be called a dress as a "lounger." So who buys it? "I know exactly the sort of, I don't want to say demographic, but moms in Silver Lake and dudes—just like fashionable dudes—buy it," says the designer. "A fashionable bro will wear it. I know that sounds so vague, but that's who it is."
Will Thompson is counting the number of items he owns from 69. At least half a dozen, he relays over the phone after a stop at a Patrik Ervell sample sale. Ervell’s luxe basics satisfy the classic side of his style, but 69? "The pieces are so strong, I try not to pair them with anything too crazy—they’re such a statement themselves," says Thompson, 25, who works at Opening Ceremony, which carries the line. He’ll pair a fringe jacket from last season with a hoodie and some jeans and sneakers, or he’ll wear their tall tee (some might call it a T-shirt dress) "by itself with a nice turtleneck underneath and some bright shoes." As 69’s designer explains, "It's all in how it's marketed to people. If you build it they will come."
That’s the approach that British department store Selfridges is taking with its new Agender pop-up, which it has created with interior designer Faye Toogood. (Toogood also has a unisex outerwear line called Collection 002 that comes with a manifesto celebrating a "liberating mode that is available to all, male and female.") The idea behind Agender is less that the clothing itself is androgynous, but rather that the pop-up takes on a neutral approach to traditional department store merchandising: clothes from both the men’s and women’s seasonal buys are being sold alongside one another without traditional gender cues.
"Many of our female customers don’t think twice about shopping the menswear floor and, increasingly, we see men buying women’s ready-to-wear and accessories, too," says Linda Hewson, Selfridges' creative director. "Menswear and womenswear are mixing together in a really effortless way. The autumn 2015 men’s shows felt like the movement's real tipping point to becoming something meaningful and permanent."
Culturally speaking, gender-neutral dressing is ultimately about changing entrenched notions of what is masculine and feminine. "Body types and identity types are more fluid than fashion has ever discussed," says Oak's Terline. "It’s coming from this place of a broader diversity in general."