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Photo: The Phluid Project

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Gender-Free Shopping Is a Movement, Not a Trend

The Phluid Project, a new retail space in New York City, aims to prove just that.

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Jillian Brooks remembers shopping when she was 6, standing paralyzed between the boys and girls section of Sears, at the Natick Mall in Framingham, Massachusetts. She can still see the fluorescent lights refracting off the white tiles as her mother pulled flannel shirts and pairs of jeans from the boy’s section, waving them above her head. With a nod or shake of her head, Brooks stood in no man’s land and signaled her decision.

On days when she felt brave enough to enter the boy’s section, the pair created an alter ego. “Do you think Derrick would like this?” her mother would ask.

“I knew to a degree that I wasn’t allowed to be in the boys section unless I was shopping for a boy,” Brooks tells me, calling shopping for clothes one of her first memories of “total unalignment” (6 was also the year she wore a tuxedo to her cousin’s bar mitzvah). At 31, she looks back on the experience as having shaped her existence. “It was this gamification we made of this process that was actually quite confusing and sad for a young child, to be like, ‘I don’t know where to go,’” she says.

Now, Brooks is the content director for The Phluid Project, a gender-free retail space that celebrates its grand opening today in New York City. The 3,000-square-foot store is bathed in white, with large windows and high ceilings. Located a stone’s throw from the heart of Soho, it’s part retail, part “experiential platform,” aimed toward gender-nonconforming and genderfluid consumers. It’s self-purportedly the first gender-free retail space in the world.

What The Phluid Project is proposing is less about clothes — though there’s a lot of them — and more about creating an inclusive retail experience for gender-nonconforming customers. “I feel like I need my emotional support friends when I go shopping,” says Jacob Tobia, the 26-year-old author of the forthcoming memoir Sissy, who hosted The Phluid Project’s press preview. “Lord knows it already takes enough damn courage to try on a dress that you think might be a little too small. I don’t need to deal with gender courage on top of trying to figure out the self-esteem stuff that everyone experiences.”

At the soft opening on March 1, over the din of pop music, customized gender-free mannequins sported unisex basics from brands like Levi’s and Soulland, mixed with edgier offerings from Gypsy Sport, Skingraft, and the fetish-inspired latex of MEAT. As part of its mission of being relatively affordable for young shoppers, pieces stayed under $300. Paired with The Phluid Project’s own line of T-shirts and hoodies, emblazoned with slogans like “Stronger Together” and “One World,” the mannequins evoked a colorful squad of masculine-leaning — skirts were scarce, dresses absent — downtown millennials on the way to a protest.

Also for sale were Bitchstix lip balm (whose proceeds help support survivors of domestic assault), tarot cards, organic beauty products from Context Skin, and art books like Gay Gotham and Mario Testino’s Undressed (an interesting choice in light of recent allegations). In a space designated for showcasing different artists, prints and T-shirts from Jeremyville were displayed under a series of his portraits, large black-and-white faces “based off characters real and imagined,” on sale for $1,200.

There’s a community space, in the form of bleachers covered with abstract shapes by the artist R.J. Raizk, tucked beside a bar selling coffee and kombucha (they’re working on finding the right ethically minded food vendor). Past the gender-neutral bathroom hides a selfie nook, and downstairs, in what was once a kitchen, sits an office space that groups can rent, free of charge, for meetings. A series of monthly talks, with scheduled themes like “our relationship to earth,” “gay pride,” and “balance in body,” is in the works. All in the service of, as The Phluid Project’s mission statement puts it, “challenging boundaries with humanity.”

Of course, gender-fluid fashion isn’t new. For years, designers like Rick Owens, Eckhaus Latta, Rad Hourani, and Telfar, to name a few, have been making clothes that reflect the “Gender Revolution,” as exclaimed on a National Geographic cover last year. This revolution has trickled down to big-box retailers, who’ve attracted criticism for conflating gender neutral apparel with baggy androgyny. Last year Zara released a line dubbed “Ungendered” and H&M launched the capsule collection “United Denim,” built on the ethos that “his and hers clothing are one in the same, blurring borders and challenging norms.”

Founder of The Phluid Project Rob Smith
Photo: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

But The Phluid Project is positioning itself as a movement, not a seasonal trend. The store’s founder, Rob Smith, is a 53-year-old fashion executive who’s worked at Macy’s, Victoria’s Secret, Levi’s, and Nike. He’s handsome and conventionally masculine, with slicked-back silver hair and a face that exudes the warmth of a firm handshake. Against the backdrop of corporate America, Smith describes himself as “the rebellious one. The one challenging everything.”

Much of what encapsulates The Phluid Project’s mission can be found in the store’s name, which Smith explained to the attendees at February’s press preview: “‘Phluid’ because everything is fluid in life, in this space, specifically gender. The idea of looking at gender is fluid, my life is fluid. ‘PH’ is because of balance. I like the idea of balance, especially between masculine and feminine, that balance creates a harmony and I think about nirvana, I think about embracing that balance in this space. And ‘Project’ because it’s a work in progress, and the only way for me to survive as a Virgo perfectionist was to understand that it doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s a collaborative effort.”

The project was born out of the disenchantment Smith felt after a 30-year career in corporate fashion. Two years ago, feeling “pretty broken,” Smith went to Burning Man. “They say not to quit your job when you get back,” he says, “but I quit my job when I got back.”

Last March, Smith booked a one-way ticket to Peru, where he entered a two-week ayahuasca retreat in the Amazon. “Some nights were the darkest, darkest experiences I could’ve ever imagined,” he tells me. “Tarantulas were crawling over me and snakes were coming down my neck — not actually, but there was a tarantula in my room.”

Before each of the seven ceremonies, Smith was encouraged to focus on an intention. One night he thought about his life’s mission. To his bewilderment, whenever he asked for guidance, the shaman advised, “Lead with your heart, not with your head.” But this night the message crystallized. “These waves just kept coming to me: This is what you’re supposed to do. Create this space,” he says. “The name came to me, it all came to me in this wave and in the morning, as the sun was coming up, I knew exactly what I was going to do with my life, which was create this space.”

Photo: The Phluid Project

Back in New York, Smith took out a loan (the business is independently funded, without sponsors or corporate support) and began gutting the recently closed Brazilia Cafe, spending around $40,000 on renovations. He hired a branding company to create The Phluid Project’s branding deck, manifesto, and purpose statement. A self-identified “cis gay man,” he began assembling a mostly queer and gender-nonconforming team solely through referrals from friends, which he says has created “this really powerful energy.” He also hired a diversity and inclusion trainer, to develop the store’s code of conduct.

Smith’s favorite book is The Four Agreements, the Toltec text that’s been featured on Oprah. He has its four tenets — “Be impeccable with your word. Don’t take anything personally. Don’t make assumptions. Always do your best.” — tattooed on his arm, calling it his morning prayer. He sees his role at The Phluid Project as the conductor of an orchestra. “You never pick up an instrument, but you can get the violin section to do amazing stuff, the horns and the drums, and together it creates a beautiful symphony,” he says. “I’m not great at anything other than getting good people to surround me.”

Last summer, when Vogue put Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik on its cover and called them #GenderfluidGoals, queer Twitter erupted, accusing the magazine of appropriating the work of trans and gender-nonconforming activists. I ask Smith how he would respond to the possible perception that he’s capitalizing on a demographic to which he doesn’t identify.

“If I were a young, genderfluid person, I would be like, ‘What’s this guy’s deal? Is he trying to capitalize on an opportunity?’ Absolutely not. But I would look at me skeptically. I would say, ‘What’s his story?’ and that’s why I will tell my story as much as I can, so people will see it is authentic and nothing more,” he says. “I guess I would say, use me as a voice, use me as a vessel to communicate and share ideas. I think I’m pretty selfless, and I’m a good listener, and I take a lot of ideas and process them and give my best to serve the community.”

Ultimately, one of The Phluid Project’s greatest challenges will be not only keeping up with a conversation that’s happening in real time, but leading it. There’s already been one misstep. At the press preview, guests were encouraged to write their name and PGP (preferred gender pronoun) on a sticker.

“That’s so over,” a visitor to the store said the next day. “Now it’s just GP.”

“It’s not preferred,” Smith remembers thinking, nodding his head. “It just is.”


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