The shifting landscape of gender seems to be one of the defining social issues of our time. In many developed markets, there are signs of increased respect and understanding of people reporting a non-binary gender identity, and more and more people reporting that they no longer adhere to traditional concepts of gender. Gender norms are shifting, and society along with it.
A million Americans are now thought to identify as nonbinary. Several high-profile celebrities are advocating their own gender fluidity, which has helped drive uptake of the they/them pronoun in public discourse.
Some brands, including Facebook and big banks, have taken steps to accommodate different genders and pronouns. There have also been moves at administrative levels to improve the way gender identity is formalised, such as the UK’s decision to make it cheaper to change your legal gender, although there’s still quite some way to go on this in most countries.
There’s evidence that younger generations are particularly open to the idea of non-binary gender identities. Half of very young consumers – those in their teens and early twenties – agree that traditional gender roles and binary gender labels are outdated.
Consumers under 40 agree in even higher numbers. One study in the US found around a quarter of the youngest consumers identify as nonbinary; only 7.4% of those over 55 identified this way. The same study found that younger people tended to have more complex gender identities.
The oldest people studied were the most likely to have a male-to-female gender identity whilst younger respondents had more varied identities. This study also identified that people tended to discover their gender identity at an increasingly younger age.
Fashion tends to be driven by the social and political culture of the younger generation of consumers. It’s perhaps because younger consumers are increasingly inclined to challenge binary concepts of gender (and in turn, embrace gender fluidity) that we’re seeing that attitude reflected in fashion trends. While non-binary clothing may not appeal to all consumers, it’s likely to be highly influential across fashion in general.
Children’s clothing retailers in particular need to pay attention to shifting attitudes to gender because it’s younger consumers that are becoming parents. As new generations of consumers start to buy children’s clothing and toys, their gender approach starts to become increasingly important to childrenswear retailers.
A move to mainstream
Retail and fashion aren’t unaccustomed to gender-related pressures and social campaigns. For years there have been ongoing campaigns for toy stores to drop gender-based sorting of toys and for kids’ clothing stores to step away from pink/blue dichotomies and offer dinosaur t-shirts to any kid that wants one, regardless of their gender.
Brands are now starting to see interest in adult clothing that moves away from gender binary divisions, and it’s becoming more mainstream. It seems that, unlike asymmetric hemlines or even skinny jeans, this could be a fashion movement that really endures.
Gender-neutral clothing has been available for a long time but it’s tended to be pretty niche or high-concept. 30 years ago, high-end designers such as Yohji Yamamoto offered what was then called ‘unisex’ clothing for a fairly well-off clientele. These days things are different.
For starters, we tend to talk about gender-neutral, gender-nonconforming, or gender-inclusive clothing rather than unisex clothing. The brands that are embracing gender fluidity through this way of dressing tend to be more mainstream and possibly a bit younger than in the past.
The audience isn’t a small number of wealthy architects based in Central London or New York who admire utilitarian Japanese design. This time around, it’s pretty mainstream brands such as ASOS and Abercrombie & Fitch and via partnerships with huge retailers such as Target.
It’s also more colourful. In the past, unisex clothing has often tended to be colour-neutral as well as gender-neutral, whilst the new generation of gender-inclusive clothing takes all the colours of the LGTBQ+ flag and runs with it.
While there’s still gender-inclusive clothing that continues that colourless, utilitarian approach that’s characterised unisex clothing in the past, this tends to be at the higher-end. The gender-inclusive trends that are hitting the mainstream – and sold by mainstream retailers – tend to be colour blocked or multi-coloured.
Some of the newer brands offering non-binary clothing include Wildfang, Kirrin Finch, and Britain’s own GFW. These brands all tend to share the same characteristics – they tell a good story based on the founders’ own experiences of gender fluidity and feeling excluded from the fashion world.
They are strikingly inclusive, using models of all ages, abilities, shapes and sizes (and of course, gender identities). They emphasise fit and communicate this well to an audience that’s struggled in the past with finding clothing that reflects their identity but also fits properly. Often they take an innovative approach to describing cuts and sizing. GFW offers different styles of shirts based on whether you have an apple or pear-shaped body, for example.
There’s also a strong overlap between modern gender-inclusive clothing and ethical, sustainable consumption preferences. The new generation of gender diverse fashion brands also boast of ethical working practices, and improved sustainability approaches such as plastic-free buttons, recycled polyester fabrics and responsible dyes.
There’s less emphasis on disposable fashion and more on fit and durability. High-end fashion designer Riley studio even offers a lifetime guarantee on their garments. The new, smaller brands communicate their beliefs well and their audience tends to respond passionately.
For bigger, more established brands trying to get in on the gender-diverse clothing scene, it’s hard to replicate that type of community and that type of passion.
Perhaps that’s why gender-inclusive fashion has been so successful at penetrating the mainstream. New entrant brands that have popped up in the last few years have really shown mainstream retail how to effectively cover modern consumer passions such as sustainability, inclusivity, and community-building.
They’ve shown real innovation in areas such as offering customers a better fit. They’ve put making the customer feel accepted and cherished right at the heart of the customer proposition and they may even manage to engage customers who previously felt written off by the fashion industry.
Hope for the industry
With the retail industry experiencing crisis-level challenges, perhaps this offers a new direction that could give hope to struggling brands. Retail is currently being tested on a number of levels. For starters, there’s the pandemic and associated lockdowns which have led to a complete loss of footfall.
Even before the coronavirus, there were myriad operating difficulties including low margins, strong competition, high rents, the rise of eCommerce and the challenges associated with catering to fickle, demanding customers.
What opportunity is there for clothing retailers in this new era of non-binary clothing?
Perhaps the real hope is that this is the seismic shift that could revitalise the fashion industry and define the era. We’ve not seen a truly massive rethink of fashion for some time now. If the non-binary trend heralded a new fashion movement as big as the move to power dressing in the eighties, we’d see customers making a major overhaul of their wardrobes. This would inject significant cash into a struggling industry just at the point when it desperately needs a flood of customers into stores.
A less enormous but still very welcome effect could be that the new trend simply brings new interest in clothing from neglected customers. If enough consumers feel inspired to adopt the new, fairly radical change in the way they dress, this could increase sales.
If retailers can bring back consumers that previously felt fashion wasn’t for them, they’re essentially finding new audiences. There could be a large untapped body of customers who’d previously given up in despair at not being able to get clothing that reflects their needs or fits their body shape. If they feel energised to re-engage with the industry, it could give a much-needed boost in these cruel times.
The fashion industry is one that’s perpetually positive and always looks to the future. Whilst change is a constant in fashion, it’s the pace of this change that can be part of the problem for this industry.
We’ve already noticed that the brands that thrive are those that are the most adaptive. That’s why some of the worst casualties of the recent tumultuous times have been the least flexible, traditional retailers.
This has particularly included those with a heavy commitment to expensive retail space and a less high-profile web offering, such as department stores. Brands that now find themselves with a rigidly gender-segregated offering may suddenly find themselves looking dated and may also struggle to rapidly pivot to adapt to a new gender approach.
Brands may also find themselves confronted with a choice whether to risk alienating established customers by reaching out to ones with a radically different approach to their bodies and their identity.
Attitudes to gender identity, and gender fluidity, in particular, can be highly divisive. While younger customers seem the most inclined to embrace gender diversity, older customers may not relate to these issues. Even if they don’t have strong social views on gender identity, many consumers are set in their ways when it comes to shopping along gender-segregated lines and using sizing they’ve come to understand.
With many brands trying desperately to cling onto established consumers it’s a real risk trying to retain these while still adapting to new ideas about society.
Whilst there’s always hope that a major new trend could revitalise retail in these challenging times, it could also add further pressure to an industry that’s already struggling. If gender-diverse clothing turns into a major trend, it’s likely that not all retailers will be equally affected.
As usual, it will favour the most nimble operators. It’s likely to be most advantageous to those with a younger custom base, while those with a more mature customer may struggle to know how to keep up with the times whilst still serving their base.
Although consumers in Western markets are showing interest in gender fluidity and associated social issues, many markets are nowhere near this mindset. Gender diversity is a much harder sell in more socially conservative markets and may simply not be an appealing proposition for many customers.
This may be true for some Asian and Middle Eastern markets that are otherwise open to fashion trends. In such markets, gender-neutral clothing may only be of interest to a small number of consumers.
But things change fast in modern societies. Even markets that may seem currently hostile to questions of gender identity may change those attitudes rapidly. Western brands that are penetrating socially conservative markets may find they need to adapt their offering to take into account local attitudes to gender expression. They’ll need to take an approach to gender expression that chimes with that culture at that particular point in time.
These last few years, it seems as though retail keeps getting thrown curve balls by an ever-more challenging operating environment. The rise in conversations surrounding gender fluidity and gender-diverse dressing is just another symptom of fast societal change being expressed by changing consumer needs.
Retailers can sometimes benefit from these challenges by adapting more effectively than their competitors to the opportunities they bring.
Some retailers are blessed with particular advantages – brands with a younger more progressive consumer base may be able to adapt to these changes more easily. Some will find the challenges more onerous than others. Inevitably there will be winners and losers as retail scrambles to adapt to societal change in attitudes to gender identity.