A New Wave Of Gender-Fluid Brands Are Changing The Way We Think About Fashion
Meet the binary-blurring labels to know.
Maria Borromeo was incentivized to launch her gender-fluid fashion brand, ClHu (pronounced ‘clue’), after several frustrating and ill-fated shopping endeavors. She wasn’t the one leaving stores empty-handed, though: It was her daughter, who identifies as gender neutral, that was struggling to find clothing. “It was extremely challenging for her to find items she felt comfortable in, that were well-made, that fit her, and allowed her to feel like herself,” Borromeo tells TZR. “Witnessing my own child’s courage to reject gender norms in a society that pushes back against [that] was deeply inspiring. And I couldn’t stop wondering why we continue to force these outdated gender binaries on a generation that doesn’t believe in them; They just want to feel comfortable and free to express themselves.”
Borromeo, an industry veteran who’s held tenure at Thakoon and Alexander McQueen, felt galvanized to remedy the dilemma her daughter and countless other folks face when shopping for clothes that don’t reflect a binary understanding of gender. However, “after spending over two decades in an industry built on excess and very little regard for the grossly harmful effects it has on the environment,” Borromeo was reluctant to contribute to the ongoing cycle of overconsumption. She wanted to go about things differently — and that she did.
Borromeo launched ClHu — a quippy abbreviation of the brand’s tagline and foundational pillar, ‘Clothes for Humans’ — in March of 2022 with a 28-piece collection featuring items like cargo pants, gorpcore-esque utility skirts, and free-flowing tank dresses. She also came up with a direct-to-consumer model that minimizes waste, as well as an intuitive color-based size scheme that provides customers with the freedom to explore personal fit preferences. (“It’s pretty simple — a horizontal line with colors that move through the color spectrum from left to right as the size increases from a youth 10-12 to an adult XL,” she explains.)
Perhaps most unique of all, though, is ClHu’s complete lack of gendered labeling. “We don’t refer to gender at all in the shopping experience. If you find something you like, if it fits you, if it makes you feel good about yourself, it’s for you — no restrictions,” Borromeo explains. “And if we do need to refer to gender for the sake of clarity in conversation, we use the term ‘all gender’ because clothes are genderless by nature and, therefore, for all genders.”
The fashion industry at large has long segregated clothing into two groupings — menswear and womenswear. Thus, “all-gender” concepts such as ClHu’s certainly are revolutionary, and, for those with curious minds, beget the question of: Who does a binary categorization of clothing actually serve? After all, shouldn’t the consumer — the one spending their hard-earned cash and taking the time, effort, and energy to shop — decide which clothing is ‘for them?’
With the newly-launched gender-fluid label, Sans Gêne, founder Caroline McCaul gives consumers the agency to make those individual fashion decisions. Shoppers peruse from a selection of sleek, unisex items like black boiler suits with contrasting silver and athluxe nylon tracksuits — garments that feel, well, very cool and make it implicitly clear that Sans Gêne (French for ‘without constraints’) utilizes an open, binary-blurring design perspective. “Celebrating humanity was an important concept for me to implement into the brand,” McCaul tells TZR, explaining how this ethos also manifests through her brand’s philanthropic partnerships with organizations like the National Alliance On Mental Illness.
Furthermore, the Sans Gêne founder takes great care to recognize gender non-conforming consumers as more than just members of a growing market, but as individuals with fashion wants and needs. McCaul herself is not the one designing Sans Gêne’s offerings — that would be Parsons graduate Victoria Zito — but she was heavily involved in the creative process for the brand’s first ever Pre-Fall 2022 collection. “I wanted to add multifunctional aspects to the garments that would promote individuality,” she explains, referencing modular garments like jackets with removable sleeves, pants with zip-off legs, and a jacket that boasts a backpack function. “We wanted the wearer to have a sense of freedom with the clothing, a sense of playfulness, and feel empowered through personalizing each garment to make it their own.”
With so many socially-constructed boundaries already dividing us, McCaul doesn’t want to unnecessarily label people with her clothes. “In reality, we’re much more similar than different,” she says. “At the same time, though, we’re uniquely different with flaws and imperfections.” It’s here in this “beautiful dichotomy” of commonalities and differences, of unity and individualism, that McCaul wants Sans Gêne to exist so its consumers feel emboldened to define themselves however they please, whether that’s going along with or against the gender binary.
Michelle Tolini Finamore, a fashion historian and curator, says this modern sentiment which allows consumers to utilize fashion for their individualized expression is very reflective of 2022’s understanding of gender. “Contemporary designers and the wearers of their work are proposing that style is rooted in one’s own definition of personal identity and gender expression rather than solely the public perception of one’s identity,” she explains. “For Millennials and Gen Z, gender fluidity is not a subcultural or alternative style, but a rethinking of the concept of gender. Many recent surveys estimate that 20-50% of contemporary young people self-identify as something other than strictly male or female,” reports Finamore, who heavily researched when curating a 2019 exhibition for Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts titled ‘Gender Bending Fashion.’ “What we are experiencing now [in terms of rebuking the gender binary] is of historic importance and I firmly believe we will look back at this time as a paradigm-shifting moment.”
Joseph Altuzarra’s ALTU, for one, actually leans into the concept of labeling to celebrate the joyful potential to be had through gender exploration and fluidity. As per a press release from the nascent label, ALTU is “a genderful brand that encompasses the plurality of an individual’s presented identity, and encourages positivity within the spectrum of gender presentations and expressions.” (You may recognize the term ‘genderful’ from candle company Boy Smells, who’ve long refuted the binary through their masculine-feminine fragrances.) With pieces like trousers that boast sewn-on miniskirts, tank tops with subversive undertones, and cutout dresses (one of which singer Troye Sivan wore to the 2021 Met Gala), ALTU “encourages the ‘trying on’ of identities as fluidly as we do our clothing.”
While gender-fluid fashion may feel incredibly demonstrative of today, it’s not a novel phenomena and, as Finamore points out, should not be regarded as such. “There were people, and designers, challenging traditional ‘male’ and ‘female’ clothing dating back much further than the 20th century when gender roles were firmly circumscribed,” the historian explains. For more modern examples, though, she invites you to peruse the work of Paul Poiret in the 1910s, Rudi Gernreich in the 1960s, Rei Kawakubo in the 1980s, and Walter Van Beirendonck in the 2000s. In addition, Finamore emphasizes that the “stories behind gender-bending and gender-neutral trends are often forged by queer and nonbinary individuals, many of them individuals of color,” so it’s crucial to approach understanding gender-fluid fashion with a holistic narrative in mind.
Looking ahead, though, the future of gender-fluid fashion is exciting to say the least. “On a very macro level, the world is experiencing a cultural sea-change,” says ClHu’s Borromeo. “And as a brand born in this time, we have an incredible opportunity to be more, to do better, to challenge traditional models and stereotypes and to further de-gender fashion for a generation who doesn’t think about clothes as binary.”
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