As long as style has existed, it has served as a form of expression and a way to connect peoples and communities. But in the modern fashion world, it has been a sometimes slow path to visibility for many brands in the LGBTQ+ community, be it on the runway or behind the scenes. Recently though, a number of young, emerging, gender-neutral brands have begun to push back on the gender-conforming ways of dress that have historically limited exploration in fashion, on both a personal and political level.
According to a runway diversity report from The Fashion Spot, the Fall/Winter 2020 casting of models who openly identify as transgender or non-binary dipped to 21, down from 46 the previous season. Major fast-fashion retailers, from H&M to ASOS, have launched their own gender-neutral lines as well. But, the fashion industry has rightfully been criticized at times for tackling identity and community as profitable trend, without much thought into what it actually means to create truly inclusive, genderless clothes. For starters, offering baggy, masculine-leaning T-shirts and sweats — as many brands have done over the last few years — does not necessarily equate to inclusivity.
Thankfully, there are a number of emerging and established brands out today that are validating queer and gender-fluid customers, along with those who are looking to hold steadfast to the notion that lace, or mesh, or a good ballet flat isn't reserved for just one gender.
Ahead, four labels that were built off of one common belief: Clothing is for everyone.
Emerging Gender Neutral Brand: 69
Denim is universal, and so is Los Angeles-based 69, a brand made for quite literally everyone. Named after the anonymous designer’s Cancer astrological sign — and nothing more — the brand has garnered a committed following since its launch in 2011, thanks largely in part to its contrarian, “non-demographic” perspective and roomy denim garments. Prices range from under $100 to accessories to 400 or more for outerwear, and sizes range from XS to XL, with measurements listed on the site (some pieces are listed as one size fits all).
Its e-commerce site is organized by item category instead of gender, and models range in age, race, and gender-identity, leaving no room to question what it believes in, or who it makes clothes for. “We’ve always felt that mainstream fashion fails to accurately represent the world we’re living in. For years, you were only seeing specific body types, ages, and gender presentations in campaigns and on runways,” says 69’s anonymous founder. “Our work mirrors the reality of our world, we show everyone.”
The representation doesn’t just stop at models or imagery, with the inherit design of each 69 piece taking on a non-gendered approach. So inherent in fact, that it’s not even thought about. “Our identities fall outside of the traditional spectrum, and we wanted our clothes to reflect that. 69 is a meditation on denim, the most popular, utilitarian fabric on the planet,” says the brand's founder.
The brand likes to make big clothing, which becomes apparent at first look at any of its offerings. And while it is an aesthetic choice, there are also a slew of extremely practical reasons for the larger than life look, including room to move and dance, hide or hold onto items, and mask sexual characteristics and gender markers. In that way, each 69 piece is its own safe place.
“Our goal is to outfit all bodies and spaces in it. To take that most humble fabric and build entire worlds from it. To drape the planet in blue twill.”
Emerging Gender Neutral Brand: Eckhaus Latta
Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta launched their experimental, gender-irrelevant fashion brand in 2011. In the years since, they've won over the fashion industry with their beautiful, wearable garments and genuine, natural propensity toward gender neutrality.
Eckhaus Latta has never made a big deal about the very characteristics that make it the brand it is today. For starters, the idea of gender — challenging it or otherwise — wasn’t even something the designers cared or thought of much in the early days. Both lovers of vintage, they’ve leaned on a slide scale in their designs, presenting largely unisex offerings season after season. The brand also categorizes its e-commerce site by garment instead of gender, and stands firm in the fact that it would never offer separate women's and men's collections or shows. Sizes for the brand run according to more traditional measurements, with bottoms in a run from 25-36 and tops ranging from XS to XL. Price-wise, the brand hits squarely in the contemporary space, ranging in the low hundreds to just around $1,000.
Another running definite in the Eckhaus Latta camp is the decision to cast a worldview of non-models in each and every runway show and campaign — spanning race, gender, age, and size — largely made up of Eckhaus and Latta’s own friends, family, and acquaintances with “magnetic” energy. The brand is a story of instinct and community, of real people who wear clothes.
“It’s not necessarily about making this man into the image of a woman. Sometimes it’s having people who are gender fluid or trans come in, and we can dress them towards what their gender is and how they represent themselves,” Eckhaus previously shared in an interview with Ssense. “It’s a beautiful thing to be able to partake in the acknowledgement. There isn’t just a strict idea of a man and a strict idea of a woman. That’s not interesting to us. It’s really thinking about where are the spaces you can play with your gender.”
Emerging Gender Neutral Brand: Telfar
Telfar Clemens has been designing unisex clothing since 2002, with the launch of his eponymous label in 2005, making him a studied veteran within the fashion world. Finally getting the recognition he and the brand deserves in 2017, Telfar took home the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award that catapulted the business into the consciousness of every coastal cool kid from Los Angeles to New York. The win also put a spotlight on Telfar’s dedication to diversity and inclusion within the industry, not shying away from uncomfortable discussions around race, gender and class, probably best exemplified by the brand’s motto: “It's not for you — it's for everyone.”
The people in the world — regardless of what they look like, who they are, or what they’re able to do — is who Telfar makes clothes for, and its reflected in every piece of the business, from its casting to its universal sizing (XS-L) to its price point, which mostly hovers in the low hundreds.
From simple black belts, collegiate-inspired logos, bell-bottom jeans with thigh cut-outs, and the tote that has been crowned the unofficial accessory of the year, Telfar remixes classic American symbols of fashion in a way that rebuilds a new, inclusive idea of Americana. It’s everyday wear with a twist, for everyone.
“When I was younger, I would find a nice shirt and my mom would be like, ‘That's in the women's section.’ So I always thought that things that are trendy are geared toward women first then men later,” Clemons previously shared in an interview with Vice. “So in my line, I change the size and not the design, because I believe if it looks good on you, it's for you. I want people to make up their own minds about what they like.”
Emerging Gender Neutral Brand: No Sesso
LA-based brand No Sesso has grown steadily since its launch in 2015, but made fashion waves earlier this year when designer and founder Pierre Davis became the first transgender woman to send a collection down an official New York Fashion Week runway. Throw in the important detail that Davis is also a woman of color, and it only amplifies how big (and long-overdue) the accomplishment is.
Meaning “No Sex” in Italian, No Sesso admittedly wasn’t founded to be revolutionary or fill any spaces in the fashion industry, but rather to be an art practice for both Davis and co-director Arin Hayes that organically expanded into what it is now — a design collective behind some of the most forward and radically gender-and-body-inclusive garments out today.
“The name came from wanting to make clothes that everyone can relate to and wear,” Davis tells The Zoe Report. “Since white models have been at the forefront of fashion since the beginning and still are, it’s important to us that we champion queer and people of color, and make sure they are at the forefront of all our imagery. “We just want to show people what the world really looks like, and what fashion can look like.”
For No Sesso, fashion takes on many forms — from graphic hoodies and t-shirts, to cinched and structured blouses, asymmetrical, larger-than-life outerwear, draped dresses, and statement corsets made of denim and metal details, ranging in size from S up to 2XL. Accompanying the pieces, in photoshoots and runways, is an equally diverse and enchanting cast of folk whose gender does not determine which piece they’re selected to wear. The brand’s debut show celebrated gender non-conformity with wigs, makeup, and male-identifying models in floor-length gowns and skin-tight shorts that sat mid-thigh.
“It’s not lost on us that very many talented people that also have similar identities could and should be where we are or further, but things are systematically more challenging for all of us,” Davis says of her team’s intersecting identities as being black and queer people in fashion. “Hopefully we can continue to break glass ceilings and create space for more people like us; the same way people like Shayne from Hood by Air or Telfar Clemens have done and are continuing to do that. We want to spread freedom and acceptance and expression [through] sexy and fun clothes.”
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