We live in a world where Facebook and Google+ have introduced "infinite" gender options for users, trans models like Andreja Pejic and Hari Nef are burning up the runway; and designers like Hood By Air and Telfar break new ground in fashion every day. Is it any wonder that walking into a store and only heading for your gender-assigned aisle is starting to feel a little passé? Enter Selfridges latest initiative, Agender, a pop-up department that aims to create a "genderless shopping experience" within the London department store.
I went down to visit Agender on the opening day to see what a gender-neutral store actually looks like. Is it lightly watered by the tears of queer unicorns; adorned with the statues of LGBT heroes and feminist icons who sought to destroy gender stereotypes at every turn? Does a giant, kindly bust of Judith Butler look over you and your gender non-conforming boyfriend as you peruse unisex Stan Smiths and HBA sweatshirts?
"Selfridges' ambition was to create a space where men and women could essentially come and shop together irrespective of gender, and that you would choose clothes as an individual rather than based on your gender," Faye Toogood, who designed the retail space, says. "For a department store, that’s very revolutionary. You still go up to the children department and everything is still segregated by pink and blue, boys and girls. This concept’s really about breaking down those boundaries... As someone that wants to buy the clothes in this space, you’re going to have to work hard to understand it."
You see what you mean when you enter her space. Toogood, who has designed interiors for Comme des Garçons and Alexander McQueen and runs her own unisex fashion label (also called Toogood), has housed the Agenda offering in a cage-like exterior made of chicken wire. The space extends across three floors, all cordoned off from the main shopping area. The New York Times described it as a "primeval Tardis".
All the clothes are bagged up in white cases made from stiff artists canvas, with a slit running down the middle to offer a glimpse at the garment inside: black tulle-overlaid hoodies from Nicopanda, gold embroidered Ann Demeulemeester jackets, graphic-print Yang Li sweatshirts. All accessories come in unmarked white boxes.
On one floor, the offering is overshadowed by hulking papier-mâché sculptures dipped in a washed-out candy pink, in the kind of shapes you might describe as "primal blobs" – think a deconstructed Venus of Willendorf and you're not far off. There are no brands and no logos present; as Toogood puts it, "no smacking you on the head with commercial constraints".
"There’s been a big change in what men and women are wearing," she says. "More and more, the boundary is blurred. It’s definitely reflected socially and politically. When I was designing [Agender], I was certainly aware that the issue goes slightly deeper than whether men and women will just shop in the same space. I think we realise now that gender is not binary, we are all individuals, and essentially gender is a fluid thing."
The Agender concept has actually been in the making for two years, when Selfridges buyers started noticing that men and women were slowly moving out of their allocated shopping aisles and exploring each other's departments. It's no surprise that streetwear makes up a big part of Agender's stock – you just need to look at K-pop star CL to know that women can look as good as men in a Nasir Mazhar jersey.
There's something intrinsically political about putting on a garment that is better associated with the opposite gender, or one that eschews gender norms completely. It's a bold declaration of self-identity; it's defining yourself against conventions so widely held as to be unassailable. And also, it almost always looks pretty fucking cool.
“Agender is trying to do something a bit subtler than ‘women in suits and men in dresses’”
But Agender is trying to do something a bit subtler than "women in suits and men in dresses", the old cliche that fashion sometimes takes to mean as "androgyny". Most of our leisure and shopping spaces, like our clothes, are gendered from the day we're born till the day we die. Think of the pink blanket that swaddles a newborn girl; the Claire's Accessories where she gets her ears pierced for the first time; the bottles of funky, floral-scented body wash in the women's toiletries aisle.
So does Agender's radical experiment work? On an intellectual level, definitely. You're reminded of that old truism that gender is a construct – and nothing more so when you're struggling to unbox a piece from its stiff case. The shopfloor comes across as an elemental twist on the future offered by Gattaca: sparse, strip-lit, and crucially, unisex minus the sex. With added chicken wire. Twogood didn't intend it to be an easy shopping experience, if that makes sense. "It's a neon lit, slightly awkward space, but that’s [deliberate]," she says. "I guess I’m just trying to heighten your senses while you’re in the space."
If I've got anything against Agender, it's that the IRL shop lacks the playfulness in its campaign film starring Hari Nef, shot by Alex Turvey and Kathryn Ferguson. In the final shot, you see Hari take her place among a tableau of performers – from white-haired older women to curvier girls with rainbow hair and gender non-comforming individuals of every stripe, shape and colour. If we want to start thinking critically about gender, we can't lose the joy and colour in its wildly diverse expressions. Where's the fun in that?
But I can't fault Selfridges for trying to think outside the gender binary. We've got a long way to go before we reach a truly unisex future in fashion, no matter how much designers periodically pay lip service to the idea (you know, a pussybow blouse on a man here, unflattering slacks on a woman there). But if Agender is anything to go by, at least there are some people willing to try.
Agender runs until mid April at Selfridges, 400 Oxford Street London W1A 1AB. selfridges.com/agender
Follow Zing Tsjeng on Twitter here @misszing