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All clothes and accessories by Vejas
All clothes and accessories by VejasPhotography Rachel Chandler, fashion Tom Guinness

Can we actually buy into fashion’s gender revolution?

Androgyny is the industry’s current obsession – but when will shop floors reflect the way today’s youth view themselves?

Gender is in fashion. From female empowerment as a marketing gimmick and shapeless t-shirts being sold as “genderless” to trans models and co-ed runways, it’s a talking point that has become impossible to ignore. It’s been decades since a gang of fashion editors infamously left a show in protest after Jean Paul Gaultier put male models in skirts, but really, how far have we come? We’ve got Jaden Smith fronting Louis Vuitton’s womenswear campaign in one such garment, sure, but go into any major department store and find your answer: menswear and womenswear, divided not just by rails but often entire floors. The world is waking up to possibilities of gender that go far beyond the narrow categories of male and female – why have our shops been slow to catch on?

To retailers’ credit, the system isn’t exactly set up to encourage gender neutrality – head to university to study fashion, and you’ll be asked to choose whether to focus on menswear or womenswear. Want to put on a show at fashion week? Will you present in January and June with the boys, or February and September with the girls? Brands like Gucci are switching to show both menswear and womenswear together, on their own terms (“It’s the way I see the world today,” said creative director Alessandro Michele) but they’ll still largely be designing clothes made to be worn by ‘men’ or ‘women’. This isn’t always the case, though – up-and-coming labels like ‘demographic-free’ denim-makers 69, as well as New York underground stalwarts like Eckhaus Latta and Vaquera, are presenting a new fashion vision that doesn’t discriminate based on gender identity.

Credit is due to Dover Street Market for its division of floors by designer rather than sex, but it was Selfridges who made the first move to explicitly embrace gender-free retail, launching their Agender campaign and in-store department in March 2015. They planned to create “a space where clothing is no longer imbued with directive gender values, enabling fashion to exist as a purer expression of ‘self’”. Only temporarily, though – after a month, the department shut up shop. For Linda Hewson, Selfridges’ creative director, the experiment was worthwhile. “The learnings have been valuable. The response has been wholly positive – from a fashion consumer and industry, but also a cultural perspective,” she says, going on to add that Selfridges “are now looking at how Agender ideals will continue in our stores, our online experience and our creative projects in a long term and meaningful way”.

The promotional video for Selfridges’ Agender pop up:

Then, there are those for whom genderlessness is more than just a pop-up, it’s a key manifesto point – albeit one that the industry’s divisive system of menswear and womenswear makes difficult to enact. “We don’t follow any gender rules – it’s more that the fashion industry is so locked into them that you have to formulate your buying into some crazy schedule of events that someone has deemed ‘the fashion schedule’.” So says Julie Anne Quay, founder of VFiles, the social network, talent hub and store in New York’s SoHo that has had a hand in launching the careers of internet It-kids like Hari Nef and Luka Sabbat. They don’t divide their shop floor by gender, and only recently introduced gender departments online to help with site navigation. “We don’t shop on the ‘fashion schedule’, we operate on the youth schedule which is genderless,” adds Quay. For their legions of young fashion followers picking up a Hood By Air hoodie or a Thrasher tee, whether something was designed to fit a boy or a girl simply doesn’t enter the equation.

Stavros Karelis, founder and buying director of London boutique MACHINE-A, follows a similar ethos, one that’s geared towards their customer base of internet-savvy, next-generation tastemakers. “There was never an issue of separating the brands into menswear and womenswear – we mix menswear and womenswear on the same rail like we mix emerging designers with established brands,” he says. Instead, they look at the way young people interact with clothing and the designers they like, shopping based more on a label’s philosophy. “This generation wants to be part of the world of their favourite designers, what they represent, the music they listen to,” argues Karelis. “All these things are genderless. Would someone ask if skating is men’s or women’s? Or if Skepta’s latest track is made for boys or girls? Similarly, why do we need to divide fashion?”

“Would someone ask if skating is men’s or women’s? Or if Skepta’s latest track is made for boys or girls? Similarly, why do we need to divide fashion?” – Stavros Karelis, MACHINE-A

It’s a good question, but, ultimately, it depends on who you’re selling to. Last year, a spokesperson for US department store heavyweight Neiman Marcus told  Business of Fashion that de-gendering their shops is “not really on our radar”. Likewise, in London, other major retailers are opting for a traditional approach, one that better suits their more mature target audiences. Last week, Harvey Nichols opened a brand-new menswear department, an impressive 28,000sq ft area nestled below ground in their Knightsbridge flagship that is posited to be the first step in a store-wide revamp. Though the area houses some of fashion’s more gender-defying brands (Hood By Air, Rick Owens), it’s a typically male space, illustrated by toy guns and vintage Playboys in glass vitrines.

Anita Barr, group fashion buying director of Harvey Nichols, puts the gendering of their stores down to the different shopping patterns of their consumers. “We know that the way men and women shop is very different. For example, market research shows us that most male shoppers don’t enjoy browsing, they know what they want when they come in and are keen to get the job done quickly. Men buy and women shop.” This is reflected in elements of the department’s layout, where, for example, eveningwear is arranged by style rather than brand, making it easier for their customers to find what they want, fast.

Harvey Nichols isn’t the only London department store undergoing a transformation – Browns, which was recently purchased by Farfetch, is on a mission to become the ‘coolest store in the world’, and is starting by reconsidering its menswear, sticking with a divided shop floor but dipping toes into more progressive styles for men – like an elaborately embroidered Gucci bag. “Over the past couple of seasons we have witnessed a definite shift in the way our customers shop, with both genders shopping more freely between men’s and womenswear,” explains Dean Cook, men’s buying manager. “This tendency towards androgyny has certainly informed the menswear buy and in light of recent announcements by the likes of Gucci, who plan to present their menswear and womenswear collections together for AW17, I believe it will continue to do so.”

Times are changing, as evidenced by the ways Quay and Karelis witness young people engaging with fashion. The switch to androgyny of a house like Gucci is, on some level, a reflection of this – they are embracing a wider, youth-led cultural shift in attitudes towards gender, and are being rewarded in kind (under Michele, the Italian house has smashed profit targets). Just look at their choice of casting for AW16 menswear: none other than Hari Nef, VFiles family member and transgender model muse du jour. When it comes to gender in fashion, throwing out tradition might just pay off – literally. Clothes will always be one of the best ways to talk about “the now” – fail to get fluent, and you risk being left out of the conversation.