the binary is boring: moving towards a genderless fashion future
The way we dress is changing. From the dismantling of strict formal attire and workwear codes to the rise and rise of streetwear, the mix of clothes in our closets is ever-evolving, and the latest boundary being broken down is the distinction between...
A few weekends ago, I was browsing the womenswear department of a high street store, when a boy of about 13 started flicking through the same rail of blouses as me. He picked out a victoriana style and, holding it up to his chest, asked his mum, "What do you think?" She nodded, responding, "Is it natural fibre? It might feel sweaty if it's not". Sharing this exact same sensitivity to man-made fabrics with my own mother, I thought this was solid shopping advice from a parent who simply wants her child to be comfortable. Of course, I don't know if this kid identifies as a boy - I didn't ask, nor do I know that that was the kid's mum, and I don't know if the top was a dashing hat-tip to Alessandro Michele's androgynous styles at Gucci, or for a fancy dress party. But what it represented to me was a vision of the future so frequently explored on the catwalk and in fashion editorials, where every person, regardless of their sex or gender identity, has the freedom to express themselves through whatever fashion they feel comfortable in, and indeed fabulous in. What is fashion, if not the promise that you may create yourself, however you see fit?
Though women's wardrobes today contain a range of garments that would traditionally have been considered menswear, men have tended to stick exclusively to conventionally masculine styles. But things are changing. A combination of factors, from fashion's influence on male music stars, particularly rappers, who in turn influence their audiences, to broader trends in society - the move toward a more fluid conception of gender and sexuality; the questioning of body image expectations; discussion of women's equality and liberation; respect for other cultures and queer lifestyles - has changed the context of more experimental fashion choices: when there are no negative connotations to being a girl or being gay, there isn't such pressure to constantly demonstrate your maleness and heterosexuality by rigidly sticking to a conventionally masculine appearance.
It isn't the case that vast numbers of men have added a skirt to their closet, but some have, and for those interested it is easy to find inspiration. Traditionally feminine garments have a small, but growing number of famous male devotees, from Kanye West's leather pleated Givenchy skirt to A$AP Rocky's tie-dye Ann Demeulemeester tunic, Young Thug in leopard print and crop tops and Jaden Smith's numerous inventive skirt looks, not to mention the style of a constellation of K-Pop stars. Along with androgynous female stars like Janelle Monae in her signature tux and Ellen Page in sharp tailoring, there is a clear movement across youth culture toward a more androgynous mix.
Speaking about his decision to feature Jaden Smith in the Louis Vuitton spring/summer 16 womenswear campaign, Creative Director Nicolas Ghesquière said, "[Jaden] represents a generation that has assimilated the codes of true freedom, one that is free of manifestos and questions about gender. Wearing a skirt comes as naturally to him as it would to a woman who, long ago, granted herself permission to wear a man's trench or a tuxedo".
Gender and the blurring of traditional gender boundaries is a perennial hot topic in the modern fashion industry, but there has been a definite intensification since Alessandro Michele's hugely successful debut at Gucci a year ago. Sticking to his silky, embroidered, appliquéd and lacy vision of a delicate, pretty androgyny, Michele's latest menswear offering this January in Milan also included eight models from the women's books, with an international exclusive appearance from model and Transparent actor Hari Nef. Resplendent in a red cape, matching trousers, hat and nerd-chic glasses, she embodied a glamorous Red Riding Hood, a good metaphor for the narratives we can all weave by playing with and subverting traditional codes and expectations.
In London too, we saw new male erogenous zones explored with bared legs under a studded camel coat at J.W. Anderson and strappy bodycon tops and lace-up jeans at Nasir Mazhar. At Alexander McQueen, embroidered butterflies perched on jumpers, tailoring and outerwear, and at Fashion East's MAN group show, Grace Wales Bonner's boys wore chokers and bracelets dripping with shells and gemstones. Also at MAN, Charles Jeffrey's latest LOVERBOY collection layered cut-out crochet jumpers over exposed boxers and over-the-knee skirts, worn with bare legs and bright make-up. Though Jeffrey plays down the gender-fluid elements of his work - saying, "I offer masculine looks, particularly knits, suits and strong tailoring. It is then down to the customer to interpret my clothes in whatever way they want" - he does note the influence of his colourful cast of London club kids: "I guess a lot of my collection is inspired by my friends at the LOVERBOY club nights and they themselves are so into subverting gender through fashion and performativity that it's just so ingrained into the LOVERBOY brand I don't even think about it anymore".
In London, New York, Milan and Paris, from emerging designers right up to global mega-brands, traditional gender boundaries are being crossed. From the selection of models to the styling and the garments themselves, designers are taking inspiration from counterculture pioneers and queer communities to reflect the ever-increasing possibilities for gender expression that are slowly but surely filtering into popular culture. For all the androgyny on the catwalks, however, much of the organisation of the fashion industry is still starkly divided into binary genders: separate men's and women's fashion weeks, with larger brands often appointing different creative directors for each collection; split advertising campaigns; divided department stores; and gendered commercial fashion magazines. Of course, i-D has long mixed boys and girls, styling them in unisex clothes or those from the 'wrong' gender, and stores like Dover Street Market and MACHINE-A arrange their stock without prescriptive gender boundaries, but recently we are seeing a much more widespread commitment to breaking the binary.
Selfridges opened their unisex Agender department in March 2015 with the tagline 'He She Me', stocking Rei Kawakubo's rule breaking Comme des Garçons label and Rick Owens androgynous styles, alongside garments from newer labels including Hood By Air, Nasir Mazhar and Nicola Formichetti's unisex label Nicopanda. "We'd wanted to do something around the idea of gender-fluidity for a long time," Creative Director Linda Hewson explains. "We could feel a cultural/societal shift coming and wanted to connect to and embrace its impact in a way that's unique to Selfridges," she says of the branding- and merchandising-free but art-filled Agender concept space created by Faye Toogood (whose unisex brand Toogood is also stocked) that spans two floors of the iconic London luxury store.
"In fashion terms, gender interplay and ambiguity is one of the most important ideas for the heroes and icons of the industry," Hewson notes, the words sounding ever more poignant since David Bowie came to the end of his dazzling time on Earth. But it's not a nostalgia fest - far from it. "We could also see a commercial opportunity - women shopping men's and vice versa," she explains. "People are talking about gender and sexuality and how we make the boundaries of it more fluid for the modern world we live in," Nicola Formichetti says of the decision to launch his label Nicopanda as a unisex brand. "There's a conscious decision on my part to do something that fits within these very modern ideas of gender and sexuality, but it's something that's already happening out there in the world," he explains. "We have been excited and encouraged by the positive reaction," Hewson reports, revealing that the Agender concept has been such a success that Selfridges are looking to "permanently embed its freedom and ideals into the department store format".
At this juncture, it is clear that the industry is collectively thinking about how best to deal with the changing landscape of fashion in order to best serve both the designers and their customers. The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) have, for example, hired management consultants to investigate whether the current catwalk calendar could be improved on, with the possibility of switching the seasons and operating a see-it-now, buy-it-now model being explored. Within these conversations, it seems that there is also an opportunity - as an industry that has always challenged the gender binary - to also reassess the stark line drawn between 'menswear' and 'womenswear', a fairly arbitrary division based on an outdated concept of how people should dress, ignoring the modern reality and opportunity of increasingly androgynous tastes. "There's an ever-increasing area between the traditional gender roles in fashion, and as this middle ground or unisex market develops, we can expect to see a lot more of it," Nicola Formichetti notes.
Founder and Buying Director of Soho concept store MACHINE-A Stavros Karelis believes the catwalk seasons could accommodate these social and cultural trends. "I think that a genderless fashion week would make perfect sense and from a buyer's perspective it would make things very easy," he says. "Since the beginning of the MACHINE-A store, our buying and the work of designers we represent are quite genderless, and our customers are buying across genders without thinking if a designer or a style is 'meant' to be for men's or women's," he adds, mirroring the experience of Selfridges, and noting that, "This unisex approach does represent what the younger generations are about, and it all comes down to how every individual will wear the same style in a very different way and make it their own".
'It's not what you wear, but how you wear it' - in 2016, this old aphorism rings true more than ever before. Given the androgynous and experimental tastes of high fashion audiences, there is both a creative and financial opportunity for designers and stores that demonstrate the cross-gender appeal of garments, by styling them on men, women and everyone in between, not only on the catwalk, but in campaigns and on store mannequins. Some customers will need to see it to believe it, but pioneering designers, retailers and fashion fans are already proving that the binary is boring and segregation is stuffy.Major shifts in popular dress codes can take a long time to cement themselves, but the visibility of people experimenting beyond their gender's conventional wardrobe is growing. Youth culture stars, from Willow and Jaden Smith to Angel Haze, Le1f, Shamir, Ruby Rose, Kelela and even Rihanna are refusing to be put in boxes when it comes to fashion, and also with relation to their artistry, rejecting entertainment industry sexism and heteronormativity. As urgent new voices like Amandla Stenberg and Rowan Blanchard speak out about intersectional feminism, diverse queer icons from Cara Delevingne to Mykki Blanco fill our news feeds and alternative, genderless style ideas spread around the world, outdated edicts from the fashion establishment fade into the background.
No cultural discipline should discriminate against its audience, and as fashion mines the creativity of non-binary communities, it should also represent them, recognising both their influence and catering to their desires, as well as to those who consider their gender to be binary, but don't subscribe to repressive ideas about what they should therefore be wearing. Gender is a social construct, and you should be able to dress it up however you like, conforming to or subverting old-school fashion rules in any way that excites you, or simply makes you feel comfortable. Fashion should allow us to explore our identities and empower us to find an expression that makes us happy, and ultimately more free. Understanding and responding to the infinite nature of human diversity and creativity, no matter how technology and social expectations change, is undoubtedly the key to the fashion industry's future.
Text Charlotte Gush
Photography Jason Lloyd Evans