does unisex fashion alienate those it’s supposed to represent?
With New York Fashion Week’s recent introduction of a new ‘unisex/non-binary’ category to its schedule, we examine whether the move represents a push for progress or instead others a social group that longs to be included?
Photography Tyler Mitchell
Last season, New York Fashion Week introduced into its schedule a new category of ‘unisex/non-binary’ to sit between the existing ‘womenswear’ and ‘menswear’ brackets. Is it now time for the other fashion capitals to step up by adding this category? Or is it irrelevant, unnecessary and possibly even damaging to the people it hopes to represent?
On the surface, the simple annotation of ‘unisex/non-binary’ after each brand’s name (Telfar, Vaquera) represents an exciting move towards diversity. Together with Telfar receiving the CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund recently -- which will hurtle the brand into greater possibilities for expansion than it has ever been able to achieve before -- it gives the impression that New York Fashion Week is leading the way in the acceptance and representation of diversity in fashion design. But with luxury fashion increasingly is breaking out of the straightjacket of normative gender signifiers is this new category just a step towards alienating these ‘non-binary’ brands, and those that wear them, through separating and labelling them as something that cannot be included within the current framework?
By creating this other category, we as the spectators, or as those that are involved in the industry, are being told that this is clothing that is separate and not able to mingle within the binaries of menswear and womenswear. This ‘unisex/non-binary’ category represents the continued exclusion of those that identify as ‘non-binary’ from the heteronormative fashion industry -- and society in general. Kept within its own category, ‘non-binary’ is being put on the shelf far away from the nice ‘normal’ ‘mens’ and ‘womens' sections of the store. It is a disclaimer to the viewer: ‘this is the unexpected, different, beware, could you wear it?’
Meanwhile, there have been designers pushing the boundaries of the accepted forms of male and female clothing as long as those boundaries have existed. Long before NYFW decided to create this annotation, designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Walter Van Beirendonck have explored those spaces between menswear and womenswear.
More recently, brands such as Telfar (which shows in womens fashion week, but now with the added annotation of ‘unisex/non-binary’) have, since their inception, presented their clothes on a wide spectrum of individuals that represent differing sexualities, ethnicities, sizes and genders, and the myriad forms of what can be considered ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’. This is diversity in its best and most literal sense and not just as a tokenistic gesture, and it is something that have quietly championed without the need to ever label it and reduce it. It’s about freedom, not labels.
Yet all the while Telfar’s clothes have been actively dismantling all the fashion week binaries. One pair of trousers can be worn by a whole variety of gender-unspecified individuals; you do not have to identify as ‘non-binary’ in order to wear them. The statement Telfar is making is: no matter how you identify, you can wear our clothes, and should be happy to be included under the large umbrella of humanity that we have displayed our clothes on through wonderful, diverse (and queer) casting.
This subtle way of addressing the enormous spectrum of identities that exist in our society is more powerful than sticking a label on a brand. It is a misinformed gesture that serves to alienate and polarise rather than dismantle and integrate. Bringing this category to London, or to the other fashion weeks, would negate brands, such as Telfar’s, that have created the path to promoting this freedom of identity in the fashion industry. Let these brands blossom organically, rather than shoe-horning even more categories into this already very category obsessed industry/society.