Growing up, Laura Moffat gravitated toward the chic menswear of British designers Ben Sherman and Ted Baker, but she was never quite able to recreate the looks herself. Women’s button-down shirts were too short and too fitted, with floppy collars ill-suited to the bow ties the self-described “dapper, androgynous woman” liked to wear. And while men’s shirts were sturdy enough, they simply didn’t fit her female form.
Years later, when Moffat learned that her wife, Kelly, shared her sartorial angst, the pair teamed up with a tailor to develop a new type of oxford shirt: one that is carefully structured to fit—but not necessarily enhance—the curves of a woman’s body. A successful Kickstarter and a stint in a fashion accelerator later, the online retailer Kirrin Finch was born. (It’s set to start shipping shirts this summer.) “We came at it as frustrated consumers,” says Moffat. “We know our customers because we are our customers.”
The early interest in Kirrin Finch is just one example of the demand for clothing that is neither traditionally male nor female. As more and more people opt to make their diverse sexual and gender identities public, and as choice-craving individuals seek clothing that perfectly reflects their personal style, retail and fashion insiders expect sales of androgynous duds to climb in the years ahead. In a retail landscape beset by difficulties—witness the recent spate of closures among mid-range clothiers—offering unisex clothing represents a lucrative niche opportunity.
The history of gender-bending fashion is as long as it is fascinating: Men and women were borrowing from one another’s closets centuries before iconic celebrities like David Bowie, Prince and Annie Lennox made androgyny cool. And contemporary brands like Club Monaco and the Gap were founded on the ethos that anyone can wear their casual basics.
But today’s fashion choices are about more than looking chic. Such high-profile figures as Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox have put human faces on the struggles of transgender people. Around the world, battles are being waged around the right to do mundane things—such as using the washroom, getting workplace benefits and, yes, dressing in accordance with one’s deepest inner identity, freely and without prejudice. Social media is amplifying these concerns and, as is so often the case, the political battleground is informing fashion. In particular, millennials—gay, straight and trans—see no stigma and plenty of style in gender-neutral apparel. (Witness the mainstream popularity of such androgyny-focused fashion blogs as Qwear, Switch Teams and Man Repeller.)
For retailers and the manufacturers who supply them, it’s a ripe opportunity, says Sandy Silva, a Toronto-based fashion analyst for market intelligence firm NPD Group, which produced a study on gender-neutral clothing last year. “Retail as a whole needs to constantly evolve and inject newness for the consumer,” she says, and most retailers could inject unisex wear “without much effort”—especially if they already cater to men and women. She identifies bright prospects for retailers to offer not only gender-neutral shirts, pants and skirts but also accessories such as footwear, watches and even underwear.
Plenty of clothing merchants have already cottoned on. Zara recently introduced a line of unisex clothing for adults, while GapKids did the same for children’s wear. Toronto’s Muttonhead Apparel, whose utilitarian casuals are designed to fit both men’s and women’s bodies, has gained a cult following. Haute fashion houses like Hood by Air, J.W.Anderson and Gucci have all released unisex lines.
What turns heads on Paris runways may soon become the norm, says Ben Barry, an associate professor specializing in fashion diversity at the Ryerson School of Fashion. Barry recently studied the style of hundreds of men and found a preponderance of clothes with feminine attributes, especially in the closets of millennials. Young people, he says, “want to play and cross boundaries,” regardless of their sexual and gender identities.
Fashion is by nature fickle, but both Barry and Moffat are confident that unisex garb is no fad. As Moffat says, “This is about people finally feeling they can be who they are and dress how they want.”
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