Caitlin Helms was shopping with her mother in downtown New York when a sign in a store window stopped them in their tracks – “The world’s first gender-free store”.
The pitch struck a chord with Helms, who said she had been blurring gender lines with her choice of clothes since age 13.
“It’s nice to have a place where I can go find things,” said the 24-year-old, dressed in a tie, vest and chino trousers.
“I don’t have to go to a men’s section or a women’s section,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The new NoHo store, Phluid, opened in March and caps a growing interest among apparel brands for genderless collections, from giant retailer Zara to smaller fashion line Gypsy Sport.
Phluid’s founder Rob Smith said he came up with the idea after decades working in retail for department store Macy’s and lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret.
The store is more than a statement – it makes business sense, Smith said, with market research showing younger generations are increasingly accepting of lifestyles that do not fit with traditional views on gender.
A 2016 poll by the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency found Americans age 13 to 20 were less likely than millennials to only buy clothes designed for their own gender.
On Phluid’s front door, another sign reads: “This is a welcoming, inclusive, diverse, and safe space. Intolerance will not be tolerated.”
Inside, cropped Chinese red sweat pants hang on racks next to mesh jerseys and colorful tank tops.
One hurdle was finding genderless mannequins for the sales floor, said Smith.
He commissioned a set with chests that are flatter that the usual female versions, but not completely flat.
“It’s not for everybody. There is always going to be a girl who wants to wear a full dress and a guy who wants to wear polo and cargo shorts,” said Smith.
“But I also think that there will be a girl who wants to wear a polo and cargo shorts and a boy who wants to wear a full dress.”