Unisex Fashion: Can It Ever Be More Than a Niche Category?

Many brands are making unisex clothes -- but we wonder if the category will really ever break though.
Avatar:
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
3354
Many brands are making unisex clothes -- but we wonder if the category will really ever break though.
"Anonymous" unisex sweatshirt. Photo: Personnel of New York

"Anonymous" unisex sweatshirt. Photo: Personnel of New York

When Kristi Paras launches e-commerce for her year-old West Village shop Personnel of New York in the coming weeks, product categories will include Menswear, Womenswear, Accessories and Everyone. "Everyone" meaning unisex, or pieces that can -- and are -- worn by men and women. At her physical store, Paras stocks the Los Angeles-based line 69 -- har har, get it? -- which includes trousers and dresses designed to appeal to both sexes. (Guys might like to call those dresses tunics.) She also carries New Zealand-based brand Kowtow, which includes men's and women's pieces made out of 100 percent organic fair trade cotton, as well as a few looks that are gender neutral. (Including the windowpane-check "Anonymous" sweatshirt, featured above.) Most of these pieces are cut so far away from the body that one really can't discern whether or not they were designed for specific anatomy. "It's a part of the whole movement towards easier dressing," Paras says. "An awful lot of stuff in our store comes in one size." 

Although Paras is quick to declare that unisex clothes are "not a trend," one can't ignore that gender roles are being questioned more than ever in fashion. Particularly via the runway, where Rick Owens, Thom Browne and more recently, J.W. Anderson, regularly put men in skirts. And there are others. British designer Richard Nicoll created a capsule collection of unisex pieces, called S/he, in collaboration with the artist Linder Sterling.

A look from Rad Hourani's second couture collection shown in Paris this summer. 

A look from Rad Hourani's second couture collection shown in Paris this summer. 

And when Rad Hourani began showing couture, he designed the collection as unisex, which has become his signature. The Canadian-born, Paris-based designer spent a full year studying male and female anatomy before launching his unisex ready-to-wear line in 2007. "Who decided that a man should dress in one way and a woman in another? Or that different ages should dress differently? Who imposed these codes?" Hourani says. "It doesn't make sense to me to limit things. I'm not trying to dress a man like a woman or the opposite. I'm creating a new way of dress that makes people look modern without any limits."

Miuccia Prada, too, is thinking about genderless fashion. "More and more, it feels instinctively right to translate the same idea for both genders," she told Style.com's Tim Blanks at the Prada menswear show this past July.

And it's not just for consumers of ready-to-wear. Unisex ideas are permeating far beyond the rarefied end of things. In contemporary fashion, there's Rick Owens's Dark Shadows, as well as the aforementioned Kowtow and 69. And at the mass level, American Apparel has made unisex sexy, dressing a guy and girl in the same plaid shirt. (Guess whose is unbuttoned and showing more than a little cleavage in the ad?)  

While it's virtually impossible to measure the market for unisex clothes, there's also no denying that a market exists. Women, however, seem to make up most of that market. "Women are more inclined to step into that gender-neutral role," says Johnny Pizzolato, owner of International Playground, a chainlet of New York stores that specializes in brands from abroad that are difficult to track down in the States. "They're more likely to head over to the men's section. Men don't like to deviate." (He carries Kowtow as well as Copenhagen-based Soulland, a menswear line that many females buy.)

Although there are exceptions. Paras says she has male customers who wear 69's "Night Shirt" dress, which is like an elongated button down. "Mainly girls would wear it, but I do think guys are more comfortable wearing drapey stuff." Eugene Rabkin, editor of StyleZeitgeist, a magazine and an online forum that deal heavily in menswear, agrees. "Undoubtedly, men, mostly in the culturally forward urban centers, now pay more attention to how they dress, and the rules on what is masculine are relaxing a bit," he says. "You can particularly see this in elongating the tops to the level of mini-dresses. We can thank Rick Owens for that. He was also able to get some men into skirts for a minute."

But can we call unisex fashion a movement? Or even a moment? Hourani's work in particular is certainly thought-provoking, and has brought more attention to the idea of what unisex means, and what it could mean. Yet for most consumers of fashion, particularly men, it's still a challenging category. "I don't think it will become anymore prevalent than it has been for two reasons," says Rabkin. "First, the cultural gender norms are very firmly ingrained in our society, despite the wishful thinking of the politically correct set. Most women want to be feminine and most men want to be masculine. Second, it's hard to get away from human anatomy. Of course, there will always be a subset of people, let's call them the weird and the wonderful, who will challenge and subvert gender norms, but I doubt they will make significant impact on culture at large."