Assigning genders to inanimate objects is beginning to be felt as sexist and discriminatory. The almost archaic model of differentiating what a person should be wearing based on a binary gender identity can seem problematic, especially at a time when we’re increasingly calling for gender equality. Why? Well, unfortunately, blame it on a patriarchal society.
Women in pants and suits are often seen to be powerful and in-charge, while men in skirts or heels tend to draw negative stereotypes. And more often than not, they allude to the notion that women are inherently less than men. Shaf Amis’aabudin of local design trio Mash-Up, expresses a similar sentiment. “It’s that mentality of how if a man dresses like a woman, it’s a downgrade. But if a woman dresses like a man, she’s authoritative”.
But the times, they are changing. We’re slowly realising that when it comes to clothes, they are just clothes.
There are already players in the niche genderless segment—the most prominent being Canada-based label Rad Hourani—but streetwear has always been stylistically genderless. The oversized, unstructured silhouettes favoured by streetwear designers are akin to uniforms. They’re difficult to categorise by gender. There is no distinguishing a sweatshirt or a pair of dungarees made for men to one that’s made for women; they’re essentially the same. And when designed oversized, clothes don’t have to be tailored to fit the body of any gender.
Similarly, fashion designers known for an architectural slant tend to traipse the perceived line between genders. Brands like Céline, COS and Craig Green segment their clothes in categories, but the overall aesthetic has never been gender exclusive. There is no clear sense of femininity or masculinity in the clothes, so when worn by anyone, they make sartorial sense. We dare you to tell Kanye West and Pharrell Williams that they look ‘feminine’ in Céline. For the record, they don’t.
When luxury fashion houses began combining their men’s and women’s collections into one show, it stirred the industry because it’s unprecedented. It’s also a small but significant step towards a genderless point of view to design. Consolidating and presenting collections as one entity means the overall vision of a brand is shared across both categories. For brands such as Gucci and Jil Sander, this further solidifies brand identity without any regard to gender. One can immediately connect the styling and look of an outfit to the brand because of the singularity in vision. Furthermore, in most cases, the designs are repeated for both menswear and womenswear collections in the same season. It’s a subtle way for mainstream fashion brands to slowly push towards a genderless aesthetic without shoving it down the throats of consumers.
“It’s that mentality of how if a man dresses like a woman, it’s a downgrade. But if a woman dresses like a man, she’s authoritative”.
Haider Ackermann took it a step further during his tenure at Berluti. The menswear-only fashion house was introduced to an inclusive persona for Ackermann’s first collection as artistic director. Among the 37 menswear looks shown on the autumn/winter 2017 runway, some were worn by female models. In an interview with South China Morning Post, Ackermann said: “The collection belongs to everyone. I give an attitude but don’t want to dictate your clothes.”
This attitude-above-gender approach to design is shared by Mash-Up as well as Japanese streetwear label, doublet. According to Amis’aabudin and design partner Nathanael Ng: “We never want to label a garment as strictly for men or women. The way we approach Mash-Up is like how one would shop at thrift stores—if it fits and flatters you, that’s what matters most.” For Masayuki Ino of doublet, his creations are thought out of central ideas first. “The aim was never to create genderless clothing. I always create clothes for everyone who loves these ‘ideas’ that I come up with; there’s no distinguishing between genders,” he explains. When doublet first entered the scene, the clothes were exclusively shown on male models but it has since taken a more fluid stance visually.
This year, doublet, together with Parisian brand Ludovic de Saint Sernin and US-based Matthew Adams Dolan, are gunning for the LVMH Prize. The annual award, founded by luxury conglomerate LVMH, celebrates young fashion designers. And this time, the three aforementioned brands are tagged under ‘gender-neutral’. Although grouped in the same category, the styles and adaptations of gender- neutrality for each brand are entirely different. Saint Sernin started off showing his sexually charged collections only on male models during the menswear slot in Paris, but has always stood firm on the concept that each look was designed for women as well. Adams Dolan’s focus is on the versatility of workwear, with a penchant for denim—probably the most gender-neutral material there is—and transforming the material to its whim and fancy.
Clearly, there is no right way to approach genderless fashion; well actually, fashion. Whether it’s by democratising the female-normative skirt as Thom Browne did for spring/summer 2018, or disruptive silhouettes à la Céline, one thing’s for sure: genderless fashion is the future. In fact, it has been quite a slow evolution and not a revolution. And in some ways, it could even be regarded as a regression. After all, was it not King Louis XIV who popularised heeled shoes (and with tights too) back in the 1670s? We just need to open our minds a tad and the possibilities will be endless. And don’t we all love having options?
This article was originally published in the May issue of Esquire Singapore.