The (New) Gender Fluid - Benjamin Bellwether - Fashion Trends

The (New) Gender Fluid

A Bellwether Insight

Photo: Ekaterina Kuznetsova
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The 2010’s brought a host of new terms to describe gender and sexual identification. Pansexual, gender fluid, non-binary, they/them and more filled everything from billboards to by-lines. The gender revolution that came out of movements like #MeToo and #TransRights opened up doors for people of any tribe to pull styling cues, silhouettes and fabrics that were traditionally ‘male’ or ‘female.’ This macro cultural trend will have its influence on fashion for years to come. But, what is staying gender neutral, who’s doing unisex and where is the influence really seen elsewhere?

Gender neutral clothing

The unisex clothing trend made a big splash. When we started hearing about it in a big way over the last few years, we all thought it could be somewhat of a revolutionary concept for fashion. A single brand. A single vision. A single product line for everyone. Appealing, yet a brand has to then make that a reality. The pieces have to work for double the audience, the sizing has to be inclusive of a now very wide range of body types. To reach the widest audience, the clothes can’t be too masculine or too feminine. And, the list goes on. We continue to see men in traditional women’s silhouettes and vice versa on the runways, but where is that in the market?

Brands seem to be forced into either a more male or more female marketing message. E-commerce retailers still label the clothing as ‘unisex,’ but the styles still sit in their ‘mens’ or ‘womens’ clothing sections. We found some brands that are smart about how they display their product pages, offering full measurements so people can get sizing correct, like Seoul-based Wkndrs. Others are smart about styling, showing how it can be for anyone, or using gender fluid models.

The sizing issue appears to be the biggest hurdle. Unisex clothing tends to be oversized, boxy and with simple silhouettes to fit the most customers. While ‘oversized’ is certainly a thing, is that sustainable for the long term of silhouette trends?

The unisex champions (think American Apparel before the downfall or footwear mainstays like Chuck Taylors), can be looked at for a brand wanting to venture into this market. They kept it simple, with standard silhouettes and understandable sizing. These brands stuck to easy-to-understand, key pieces that everyone could style in different ways. A denim jacket, an old school letterman’s jacket, a basic tee, a classic underwear. In our opinion, that’s probably the easiest way to have a gender-fluid brand that scales. Will smaller fashion brands with a more stylistic direction succeed here? Of course. Look at Telfar and Rad Hourani. But, the market is just not big enough compared to the traditional menswear and womenswear divide.

Another way to unite this divide is collaborations or specialty lines. Converse recently announced its ‘Converse Shapes’ capsule, 5 pieces that are available in 4 sizes to fit everybody and every body.  Beyonce designed her Ivy Park x Adidas drop in January of this year to be unisex.

We looked to Google Trends to see if customers are looking for the clothing. When you search for “unisex clothing,” it’s mostly a round-up of blogs or fashion publications presenting the brands that consider their lines unisex or gender neutral. When you look to consumer searches, the consistency is null. Some months it’s up, and some it’s down. Cleary there is interest, but there is no real trend in the data over the past few years.

We will note that the search terms “gender neutral clothing” and “unisex clothing” are near equally searched for in the US, with “gender neutral clothing” searched for more in the south. Worldwide searches reveal that “unisex clothing” is the prevailing search term, and both see a slight positive trend in searches. This could be indicating the beginning of a bigger trend.

The gender-neutral influence we do see taking root is in fabrications and silhouettes that are traditionally seen as ‘for woman’ in the menswear scene. While womenswear has seen influence of traditional menswear concepts for decades, the reverse never seemed to take such roots. With the cultural shift of men being ‘allowed’ to be more feminine, we are really starting to see the influence on fashion sticking. Even in traditionally male dominated arenas like sports are seeing a fashionably feminine touch.

Menswear mesh

With summer around the corner, we are all about a little ventilation. This trend of mesh comes from a few places, including the 90’s into aughts styling and protest fashion influences. Many brands are using this as a layering piece under button-ups and suits, while others are making a statement with sleeveless cuts and t-shirts.

This trend was even tested in mass markets, with Calvin Klein trying mesh tank tops and t-shirts in a few department stores a few seasons ago. Sunspel has a mesh-like fabric as part of its core line as well. We see this trend expanding, especially as activewear continues to influence mainstream ready-to-wear. However, the mass market buyers probably won’t want a lot of this in their stores and it will remain a more high-fashion item.

Sheer fabrics

This trend has been by far the biggest in the last few seasons. As womenswear moved to more covered-up styling, the menswear runways went into hyper-sexuality. Designers are using sheer fabrics layered over patterns and under suits to show some skin. The silhouettes primarily focus on tank tops, t-shirts and button fronts in both long and short sleeve. We don’t see this part of the trend going anywhere, as we return into another iteration of the sexualized male (think Gianni Versace and every Ricky Martin music video from the early 2000’s).

Silky shine & drape

From suiting to shirting, shiny satins and drapey silks are giving a viscerally feminine touch to menswear. This ties in beautifully with the return to sophisticated dressing mega-trend we are seeing, and gives a nod to the gender-fluidity movement. Besides suiting, we are loving the satin button up and joggers that feels very of-the-moment luxe.

Designers should look into eco-friendly versions of the fabric like peace silk, viscose (look for closed-loop waste management systems from brands like Enka, who supplies to Stella McCartney) and recycled polyester for shine and soft drape. This particular trend will continue well into the 2020’s, as the sophisticated dressing trend evolves into the new roaring (20)20’s.

A look at the data

When searching for mesh, even when paired with “shirts,” “t-shirts,” or “tank tops,” the results are very low. “Mesh shorts” has a consistent worldwide search history with a recent uptick due to warm weather, a trend that has happened each summer for the past few years. It’s important to note that that search trend is squarely in the activewear market. Given the search results for mesh, it’s appropriate to keep this in the fashion bucket for now.

Search terms for “mens silk shirt” remain consistent over the past few seasons, specifically related to the luxury market. Brands like Gucci, Versace, Prada Balenciaga and Hugo Boss are routinely related queries with silk shirts. A breakout query of Zara could indicate that it’s coming more into demand in the mass market space. The search results for silk shirts show penetration into specialty brands and mass market retailers, indicating that they are the ones paying the most for those keywords, while luxury players get traffic to silk shirts organically (through direct customer searches).

Brands looking to capitalize on the shine & drape trend should be mindful that the term “silk” is most often used when people are searching for this look (even if they aren’t looking for actual silk). Your marketing should reflect the softness and sheen of silk, while staying away from terms that aren’t so understandable or desirable to the wider male audience, such as “drapey” or “shiny.” The searches around silk shirts also do not need to contain terms like “button up,” as the prevailing search term that consumers are using is “mens silk shirt.”

A look at our intuition

The macro-trend of a more genderless approach to fashion is going to remain for many years. As we move towards an even bigger buy with basics (a trend we are seeing out of Asia), the one-size-fits-all look is going to be very prevalent. We would say that this is peak currently, as most of the world has moved into a more basics approach to daily dressing. The gender fluid approach to fashion, inclusive of unisex clothing, is still at the early adopter phase. While many higher fashion brands have built their businesses on this approach, it has yet to saturate a wide part of the general market.

The trend of menswear taking cures from traditional womenswear will continue to be explored for this decade. The return to sophisticated dressing and party fashions will start to emerge out of the COVID-19 crisis and upcoming political, economic and social unrest; which, will cause designers to look at reinventing party looks. The consumers understanding or “silk” for men will pave way for additional influences, such as lace. The full potential of this movement will not be realized for a few years, putting this trend at early adopters.