When entering a clothing store its common to see signs that read “womenswear” and “menswear,” or ride an escalator up and down to go to the designated floor. With fitting rooms and sections of the store specified by gender, retail stores are undoubtedly, highly gendered spaces.
In other words, the way we physically move through the space is dictated by how it is arranged and where the signs or perhaps, coordinates, of “womenswear,” and “menswear,” are located in the store.
But this arrangement and these very signs, complicate and instrumentally impact the shopping experience for trans, non-binary and gender-nonconforming people.
With the ability to occupy public spaces already limited for trans and gender nonconforming people and LGBTQIA rights increasingly under threat with the current administration, it is crucial to offer spaces where people are loved and accepted for who they are and how they choose to identify.
Early this year, 684 Broadway, Manhattan became the world’s first gender-free clothing store. It’s a retail space called The Phluid Project.
Yet, like most queer spaces, The Phluid Project is steeped in the notion of community. Not to mention, there is a coffee shop with Wifi inside too!
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Given that society is invested in arranging sexual difference and reinforcing the gender binary, the idea of building community was central to the founder and CEO of The Phluid Project, Rob Smith.
Before opening the store, Smith’s life was almost Bruce Wayne-like. His life was split in two; working in the corporate world by day and working for non-profits by night.
But Smith made the decision to also break down this binary, quitting his job and daringly putting his life savings into founding the store.
In speaking to Now This, Smith foregrounded how young people are beginning to see the constraints of these boundaries around identity.
“When I say The Phluid Project is the store of the future, it’s not because of technology, it’s done because of human connection. And it is done because young people are rejecting these binary constraints that we have created for them.”
Indeed, when you read the testimonial page on store’s website, it becomes clear that The Phluid Project is a particularly important store for parents raising kids that self-identify as gender queer, trans and gender-nonconforming since every retail space relegates their clothing choice between the binary of man and woman.
With prices ranging from $35-$150, affordability is a key feature of the store. Smith was committed to ensuring that the store holds gender-free items that are affordable and thereby accessible to an array of people. There is also a lot of meaning behind the name of the retail space.
‘Phluid’ is a term that operates on two registers. It refers to the identity of being gender fluid. But evidently, the spelling of ‘fluid’ is different. The ‘F’ is replaced by “ph” a scientific term and metric of balance, that Smith himself noted stands for “the balance between your masculinity and femininity.”
Given that the fashion industry, perhaps more than any other cultural force, governs, shapes, and normalizes the gender binary, Smith’s intervention in the retail market is important.
The Phluid Project is more than a store or brand. It is also a space in which the norms of gender and sexuality are challenged and resignified. It empowers gender non-conforming people to enter a space free of discrimination and the fear that their appearance or gender presentation will be judged.
With the Phluid Project embedded in the notion of community, the retail and community space underlines the need to create more inclusive sites for consumers.
Ultimately though, The Phluid Project is a welcoming, safe and creative outlet for people to explore and affirm their preferred gender expression.
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