Blurred Lines: Three Designers on Living and Working in the Year of Genderless Fashion

Full Article

Designer Emily Adams Bode’s dad doesn’t quite get it: “When he sees my clothes, he says, ‘what the heck? Who buys this?’ ” Maybe that’s because for any baby boomer Bode’s clothes, which are categorized as menswear, look too girly to be defined as such. But change is afoot. This year the fashion industry experienced more than a few breakthroughs when it came to embracing the idea of genderless style, both on the mixed male and female runways at big houses like Gucci, Saint Laurent, and Burberry and in the collections of visionary young designers like Bode and Grace Wales Bonner who refused to draw a line in the sand between girls and boys. Let’s also not forget what a triumph it was to finally see a number of trans models walk the runway and appear in major ad campaigns.

In the spheres of Insta-famous street style stars, 2016 was the year that the fashion world fell in love with gender-bending women like Adwoa Aboah, Binx Walton, and Slick Woods. Wearing their low-slung Dickies and Carhartt gear, head shaved or hair purposefully undone, they made abandoning words like androgyny and boyish the new It thing to do. As Bode notes, “There’s no need to be masculine or feminine anymore, maybe it’s just about who you are as a person.” And it goes both ways. The 27-year-old Bode loves to dress up her male friends, but she also finds great satisfaction when women are attracted to her boxier, baggier, oversize separates. When her male customers put on a pink floral jacket made from her mother’s old quilts or bed sheets, she’s just as happy. “Masculinity doesn’t come from the fact that you’re wearing a perfectly tailored suit,” she explains. “Historically in America, being a man meant following this rugged trend and right before that, it was all about being dapper, which suggested that you were masculine because you looked powerful. Things have definitely skewed in the other direction this year.”

Bode doesn’t want people to see her collections as bound by constraints. For her, it’s about an interchangeable wardrobe, a personalized uniform if you will, which sounds constricting but actually makes good sense. “I fought as a third-grader to try and get my school to allow the girls to be able to wear the guys’ uniforms,” says Bode. “I’m not a masculine girl by any means, but it was just more comfortable and more practical.” She adds, “I don’t have a need to feel sexy as a woman in some body-con dress. For me, it’s about what makes me feel cool and what I can run around in all day.” Sisters Faye and Erica Toogood, who have been designing unisex clothing for the past four years, happen to agree. “I think at the moment, the idea of a uniform is this sense of wanting to escape from the way that fashion has, to some extent, dictated trends and pushed out a dizzying six seasons a year,” notes Faye. “I think people are wanting to get closer to their own worlds and carve out their own niches.”The Toogoods put this to the test when they teamed up with Selfridges department store in London back in March for a project called Agender. It was a retail experiment that eliminated separate men’s and women’s sections, brought everything together in one open space, and did away with any directional categories for customers to follow. As Erica says, “it proved to be incredibly successful, and I think retailers are beginning to realize that they have to address the fact that men and women don’t want to be prescribed sizing or sex or a total look, they want to try it on, have their own opinion, and sort of work at it.” She adds, “They want a challenge.” Faye explains further, “It feels old-fashioned to split the pink and blue, the girl and boy.”

Mixing and matching, blending, blurring, turning simple clothing into works of your own individual art is what has seemed to underscore the genderless fashion movement this year. “Normally, describing someone’s identity would have been accomplished by naming their gender,” Faye says. “Now it’s all being smeared, so that at this point those definitions are no longer relevant or interesting. People are looking for diverse ways to differentiate themselves from the mass.”

Looking ahead, it will be interesting to see how the idea of genderless dress evolves for 2017. For one, Bode has officially been added to the men’s Fashion Week calendar in February and told us she’ll absolutely be presenting her clothes on both male and female models. While her dad may still be a little confused come showtime, it’s exciting to think that he’ll learn something new. Likewise, it’s refreshing to know that the rest of the consumer world is really coming around.