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Can Fashion Adapt?

Photo Courtesy: Utilitarian

In theory, fashion is one of the truest forms of self-expression. What we put on our bodies tells the world around us how we view our- selves, what makes us unique and what we are into at that moment in time. Given the many implications of the clothing and accessories we choose to wear, it is only fitting that the thought processes and decision-making that go into shopping for and putting together an outfit are just as, if not more, complex than the outfit itself.

Like any other creative process, the process of picking an outfit to wear should not be subjected to any limitations or regulations, particularly from outdated societal constructs. I know as a designer that I create my best work when I can let my mind and artistic instincts wander freely. So, when I enter a brick-and-mortar clothing store or shop online on a popular e-commerce website and am immediately pressured to filter products by choosing between “men” and “women,” I feel stunted in my agency as a consumer to find clothing and accessories that best suit my personal style, regardless of gender constructs.

The fashion industry was built and, for the most part, continues to exist along the lines of a strict gender binary. Designers are often classified into menswear and womenswear categories; global Fashion Weeks see show after show separated by gender, and styles are consistently defined by their proximity to traditionally masculine or feminine aesthetics. Not to mention the physical separation of menswear and womenswear that is the standard within a majority of retail floors.

Separation in accordance with the gender binary has traditionally been defended in the name of convenience and added ease for the consumer’s shopping experience. In an oversaturated market, filtering by gender theoretically allows the shopper to narrow down the countless options that they are faced with both online and in-store, while offering some marketplace guidance. This ideology, however, is antiquated. Today’s rising class of consumers, most notably those belonging to Gen Z and the younger Gen Alphas, view gender completely differently from veterans of the fashion industry. It is about time that more of the industry began to reflect the open-minded and fluid approaches to gender that the bulk of its audience already embraces.

According to a study conducted by the Innovation Group, 78% of Gen Z consumers agree that gender is not as important of an identity marker as it once used to be. Moreover, 56% of Gen Z respondents said they know someone personally who uses gender-neutral pronouns, and 56% also said that they already shop for clothing outside of their gender.

Not only are today’s consumers much more likely to approach shopping in a way that transcends the conventional gender binary, but they also hold higher standards and expectations from the companies and brands that they choose to support. Looking beyond Gen Z shoppers, a recent Deloitte survey found that 42% of millennials have chosen to support businesses that they believe contribute positively to society or the environment, and 37% of millennial respondents said they have stopped shopping altogether from companies that they believe are unethical.

These numbers demonstrate the way social issues and fashion have become inextricably linked for today’s consumer. It is time that fashion brands and retailers start creating and merchandising products in ways shoppers are seeking to consume them. They can begin by listening to what people today really want: clothing that does not discriminate or exclude according to gender and companies that are engaged and responsive to today’s most pressing social issues.

It is with these trends in mind that I was inspired and motivated to create my modern and androgynous clothing and accessory brand Utilitarian, which rejects the establishment framework with gender-neutral styles that focus on construction over ornamentation. With a strong desire to ignite cultural change and a belief that style does not have a gender, I hope that Utilitarian can help fill a need for gender-neutral styles amidst an oversaturated market that is still limited in its range of options.

Here are four guiding principles I kept in mind while designing my brand and its mission — together creating realistic first steps that the fashion industry can take now to create true change:

Eliminate Traditional Gender Norms

As the numbers cited above indicate, traditional gender norms are becoming more obsolete in modern discourse — it is time that this societal shift also reveals itself in the fashion industry. Rather than thinking about fashion as an expression of gender, we must begin to consider fashion as an expression of identity.

It is only a matter of time before fashion trends will transcend the connotations connected to categories of  “menswear”and “womenswear.”The sooner we stop describing clothes as “masculine”or “feminine,” the sooner we can normalize and encourage people to wear the clothing that truly captures their identity, as opposed to the clothing that is most easily accessible to them.

Embrace & Showcase Gender-Neutral Imagery

Demands to widen the range of body types, races and ethnicities of the faces in the industry are not new. These past few years have seen unprecedented initiatives among fashion brands and media outlets to establish more inclusivity and acknowledge the importance of representation. This shift must also include more representation for gender-neutral and non-binary people.

It goes without saying that the fashion industry relies heavily on visuals, so the impact that a brand’s imagery has on its shoppers is invaluable. The more inclusive the imagery is, whether on a website or in a magazine, the wider your audience can be. Adding images of androgynous models wearing your clothes or showing the products on both female- and male-identifying models can make a huge difference in normalizing gender-fluid approach to fashion.

Update Messaging & Product Descriptions to be More Inclusive

In addition to images being universally more inclusive, it is also essential that product descriptions and brands’ messaging follow suit. Accurate and comprehensive fit descriptions are especially crucial for online shopping. Incorporating images of different bodies and genders sporting clothes is the first step, but fit descriptions that include all of the necessary information for consumers go hand-in-hand.

To achieve inclusive messaging, brands should provide useful information such as measurements for female- and male-identifying shoppers, or design specific gender-neutral products.

Rethink Product Categorizations

Beyond product descriptions, the categorization of the products themselves on retail floors as well as e-commerce websites alike should optimize inclusivity rather than gender separation. Rather than filing clothing and accessories as either “menswear” or “womenswear,” we must reconsider products according to their purpose or shopper’s need.

Filtering by product type, fit, style, color and more are great and easy ways to eradicate categorization along the gender binary. By eliminating this barrier, we could also eliminate the alienation of shoppers whose styles transcend gender lines.

Regardless of the modern consumer’s flexible approach to gender and gendered clothing, true change is needed from the top. The tips above and changes in attitudes surrounding gender identity have served as the guiding principles in the creation of Utilitarian. I hope that my brand will not only appeal to consumers who are longing for more gender-neutral options in the fashion sector, but also lead as an example for industry leaders who seek to be at the forefront of today’s most important and inspiring trends. The fashion industry can indeed catch up with the times, but only by embracing values of inclusion, diversity and change.

Growing up as a gay man in rural Wyoming and surrounded by conservative beliefs, Utilitarian founder Bentley Wederski faced discrimination throughout much of his childhood for his identity. Wederski moved to New York City after high school graduation to study fashion business management at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), eventually forging his fashion career at companies from The Row to Anthropologie. Upon returning to Wyoming in 2020 to start his fashion brand, Wederski vowed that his brand would be at the forefront of advocating for equal rights and social justice. Through that vision, Utilitarian, which connects modern construction with minimal design to offer a collection of timeless clothing and accessories embracing the intersection of gender inclusion and equity, was born.

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