Fashion designers blur gender lines with unisex styles

Models wear clothing from fashion brand S.P. Badu.
Models wear clothing from fashion brand S.P. Badu. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-S.P. Badu

TORONTO – While most clothing remains categorized along gender lines, there is a growing movement among some fashion brands to blur the boundaries distinguishing styles for men and women.

Spanish-based retailer Zara recently launched Ungendered, a 10-piece collection encompassing T-shirts, joggers, sweatshirts, jeans and Bermuda shorts for both men and women.

Designer Nicola Formichetti, who previously crafted outlandish looks for Lady Gaga, is at the helm of genderless clothing line Nicopanda, with rose-printed T-shirts, hoodies with cutouts and pink parkas among its spring-summer offerings.

And Montreal-raised designer Rad Hourani has devoted his signature label to celebrating gender neutrality. While marking his fifth anniversary at Toronto Fashion Week in 2012, Hourani unveiled a utilitarian collection with military-inspired touches.

Beyond the runway, skirts have become embraced as stage style for artists like Justin Bieber and Kanye West. Jaden Smith — the teen son of star couple Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith — recently made a buzzworthy debut as the new face of Louis Vuitton when he wore a motorcycle jacket, fringed top and pleated skirt in the fashion house’s spring-summer campaign.

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When androgynous styles start to surface in fashion, it’s typically reflective of a greater social shift driving the movement, said Dale Peers, professor and program co-ordinator in the school of fashion at Seneca College in Toronto.

Peers said in the 1920s, social freedoms given to women after patriotic service in the First World War and earning the right to vote translated to style changes symbolic of their new status, with more masculine-looking silhouettes seen in clothing.

The changes of a century ago seem to be resurfacing with the more recent embrace of gender-neutral styles, she noted.

“If we’re looking from a social perspective at our hopefully greater acceptance of different lifestyles and ideas, then this is social phenomenon that is being reflected once again in the zeitgeist, and therefore, it has that influence in fashion,” said Peers.

Spencer Badu can recall occasions when he’d make modifications to a female top he’d purchased because he liked certain elements, like the length of the garment.

“For me, there are no rules,” said Badu, who is currently completing studies at the Fashion Institute at Olds College in Calgary.

The Toronto-born designer said his main objective with his label S.P. Badu is to challenge preconceived notions of gender, which could only be accomplished with a unisex brand.

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Badu said he is focused on inclusivity, and tries to put an emphasis on comfort in his clothes. But he acknowledged that he needs to make key adjustments to ensure the styles will fit both male and female bodies, like placing invisible zippers on particular T-shirts and crafting exaggerated sleeves.

“I think my esthetic is very narrow and it appeals to certain people,” said Badu.

“Where I challenge myself is that I try to appeal to people that also wouldn’t consider wearing a unisex piece, that also wouldn’t consider throwing on a cropped jacket because they’re kind of afraid.”

Sandy Silva, director of fashion and beauty at the NPD Group, said despite the current crop of brands touting gender-neutral fashions, she doesn’t see the divisions being entirely dissolved any time soon.

“I don’t believe a retailer is going to transform to a complete genderless offering. I think it’s testing the waters to see how it goes, a slow and steady approach,” said Silva.

“I’m pretty sure dollars and cents will speak at the end of the day.”

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