Sign up to Interline Insiders to receive our weekly analysis in your inbox every Friday.

Key Takeaways:

  • Genderless fashion and inclusive self-expression are vital short-term objectives, but they require modifications to design workflows and sizing methodologies to cater to a broader range of individuals. Brands must create well-fitted clothing that resonates with the broadest possible audience without becoming shapeless and unidentifiable.
  • Digital environments and 3D / digital product creation tools offer clear advantages to exploring the practical reality of creating genderless fashion: experimentation, fit simulation, new avatars and size sets, and the vast possibility space of digital fashion and immersive experiences.
  • Differing perspectives on this year’s consumption holidays – Prime Day and 618 especially – reflect a growing divide between different camps of consumers and brands as to whether the future of the fashion business model can be re-anchored to degrowth rather than accelerating volume and variety.

Gender-fluid fashion’s digital testing ground

This week, Vogue Business wrote an insightful analysis of the current state of genderless fashion on the runway, and delved into the strategies employed by brands and retailers as they contemplate its positioning and representation in the market.

As they point out, while major retailers like Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Nordstrom recognise the importance of breaking down gendered fashion norms, those same companies are still searching for the right way to integrate non-binary, gender-fluid styles into their assortments and positioning.

Right now, many rely on store associates and stylists to guide individual clients towards inclusive and genderless fashion choices. And multi-brand retailers face unique challenges in accommodating gender-fluid styles due to the complexity of managing a large inventory with different tracking systems – both of which are traditionally set up to manage a binary division between men’s and women’s styles.

On the other hand, brands that focus solely on their own collections, like Salvatore Ferragamo and Gucci, are seemingly demonstrating greater flexibility to merge genders in their merchandising and marketing strategies, both in-store and online.

But what does this mean behind the scenes? Positioning and selling non-gendered fashion is one thing, but breaking down workflows that are built upon binary size sets and a clear delineation between categories is another. Greater inclusivity, representation, and recognition is a clear and unambiguous positive, but beneath that surface goal lies some complexity that must be overcome quickly.

While adopting a universal size set and grading rules may appear simpler at first glance, the practical implementation is likely to be more complicated.

Shifting towards a genderless fashion paradigm involves more than discarding traditional men’s or women’s categories and expecting everyone to conform to an established sizing and fit model. Instead, it necessitates a comprehensive re-evaluation of design principles and sizing methodologies, aiming to embrace a more inclusive and non-binary understanding of fit and style. This entails addressing both the objective aspects of fit, such as measurements, as well as the subjective elements that encompass individual preferences and identities.

As a result, implementing a genderless fashion approach will necessitate substantial modifications to the entire design and development workflow. This will include key aspects like creating or adapting new, genderless avatars, revisiting or rebuilding sizing data sets, and revising grading rules.

The objective is to accommodate a diverse range of individuals without relying solely on loose or oversized garments, instead, creating well-fitted and flattering clothing that resonates with the broadest possible audience rather than railroading customers down existing lanes. These changes aim to strike a balance between inclusivity and style, ensuring that garments cater to the varied preferences and body types of individuals, without becoming shapeless and unidentifiable as an on-brand silhouette.

In this context, 3D modelling and Digital Product Creation (DPC) tools offer a clear advantage, as they open up the door for swifter exploration and experimentation, refinement, and simulated fit testing – surpassing the capabilities of traditional methods in terms of scale and precision.

To be clear, embracing genderless fashion represents a commendable, and important, endeavour, albeit a challenging one due to the inherent structure of the fashion industry. Ours is, after all, one of the oldest industries and one where change – however worthy – takes time to percolate.

This is where the realm of digital fashion holds promising potential as a faster avenue to empower individuals to express themselves authentically through their virtual attire and personal identity. Where physical fashion is fixed in its form and processes, digital fashion is, by its nature, more flexible, more fluid, and more adaptable – operating without the requirement that its inhabitants fit into clearly coded boxes, and without any mandate that their digital self must be anchored in their physical presentation.

And the biggest brands already know this: leveraging the intersection of digital fashion, real-time technology, and gaming as a testing ground, not only at a cultural level but also in terms of developing new tools and technologies. Brands are increasingly recognising the value of enabling people to explore their products, lifestyles, and heritage through immersive experiences facilitated by real-time game engines and existing video game IPs. The recent Nike X Fortnite collaboration serves as a prime example of this trend (along with the expansion of the partnership between LVMH and Epic Games.) Within these digital realms, users are venturing into a realm of self-expression that transcends traditional boundaries, as they are not constrained by avatars or characters firmly tied to their real-world identities or gender expressions.

Image courtesy of Nike.

Considering this landscape, it raises the question of whether digital experiences provide an ideal platform for brands to experiment with genderless styles and concepts. While many video game avatars still possess some degree of gendered characteristics (even if they aren’t explicitly coded male or female), a growing number of prominent games are embracing the idea of allowing players to create or select avatars that do not adhere to binary gender norms. For brands seeking to market digital fashion or utilise it as a tool for engagement and advertising, targeting these stylised, genderless avatars could serve as a viable means to explore and validate concepts without the complexities associated with physical design, development, and production.

But is there any guarantee that this strategy will resonate with those behind the game controllers? Likely, yes. Many people in these are older teens and above (40% in Roblox’s case) for whom gender identity is a vocal issue, thus making them a relevant audience to cater to the demand for genderless styles.

Whether they use digital fashion as a testing ground first or not, brands now have their work cut out for them in putting genderless planning, design, technical development, production, marketing and retail strategies into practice quickly and with sensitivity and nuance. And it goes without saying that analogue tools and processes will be far less likely to accommodate this change than digital ones.

The continuing clash of fast fashion and conscious consumption

This week we’re seeing contrasting perspectives on the future of consumerism and “consumption holidays” that highlight a significant division in the way brands and consumers approach shopping for new products. On one hand, Patagonia, a prominent advocate of the “degrowth” movement, this week actively discouraged excessive buying, specifically focused on a prominent Chinese shopping festival. On the other, Amazon continues to promote its upcoming Prime Day, which is newly announced to be taking place in July. Prime Day has become a widely recognised event, often regarded as a pivotal occasion for “holiday” shopping, and akin to the significance of Black Friday. Amazon is seeking to further enhance its allure this time around by adding exclusive, invite-only deals, which play on consumers’ fear of missing out, to drive spending.

These are very visible events, so they draw extreme viewpoints, but they are also representative of a division in how both brands and consumers think about shopping for new products all year-round. There are high-volume, fast fashion brands like Shein; prioritising quantity and rapid turnover, who have taken the consumer model to new heights by incorporating elements of gamification into the shopping experience. By employing tactics such as flash sales and pop-up events, these brands instil a heightened sense of urgency that drives consumers to make impulsive buying decisions. But there are also brands like Patagonia, Reformation and Pangaia that have a good track record of being environmentally conscious and ethical, with credits to their name including being Fair Trade Certified, using organic cotton and recycled materials, spearheading environmental sustainability initiatives, and having a secondhand shop – all of which are beachheads towards the much greater goal of simply making less product for a consumer base that wants to buy less.

Will the contrasting perspectives observed during these specific events continue to shape and influence divergent consumer groups throughout the year? Already, a niche group of consumers is emerging who are committed to reducing their clothing consumption or abstaining from buying new garments altogether, largely to do with mounting concerns about the environment and the affordability of living. This movement reflects a growing awareness of the impact of consumerism and its implications for the planet. However, despite the increasing volume of anti-consumerist discourse, the actual number of individuals altering their shopping habits remains relatively limited – evidenced by “haul” content still appearing on social media.

What will it take to actually move the needle and change this? And should brands and retailers be actively discouraged from hosting events like Prime Day and Black Friday? These are open questions, but it seems that participating in these types of events from a sustainability perspective is a complex matter for both. While these events can contribute to increased consumption and promote a culture of excessive buying, going hand-in-hand with negative environmental impacts, they also present opportunities for brands to promote sustainable alternatives, raise awareness about conscious consumerism, and drive positive change. Some brands may choose to use these occasions to highlight their sustainable practices, offer eco-friendly products, or encourage responsible consumption by promoting durability, ethical sourcing, and recycling programs. By leveraging the attention and consumer interest generated during these events, brands can educate and engage customers in making more sustainable choices. Unfortunately, the reality is that even so, there is a lot of waste from packaging and transportation emissions – amplified by super-fast delivery promises.

For consumers and brands, perhaps the bulk of the work towards more sustainable shopping habits is going to happen outside of these events. Giving instructions and guilt-tripping, going either way, is not an effective way to drive behavioural change. At the brand level, it’s going to be crucial to demonstrate the personal benefits for consumers while promoting sustainable choices – emphasising that sustainability can positively impact their own lives, while also contributing to a better future for the planet.

Another potential solution lies in encouraging individuals to adopt shopping habits that align with their preferences and values. This could involve various approaches, such as fully avoiding new clothing purchases, embracing secondhand items, or making exceptions for special occasions or essential needs. By offering flexibility and acknowledging individual circumstances, brands can foster a more inclusive and realistic path towards sustainability.

The transition to a more sustainable shopping journey can be enjoyable too – creating a sense of community among consumers can play a pivotal role in this process. Brands can organise events that revolve around shopping experiences, such as clothing swaps or curated discussions on topics like circularity and sustainable fashion. These initiatives not only provide opportunities for individuals to engage and learn, but also foster a sense of belonging and shared purpose. It’s then up to consumers to use their power to push for change, through social media and even just word of mouth, and hold brands accountable: sharing information, raising awareness, and calling out brands that engage in greenwashing or fail to live up to their side of the bargain when it comes to overproduction and overconsumption.

The best from The Interline:

This week we published an exclusive op-ed from Kelly Vero, which asks the question of what’s happening to the idea of the metaverse now that the spotlight has moved away.

We also released a brand new collaboration – written by The Interline and Munich Fabric Start – that examines fashion at a moment of hesitancy and inertia, and considers how a combination of sustainability imperatives, innovation, and inspiration can get the industry moving again.