"Ugh. What are they doing here?" was the reaction of a menswear buyer after seeing a string of women walk the shows during men’s fashion week. That was three years ago. And back then, this gender neutral approach was a surprise. The idea of mixing men’s and womenswear on the runway was seen as a bold statement, and still felt relatively new — or at least unfamiliar.
But fashion moves fast. And, lo and behold, ‘co-ed’ is now as commonplace as borrowing your little brother’s jacket or your girlfriend’s jeans. And we’re seeing authoritative fashion bodies recognise the designers behind non-binary collections.
The CFDA, the organiser of New York Fashion Week, added ‘unisex/non-binary’ as a new category in February this year. And half the designers recognised on this year’s LVMH Prize shortlist produce gender-neutral collections; Ludovic de Saint Sernin and Charles Jeffrey, among others. "The nominations echo the recent evolutions in fashion," said Delphine Arnault, founder of the prize.
And Arnault is right. While the merging of men’s and women’s fashion on the catwalk is nothing new (Prada started doing it back in 2010, and Jean Paul Gaultier and Alexander McQueen were mixing it up long before that), more brands are following suit — J.W.Anderson, A.P.C., Balenciaga and Tom Ford all went co-ed for the first time in 2018.
You might argue that it’s economically savvy for brands to mix men’s and womenswear in one show – and it is – but Gucci are worth £1.3 billion. They’re hardly scrambling for pocket-change. Where it’s useful is for the buyer, able to see a cohesive brand offering that pitches a lifestyle, as opposed to a look.
What’s different about fashion on the catwalk is the way they’re blending traditionally ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ tropes (think historically gendered frills and broad-shouldered suiting). We’re seeing less of a dual offer, with separate looks for guys and girls, and more of a one-size, one-shape, one-style approach for everyone. Look at next season’s Balenciaga, which offers the same clingy, crushed-velvet bodysuits and saddlebag-hip coats for both men and women.
Fashion might slowly be doing away with its traditional binary model, and a younger generation of designers is driving that. For instance, Alexandre Mattiussi, the designer behind Ami (formerly a menswear brand), recently started styling his bold tailoring and bright knits on women, reflecting the reality of how we dress now. "Ami was always designed for men first," Mattiussi told ELLE. "But then women in the office and friends started picking up pieces, and girls became an official part of the Ami story."
The same thing happened for de Saint Sernin, who also launched his label as a menswear brand but now shows his collections on women. "I don’t think of gender when designing clothes, but I wanted to focus on menswear," he says. "The fact that women stylists and editors came to my presentation thinking, “I could pull that off” was really encouraging." You can see telltale signs of his time working with Olivier Rousteing at Balmain — the silver lamé, paillettes and lacquered trench coats. And you can understand why the baroque ornamentation of his work appeals across genders.
At Matches Fashion, buying director Natalie Kingham says men and women now shop across both categories. "We often look at menswear collections and know our female customers will respond well to them." She adds that newer labels are also less likely to be gender-specific, as "there’s less pressure to conform, and a revived interest in being free in your clothing choices, whether it’s about comfort or creativity." It’s why you’ll see the work of designers who typically create clothing for men available in the women’s section of the website, from Charles Jeffrey to Martine Rose and Edward Crutchley.
It’s easy to think that attitudes towards gender are changing when you’re speaking to people in fashion, where anything goes in order to get the right look. However, it does seem that change is afoot in general, with more visible brands and celebrities advocating non-gender-specific style. H&M featured a dress in the unisex denim collection it launched last year, while Jaden Smith (who has 8.2 million followers on Instagram) wore a skirt in the SS17 campaign for Louis Vuitton.
There’s certainly a generational shift. A study conducted by The Fawcett Society found that 65 per cent of over 65s think that gender is binary, compared to just 44 per cent of 18–24 year olds. So we’re likely to see fewer men and women styled as complimentary counterparts as a new generation of design talent comes through, and less gender-specific styling (a moratorium on the term ‘gender-bending’, at least). Just think of all the options.
From: ELLE USA