When it comes to Zara's recent decision to launch a collection of clothes that are bereft of gender classifications, I'm left feeling rather conflicted. On the one hand, I can appreciate the positive implications of having Zara, a global superpower in mainstream fashion, acknowledge and act upon what so many people have been saying about gender neutrality in fashion. But on the other, I'm afraid this is simply yet another insidious example of capitalism at work, whereby a corporation is embracing a social justice "trend" for the sole purpose of making more money. Just like pinkwashing and the commodification of mainstream (white) feminism, I fear this is just another variant on the same theme of large companies becoming "socially aware" right when it avails them to be so.
Call me cynical or whatever, but if there's one thing I've learned after four years of business school, it's that making more money is always a corporation's ultimate goal.
And truly, now is as good a time as any for a company to become a proponent of gender neutrality. I mean, with 50% of US Millennials agreeing that gender lies on a spectrum and can't necessarily be constrained to a binary, the future augurs well for brands seeking to attract this mass of powerful consumers. In truth, embracing the idea of "genderless" clothing is a lucrative way for brands to build a differentiated product offering that posits them as leaders in both innovative design and (mainstream) social justice.
By embracing "unisex" design, a massive company like Zara is lauded for being in tune with society's evolving interpretations of gender identity, and thus responsive to ever-changing sociocultural market forces. Indeed, its unparalleled dominance in fast-fashion has created an expectation among its shareholders that it will constantly be jumping from trend to trend as fast as Trump flip-flops on policy stances. Therefore, this "ungendered" approach to design can only prove to be beneficial for Zara.
And, therein lies my main reservation with this new collection: it's nothing more than a marketing ploy aimed at exploiting a pivotal shift in societal attitudes. It's not revolutionary, it's not socially aware, it's simply capitalistic.
By launching a capsule collection composed wholly of white t-shirts, classic blue jeans, and the most humdrum grey sweats, Zara is presenting the most watered-down depiction of what gender neutrality in fashion entails. By limiting the definition of this complex concept to garments that are – literally – basic and already worn by both genders, Zara is simply making gender neutrality in fashion all the more palatable for the masses – and profitable for itself.
As a student in the art of consumerist deception (i.e. marketing), I must admit that this new collection is quite shrewd marketing for a company that targets the most mainstream of shoppers. In fact, the collection is already mostly sold out. But, all the same, I can't help but be left wanting more. Just like gender equality is so much more than women being able to work in male-dominated fields, I truly was hoping that gender neutrality in fashion would be proffered as more than just women wearing men's clothes.
When I first found out about Zara's "ungendered" collection, I posted a series of tweets expressing my disappointment with the new offering. Again, I can appreciate that Zara is a corporation and thus it's duty is to make more money for its shareholders, rather than bring about a change in how society perceives gender identity. But, I still can't help but feel like we're being duped when brands present a simplistic vision of unisex fashion that is based exclusively on archetypal menswear codes.
But, no joke, why can't unisex fashion be presented as much about men wanting to wear womenswear, as it is about women embracing menswear? Fundamentally, why can't femininity be something that everyone is able to identify with – and accepted accordingly by society? Although designers like J. W. Anderson and even Gucci's Alessandro Michele are pioneering a new kind of "feminine" menswear, why can't this be the dominant narrative in society – or at least one that is presented at all? I mean, if we've achieved "gender equality," then what's holding us back?
For me, this reductive interpretation of gender neutrality in fashion precludes the very gender fluidity on which it is posited. It pretty much markets to (patriarchal) mainstream society the facile interpretation that gender fluidity is but a one-way street. As such, it's possible to go from a more feminine gender expression to one that's more masculine – but not the other way around. I personally see this limited conceptualization of gender fluidity as toxic because, fundamentally, all it really does is affirm that masculinity is more valuable than femininity, thereby perpetuating the patriarchy.
Essentially, it's saying that it's totally fine – and actually expected – for women to want to dress like men, but men wanting to dress like women is a problematic renunciation of male privilege. "Genderless" fashion that is predicated on the most basic menswear tropes simply devalues and trivializes femininity as something that people should actually want to avoid.
Additionally – and most importantly – rather than creating a truly "genderless" design code, all this really does is reinforce the binary in fashion that distinguishes menswear from womenswear. By establishing menswear as the foundation of "genderless" fashion, all we're really saying is that the default way we should all dress if we're not trying to express a specific gender is to dress like a man. Seems rather counter-intuitive, if you ask me.
This may seem logical for individuals who accept that gender identity lies on a binary spectrum, but what about those who identify outside of this spectrum? What about those individuals whose gender identity can't be expressed through menswear, womenswear, nor a combination of the two? So much for "genderless" fashion, eh?
Granted, there are a limited number of designers, such as Canada's own Rad Hourani that have accepted the daunting challenge of developing a fashion vocabulary that, at its core, is fully devoid of gender. Furthermore, some retailers have actually embraced the idea of "genderless" fashion, with Selfridges having opened a 3-level "Agender" concept store featuring garments that bore neither labels of being "his" nor "hers."
Despite these veritable advances, something that will never cease to amaze me is just how solidly entrenched the – arbitrary – gendering of clothing remains in contemporary society. Simply put, the idea of even gendering fashion in the first place is fully a social construct – and one that has evolved rather arbitrarily over time (men used to wear heels to indicate social status, while Western women only began wearing pants at the turn of the 20th century).
If you dissociate form from function (in the sense that while bras have a gender-specific function, a dress does not), you realize that the former has no inherent gendered meaning. Instead, it is society that has actively taken it upon itself to attribute gendered classifications to different styles, in a manner that establishes a clear distinction between menswear and womenswear. While one is predicated on solemn and sensible function, the other is based on more frivolous and flirtatious form. So, while the former is practical and valuable, the latter is trivial and desirable.
Anyway, I guess it's precisely because these social constructions of gendered clothing have evolved over time that I am left wanting so much more from Zara's first collection of "ungendered" clothing. Although I am aware that it is highly unrealistic to expect a company of its size to actually take a meaningful stance on gender neutrality, I was still hoping that its first contribution to the discussion would be more than just a collection of the most basic of clothes.
But hey, capitalism, right?
Simply put, Kendrick Lamar is a musical genius. This track has been on repeat ever since the surprise drop of "untitled unmastered" – although that's no real surprise.