Inclusion: one of the main driving principles behind the opening of New York City’s first gender neutral store last year. Called The Phluid Project, this store stands for something more than just clothes: it’s about creating an inclusive retail experience and community hub for gender-nonconforming and queer-identifying customers.
Retail veteran Rob Smith, who served more than 20 years at Macy’s along with stints at Victoria’s Secret and Haddad Brands, opened the doors to his 3,000 square-foot store in NoHo in March 2018 to appeal to this underserved segment within the burgeoning Gen-Z market, which is poised to contribute $143 billion in spending power over the next four years.
This rising generation that Smith is reaching out to has proven, in various market studies and even just looking at social media, to reject socially-prescribed labels. They overwhelmingly believe in people’s right to define themselves, and in the freedom to simply wear whatever clothes make them feel good – regardless of gender.
According to research done by Smith, 56 percent of Gen Z and 46 percent of Millennials don’t always buy clothes geared specifically towards their own gender; they choose to simply wear what makes them comfortable and helps express their personal style. And, according to the same research, 78 percent of young people say gender no longer defines people as it once did.
“We are not just a store, we are a movement, committed to challenging the ethos of the traditions of the past that inhibit freedom and self-expression,” says Smith. “Our world is not defined by binaries, and neither are we.”
So, if this store is genderless, how does Smith make his seasonal buys, you ask? Well, he reaches out to inclusive brands and independent local designers that have universal sizing standards. Brands like Champion, Gypsy Sport, Dr. Martens, Soulland, Kinfolk, Steve Madden, Fila, Brand Black, and State Bags are just a taste of what is offered in the store across various product categories like apparel, accessories, beauty and gifts. Retail prices range from $35 to $500.
“Our store is multi-faceted, part retail, part community space, part experiential, and completely gender-free,” maintains Smith. “We will serve as a hub for the community, creating a place to hang out, have fun, and share collective ideas.”
Smith does community engagement well — hosting weekly events at the store ranging from panel discussions on how to build a brand, to information sessions on sexual health, and even traditional retail events like trunk shows and charity fundraisers.
“Since most of us crave human connection and dialogue, but have lost some of that through social media, I wanted to make sure Phluid provides ample seating for reflecting, socializing, and special events to create a stronger sense of community” says Smith. “Additionally, there is a community space in the lower level, fully accessible to groups to share ideas and experiences in private, free of charge.”
Asked what brought him to open The Phulid Project, Smith said, “The Phluid Project is an opportunity for me to merge my profession with my passion. I’ve spent 30 years in retail and the past decade working with The Hetrick Martin Institute, empowering young people to live safe, open, and thriving lives as LGBTQ people. With The Phluid Project, I’m able to wake up and do what I love … innovating in fashion and building a more connected and authentic world.”
“I’ve always wanted to create spaces for young people to really be themselves,” maintains Smith. “As a kid I didn’t have that, and I often think about how my life might have been different if I had the opportunity to explore my authentic identity sooner. Even now I’m still in a process of peeling back the layers of who I thought I should be and finding out who I really am. I want to give young people a safe space to truly express themselves.”
Asked what inspires him the most, Smith says, “I’m inspired by young people who have the courage and strength to live honestly and openly. The ‘Ph’ in Phluid represents the balance of masculine and feminine. When this balance is realized, we will see our society reach its full potential. The space that we have created allows each individual the opportunity to see what it feels like for them, knowing it will continue to evolve and change with each day.”
Smith concludes: “As the world continues to evolve, we should all strive to be a part of that change. That doesn’t just mean going along for the ride, it means being an active agent of change and a leader, moving things forward in a significant and meaningful way.”