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How This Gender-Free Brand Is Appealing to Cause-Driven Gen Z & Millennials

Young shoppers expect the places they shop to be inclusive, but some heritage brands are struggling to get on board. There’s a lot they could learn from The Phluid Project…

The Genreless Generation is demanding options that are inclusive in all ways, from size to gender. That’s why heritage brands are doing what they can to embrace the gender blur and support the LGBTQ+ community. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in fashion and retail, where Guess, Abercrombie & Fitch, and several children’s brands have released collections that could live on either side of the aisle, while Toys R Us and Target opted to dissolve the aisle boundary altogether. This push isn’t just about bringing Gen Z & Millennials the products they want to buy but also building brand affinity by aligning with their values. More young shoppers are putting their money where their morals are, with 72% of 13-36-year-olds telling us in our Causes to Crises trend that they believe brands have a responsibility to stand up for social causes. And when they do stand up for causes, not only do 78% feel more positively towards that brand, but 20% are also more motivated to purchase. We’ve seen brands go about being “woke” in the wrong ways, especially when it comes to supporting the LGBTQ+ community, so we talked to gender-free brand The Phluid Project to gain some insights into the right way to connect with this lifestyle and the young shoppers that live, or support, it.

The Phluid Project is leading the conversation on androgynous fashion, reports Racked. Their gender-free store and online shopping experience embrace clothing that isn’t defined by gender in a safe space that encourages shoppers to hang out and attend one of their events or just study at their café. They’ve branched into consulting to get heritage brands on board, offer a free community space that can be reserved by the hour, and have an open house for designers to show their stuff, making sure they don’t miss out on the ideas of promising members of minority and LGBTQ+ communities. In summary, they’re doing diversity right and paving the way for a more inclusive future for fashion and retail. Christina Zervanos, who’s been with the brand from the beginning and currently serves as the Head of PR, told us how brands can become more inclusive, why connecting to young shopper’s values is so important, and more…

YPulse: Do Phluid Project shoppers ask about the company’s brand values and do you think that brand values factor into young consumers’ decisions to purchase?

Christina Zervanos: Yes, absolutely. At Phluid, our main demographic is Generation Z. We focus on the LGBTQ+ community as well, but young people as a whole really pay attention to mission and concept. They’ll come into the store and oftentimes ask questions, [and] the questions that you hear are: “Which brands are queer owned?” “Which brands are using the community in their casting and are body positive?” “Do they have trans models?” “Do they have non-binary models?” “What do they give back to charity?” More than ever, young Millennials [and Gen Z] pay attention to this. When there are so many brands to choose from, this helps them with their purchase decisions because they feel like [a brand] aligns with their lifestyle. Generation Z really cares about sustainability. They care about charitable give-back. They care about supporting minority and queer owned brands that celebrate body positivity. That’s what they’re paying attention to and ultimately demanding.

YP: Do you think young people expect values to be integral to brands in general?

CZ: They definitely expect it and that is the ultimate differentiation factor at this point. If they have two brands, both of whoms’ aesthetic they like, if one brand is aligned with their value system and they feel like they’re challenging the boundaries of humanity, that’s what they’re gravitating more towards.

YP: On the topic of brand values, Elle reports that Victoria’s Secret recently hired their first trans model. Do you think that decision will have an impact on young consumers’ perceptions of the brand?

CZ: Unfortunately, in their case, I think that it’s more reactive than proactive and that people will see through that. What they’re doing should still be celebrated and appreciated. We were interviewed by Teen Vogue for a piece on Rainbow capitalism and tokenizing queerness. So you look at your local bank or you see major corporations and all of a sudden, come June, everything’s rainbow. And you don’t want to take away from the fact that celebrating pride is important, but you also want to be able to do that all year round. It’s kind of in the same vein as Victoria’s Secret. Why didn’t they have a trans model before this nightmare? Those questions and those realities are looked at not only by the community, but by young people in general.

YP: We reported on the increasing backlash to brands “woke-washing” themselves by getting involved in Pride month. What’s your opinion?

CZ: It’s important to support queer-owned brands, minority-owned brands, and brands that celebrate body positivity all-year-round. It’s the same idea with sustainable brands. These things need to be integrated year-round. And that’s where I think you really build your consumer base, your loyalty, and your trust—when people don’t think that you are tokenizing who they are for a marketing game. And it’s a fine line. We’re always in a process of unlearning and relearning, and it’s part of why we named this The Phluid Project. We are part of a movement and things are constantly in an ever-evolving climate, so it’s important for some of these heritage brands to come to people who are experts in this space.

YP: Does having a physical, in-person store still matter to young shoppers? 

CZ: I’m 33 and my generation was so confronted with the opportunity to shop online and so saturated that it had become really easy—and that’s still the case. But what’s really shocking to me is National Retail Federation reported that 98% of Gen Zs like to shop in-store some or most of the time, which is a staggering difference from older generations. What you’re seeing is that people like to relate to a lifestyle and so for us, it’s all about the future of retail. We have our flagship store here based in New York, and we want to be able to translate the success of the store and the energy that we have in the store to our online [experience]. [That way,] people that aren’t in New York can feel the energy. There’s a ton of foot traffic, and you have people coming in that have read about us and when they’re traveling to New York, [our store] is their first stop.

We’re part of this coffee shop called Rise Coffee, so we have a cafe area…People will come in and maybe do a little bit of shopping and maybe grab a coffee. They have their laptop, and they’ll get some work done and then stay later for the events we have. And what you’re seeing is that this gains customer loyalty because the space goes so beyond the transactional aspect and is speaking to a lifestyle. You [can] come in here and hang out with like-minded people. I think for a brand [like The Phluid Project] that is so mission and concept based and is ultimately about pushing the boundaries of humanity and creating a safe space, having a physical tangible space is really important.

YP: Does the store prioritize revenue or creating a branded experience?

CZ: A business is a business, right? You have to keep the doors open, and we’re based in New York. It’s a balance. You look at Rob Smith [Phluid Project’s founder], and he was an executive for 30-plus years in spaces like Macy’s and Victoria’s Secret, where it was all about the binary. He worked with a lot of youth and the LGBTQ community and realized how jarring a shopping and retail experience was for them. So, between his professional experience and his personal ambitions, The Phluid Project was born. You have to pay for a space and so that’s where the idea of executing this through fashion comes into play. We give back to the community as much as we possibly can. We have our own candle line, and each one gives one hundred percent of its profits back to charity. We have a community space downstairs from 3 to 7pm every day…that’s free of charge and it’s our way of giving back. We try to maintain that balance as much as possible…So it’s become much more than a store and a brand.

YP: In your opinion, are big brands are doing enough when it comes to diversity training for Gen Z consumers? 

CZ: That’s a complicated question. There are so many big brands out there and I think people have become very antiquated in their business models and in their way of thinking [because it’s] something they’ve done for so long. Logistically, right now you go into a department store, and there’s the men’s and the women’s [sections]. Think about all of the [corporate] red tape that you’d have to go through to then have a gender-fluid store. How do you switch that? Who’s doing your merchandising now? How do you change your mannequins? It’s complicated.

What’s amazing about being a young brand is that we don’t have any of those restrictions. We don’t start with any of that. We created our own mannequins, we got to work with brands whose casting we believed in and who had sizing that spoke to menswear, womenswear, non-binary, and everything in between.

YP: Does being gender neutral mean changing labels and marketing, or does it start earlier than that?

CZ: There’s always the conversation about gender neutral products that means that they’re oversized and muted colors. On Phluid’s website, it’s the opposite. We celebrate color and whatever else. [Whether we have] trousers, sweatpants, denim, or whatever else, we try it on someone who was sex-identified at birth male, sex-identified at birth female, and then we come to something in-between. That’s the formula that we go off of now, and [we’ve found that] there are certain silhouettes that are really easy (caftans, jumpsuits) and definitely speak to the gender neutral or non-binary demographic for me. It’s not like you are reinventing the wheel as far as silhouettes are concerned. It’s more about the fact that you can come into a space like Phluid, and there’s no split between the men’s side and the women’s side. And so if you walk in and you’re male presenting and you’re attracted to a dress or a skirt, then [you can] go to that dress or that skirt. There’s no coming in and wanting that and having to go to the women’s section, right? It’s an open floor model, and that’s really important.

Beyond that, what’s really important is the casting. So whether it’s in our campaigns or on Instagram or [with] any gender-neutral brands, you’re seeing a difference in casting and the way things are worn. Something that you may assume would be worn by female models [could be] worn on a male model. Not only does that give [people] freedom but it encourages their playful nature. It shows that other people are dressing like this too, and we’re here to support and celebrate that and to embrace it absolutely.

YP: Do you think that retail will continue to move towards a less gendered future?

CZ: I do. It’s always interesting when people say that this is a trend. This is the way that people are living, and younger generations are being more vocal and that’s really brave. They are demanding this, and any brand that doesn’t get on board isn’t ultimately going to keep succeeding. You have to pay attention to the way that people are identifying and the way that they’re looking at things.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Christina Zervanos, Head of PR, The Phluid Project

Christina is a PR and branding professional with over 10 years of experience in the fashion industry, spanning Paris, Los Angeles, and New York markets predominately, with tangential exposure in London, Milan, Mumbai, and Delhi.

With a focus in fashion and lifestyle brands, Christina Zervanos combines her global industry knowledge, cultural and diversity understanding, strong writing background, and passion for storytelling to offer expansive and international brand exposure, expanding to brand development and consultation.

Christina has had clients in international publications spanning The NYTimes | Vogue Int’l | Harper’s Bazaar Int’l | ELLE Int’l | Forbes | OUT | L’Officiel | GQ | Nylon and beyond. Christina’s clients have been worn by the likes of Beyonce, Rihanna, Billy Porter, Michael Shannon, Blake Griffin and Stacy London.