A/D/O by MINI | Gender-Neutral Design

Journal

Fashion

Gender-Neutral Design

The once-strict distinction between “male” and “female” is melting away, with design enabling the expression of new forms of identity.

Without getting too bogged down in the nature-nurture debate around sex and gender, one thing is beyond doubt: gender norms define our experience of the world. Whether you’re of a chicken or egg persuasion, people of all cultures are born into a world of tangled gender codes, and are subtly shaped by them in everything they see, hear and touch. RuPaul’s immortal words “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag” may technically be true, but most of the time this drag is so convincing that it hardly bears analysis.

Times are changing, however, and there’s mounting evidence that gender is undergoing an historic transformation. A recent study from Pew Research Center found that almost 60% of 13 to 21 year olds (so-called Generation Z) believe that gender classification needs to be expanded beyond ‘man’ or ‘woman’ (compared to just 30% of Baby Boomers). New research by Irregular Labs, commissioned by the luxury brand Gucci, has also found that nearly 25% of Gen Z expect their gender identification to change during their lifetime, while 45% of that group expect it to change two or three times.

This proves something of a quandary for designers of all ilks – from fashion and beauty to product and industrial. Because design is ultimately about creating novel solutions for the society that the designer is based in, designers tend to work with the research, data and information at hand, and therefore unconsciously reproduce gender bias. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle where new products and services are based on gendered data or assumptions, and therefore recreate gendered worlds for the next generation.

Fashion brands like One DNA​ are espousing a gender-neutral look that pushes fashion boundaries.

At its most ludicrous, this can take the form of products such as Bic’s Pen for Her, launched in 2015 to instant online backlash. The product was a conventional Bic pen in all respects apart from the pink and sparkly colorway, causing feminist blog Jezebel to blast the product in a viral post that lamented: “It seems the pens only come with black or blue ink, but hopefully Bic will release a version that writes in pink – it makes the hearts above our i’s look so much better”.

The pens were of course far from unique in taking a crude blue-for-boys-pink-for-girls approach: Bic just made the spectacular misstep of explicitly labelling the product as such, and therefore making themselves a highly visible example of an everyday occurrence. Lazy design like this was relatively successful and lucrative while gender codes remained stable, but with the youthquake currently underway in Gen Z, things have become much more of a moving target. This is perhaps most evident in the world of fashion and beauty – sectors that are often fastest moving when it comes to shifts in identity.

“The younger generation are demanding more accessibility and visibility when it comes to getting the clothes they want, and this in turn forces the fashion industry to address these changes,” said Dominic Akhavan-Moossavi, lecturer in Menswear and Gender Neutral Fashion Design at Central Saint Martins in London. “There’s a broader shift happening, away from churning out garments based on seasonal trends to being more compassionate about people’s deeper attitudes to gender, the environment, ethics – a whole range of things that are being driven by this younger generation.”

Teaching at one of the most prestigious fashion schools in the world gives Akhavan-Moossav an insider view on how these seeds of change are taking root: “I’m seeing a more holistic designer who of course makes fashion, but also sees it in a wider context and will work with film, performance, technology and environmental issues,” he explained. “It’s really great seeing those students challenging themselves and the status quo of what a fashion designer’s role could and should be.” With rising stars from Matty Bovan to Art School London and One DNA espousing a gender-neutral look that pushes fashion boundaries, the mainstream can no longer marginalize this movement.

Gender non-conforming designer Harris Reed dresses celebrities like Harry Styles and Ezra Miller.

There have, of course, been gender revolutions and queering of culture in previous generations, from David Bowie to Leigh Bowery and Grace Jones, but the holistic nature of the current shift suggests it could bring about a more lasting change. “I think the cult of celebrity is also a huge player in this as we are seeing more and more celebrities identifying with different genders and pronouns, which has made the mainstream fashion industry more aware of the sort of changes happening in society,” Akhavan-Moossav explained.

From actor Ezra Miller to pop star Harry Styles, whose latest looks are largely put together by gender non-conforming designer Harris Reed, youth culture icons now have a platform that cannot be easily sidelined. “I do think that there will come a time where everyone will have some sort of element of gender neutrality within their sales – rather than having menswear and womenswear, there will be a time where there’s just wear,” said Akhavan-Moossav.

The question then becomes: what do we actually mean by gender neutral? The author and campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez is top of The Sunday Times Bestseller List as this piece goes to press with her book Invisible Women, which explores the ways in which women have been written out of design through the idea of the “default male”. For Criado-Perez, the historical assumption that one gender can stand in as the norm for a diverse population can explain any number of social inequalities in design, from Google voice recognition being 70% more likely to understand men, to smartphones being too big for female hands, and fitness monitors not registering steps taken when pushing a pram.

“The vast majority of information or data that we have in the world is based on men – and I usually say ‘information’ rather than ‘data’, because data brings to mind computers and very statistical, rational analysis, but it's actually much broader than that,” Criado-Perez explained. “It means that we all carry an unconscious bias, which is basically a shortcut in our brains developed over years and decades of things being presented in a certain way. It's quite natural really if you grow up in a world where men are represented as predominant and default then your brain will use that as an effective shortcut. I still catch myself doing it all the time.”

Reed is among a group of designers brining gender-neutral fashion to the mainstream.

In this light, so-called gender neutrality can be a trap if it’s really only designing for a perceived androgynous form that is, in fact, far closer to the default male ideal. This clearly comes across in the androgynous look of the 1990s where waif-like, curve-less bodies were presented as neutral. And as Criado-Perez points out, fashion is just the most visible and easily interrogated industry – assumptions in product design, technology, health and automotive (the list goes on) are far more subterranean, diffuse and unaddressable.

The solution for Criado-Perez therefore exists upstream of any single industry or designer, and lies with the information sources that we draw on as a society. “There are two things we have to do really,” she concluded. “One is a kind of consciousness-raising campaign that gets people to recognize that all data is basically male data rather than universal data. Then the second is to collect data on women as well, which I kind of feel will flow from the first, because as soon as you realize you've only got information from one half of the population, obviously you also realize that you need to fill in the gaps. Until we have that, it's impossible to design anything that really works for more than half the world.”

Designers face an unprecedented opportunity to overturn historical inequalities, with a new generation coming through who are hungry for change and receptive to novelty. The challenge now is to truly think outside the box, moving upstream and unpicking deeply ingrained assumptions that are all but invisible. Until that happens, designing at the border of gender will be more a case of rearranging the deckchairs rather than steering the ship.

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