Inside an elegant cage, a long clothes rail is hung with identical white-canvas garment bags. Who are they for? It doesn’t say. They have a gash to allow a glimpse of the clothes they contain. They’re hardly begging to be browsed, but this is deliberate, so that you have no preconceptions about the item inside. Wow.
This is “Agender”, a new gender-neutral shopping experience devised for Selfridges by designer Faye Toogood, and it is a bit different. For generations, clothes-shopping has been spoon-fed to us: menswear here, women over there. This is shopping without stereotypes idea in a space that looks more like an art installation than a boutique.
“Agender means ‘without gender’ but also suggests a plan of action or an ideological goal,” says Toogood. “This project sets out an agenda to move fashion forward and to reflect the realities of the way we live now.”
That reality is men exploring womenswear and vice versa, something Selfridges has noticed happening over the past two years. It’s not just baggy trousers and skirts-for-men, either. The designers, including Ann Demeulemeester, Gareth Pugh and Nicola Formichetti, are on the avant-garde side. There are sweaters and waistcoats, tunics and shirts, some long enough to be dresses, jeans, leggings and baggy trousers. Accessories include backpacks and shoes; smart trainers and chunky loafers.
You find the size that works for you. The common theme is the absence of colour: mostly black, white or charcoal. That and high price tags; few things here cost less than £100.
Nor is it just Selfridges. Designer Richard Nicoll has launched a unisex “S/he” line, and at its latest show Gucci paraded blokes in blouses. Male models are being sent down the women’s catwalks and vice versa, while transgender models Andreja Pejic and Hari Nef are celebrated whatever they wear.
Miuccia Prada even produced a “manifesto” with her most recent menswear collection, declaring that: “Gender is a context and context is often gendered.” And designer Rad Hourani has become the first member of the French Federation of Haute Couture invited to present a unisex couture collection.
Throwing over the gender constraints seems well worn, from trouser-clad suffragettes and Hollywood glamour-queens to the many wardrobe progressions of David Bowie – yet this feels young, challenging and quite different. This is the art and theatre of modern retail.
“If we want to move away from gender stereotyping to seeing a person truly as an individual, we do need to look to the clothes,” says Brita Fernandez Schmidt, executive director of charity Women for Women International UK. “If clothes are gender-neutral, then fashion becomes an expression of individualism.”
It may take a while. On the weekend I visited, the Agender space was quiet. “People are really curious,” the shop assistant said, “but not many look inside the bags to discover the clothes. The ones who do say it’s really rewarding.”