Darlene A. White
Rob Smith is on a mission to end stereotypical clothing.
“I’m all about gender-free fashion,” said Smith, founder of the Phluid Project. “It’s just fabric. If it makes you feel good, wear it.”
Smith, a Grosse Pointe Farms native who majored in marketing at Michigan State University, has more than 30 years’ experience in the retail industry, having held executive roles at Levi’s, Nike and Macy’s. After working for decades, he realized that most stores failed to cater to marginalized young people and wanted to change that.
He combined his passion for social justice and retail into a gender-free fashion brand called the Phluid Project, www.ThePhluidProject.com, a nonprofit that aims to empower individuals by giving them a way to express themselves through clothing.
In March 2018, the Phluid Project opened what Smith says is the world’s first gender-neutral store in New York City.
“Gender is a typical binary that people get trapped in, and we want to go beyond that,” he said. “There is no ‘men’s’ or ‘women’s’ section or differentiation of silhouettes and sizes; we want to erase any preconceived notions of how people should dress.”
Shopping in a physical space can be somewhat traumatic for some people, Smith said.
“What bothers me is that if you are feminine expressive or a transgender individual and you’re in the woman’s department the gender police come out,” he said. “They don’t always mean to be hurtful, but when they say things like, ‘This is the women’s department the men’s department is over there,’ can really cause damage to someone shopping. The gender police also like to decide whether you can use a dressing room based on how they perceive your gender, which is not acceptable.”
The Phluid Project works primarily with the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) transgender community, with an emphasis on trans women of color, as well as the growing homeless LGBTQIA+ population.
“I want to grow this brand as a national organization that supports our most at-risk members of the queer community, which includes trans women of color and homeless queer youth,” Smith said. “I say that, because 10% of the transgender community was physically attacked in the past year just because they were transgender.”
The gender-free brand is available in more than 5,000 stores through partnerships with retailers like Nordstrom, Target, Sephora and, most recently, luxury retailer Saks Fifth Avenue’s outlet stores, Saks Off Fifth.
Toni Thomas, 19, of Detroit says she is proud of the work the Phluid Project is doing.
“This really excites me that fashion brands are finally stepping out and celebrating gay pride,” she said. “Now, I don’t have to hide behind a keyboard all day if I want to shop for an outfit. Target is one of my favorite stores, so it feels good to know that I can shop for an outfit from the Phluid Project when I am there. Not only does this feel like a step in the right direction, but it makes me feel good to support a great cause.”
Prices for the Phluid line, which includes message-driven T-shirts and sweatshirts, range from $35 to $150 and come in body-positive sizes, eschewing the classic XS-XL metric in favor of a numerical size range.
Last month, Saks Off Fifth launched its first exclusive gender-neutral clothing and accessories line, with 100% of the proceeds to be donated to the Phluid Foundation. The collection features rainbow designs on T-shirts, hats, sneakers and tote bags for under $50.
“We tend to gender everything. Our entire world is built on a binary construct,” Smith explained. “Everything we wear is gender-neutral. It is us as a society that dictates if something is masculine or feminine.”
The project now runs a diversity and inclusion training program called, G.E.T. Phluid (Gender Expansive Training), to educate workplaces on how to have safe spaces for the LGBTQIA+ community.
“Right now, I am working on showing companies how to create a space in the middle,” he said. “For instance, there will still be a boy section that is blue and a girl section that is pink, but there needs to be a space in the middle for other people. Also, things like women’s dresses, stores should just put up a sign that says, ‘dresses,’ because it makes it accessible to more people.”
Angelo Hart, 18, of Ferndale says he believes the Phluid Project will open doors for many people.
“A lot of my friends are afraid to come out because they fear that they will be shamed when shopping for specific clothing,” he said. “Now that the Phluid Project clothing line is out and spreading positive messages on those shirts in popular stores, maybe this will encourage my generation to come out and live their truth. They just need to know that they are supported.”
Seeing rainbow flags feels good, but it’s so much more behind those bright colors, Smith said.
“My hope is that we will soon see more gender-neutral clothing that is for everyone no matter your race, size or color,” he said. “Everyone needs to feel good and accepted.”