A personal responsibility to weave LGBTQ+ representation into the work they do is something that passionately unites the panel of experts gathered at the Fashion School of Kent State University’s LGBTQ+ Inclusivity evening hosted by the school’s NYC Studio. Participants are Christina Zervanos, Director of PR at the Phluid Project; Kyle Andew, Chief Marketing Officer at American Eagle Outfitters; Conor Kennedy, President of Muse Model Management; Victoria Brito, model and activist; and Richard Durant, Director of Product integrity and Testing at Ralph Lauren.
Lady Gaga’s make-up range, Haus Beauty, has just launched with an ad campaign featuring a gender non-binary cast, three of which are Muse models including gender-fluid twins. It’s a timely drop which Kennedy believes represents the tearing down of the wall between mainstream society and the gender-fluid community. Inside the NYC-based Phluid Project, no such walls exist. Breaking the binary and challenging the concept of separate shopping experiences based on gender was the reason behind the brand’s conception, and it advertises itself as as The World’s First Gender-Neutral Store. “You check your assumptions at the door,” says Zervanos.
The extremes of the market
But Andrew has a rather different experience. She explains that while American Eagle Outfitters has always supported Pride, producing a specific collection annually, donating 100 percent of the proceeds to It Gets Better, this year raising a record 1.2 million dollars, it is consistently the promotion that results in the most hate from its customers.
“I really thought this would be the year we turn the corner,” says Andrew, in light of the celebration of Stonewall’s 50th anniversary. “We’re a very mainstream brand and every time we step outside the lines we hear about it, but Pride really makes people crazy. It hasn’t stopped us; every year we get bigger and we want to expand and to be talking about it all year long.” The brand has an established in-house council of ten young people to guide and inform marketing decision-making and to evolve conversation around issues that impact them.
When beloved brands face backlash
“We are middle America. Middle America has very conservative views,” says Andrew. “But America as a nation is formed on inclusivity.” Surprisingly the hostile response does not come only from parents, but young kids too. And “fun conversations” with global partners pushing back on American Eagle’s casting decisions are also part of her job. “We are an American brand and these are our American values,” she tells them.
Comments such as “Stick to making clothes and stay out of politics” have previously been lobbed at American Eagle Outfitters when they supported March For Our Lives, or when they featured models wearing a hijab, so it’s nothing new. “Believing in something is more exciting than not believing in something,” says Andrew. “You have to stand for something bigger. And we can’t forget we get a lot of love too.”
The audience is filled with Middle America’s Gen Z––junior level fashion students embarked on a study away semester, on location from Ohio’s main campus. The participants of this panel personify the culture shocks these young people might be presented with in New York City when weighed against the values they have perhaps been brought up with in their communities.
Bridging this divide is something Andrew is familiar with. “It’s important and I think it’s part of my job to help educate, to bring our customers along. Whether it’s casting different body shapes, sizes, races. This gets people to see these things as normal.”
Rainbow capitalism and tokenizing queerness
When brands fly the rainbow flag to suggests progressive allyship with the community without doing anything tangible to support the community, it is considered exploitative and in today’s call-out culture will not go unnoticed. Consumers are encouraged to support queer-owned and minority-owned businesses throughout the year, not just for Pride month, and to identify corporate brands whose values are integral to their company's structure. It is easy to research them online. Phluid collaborations have included Happy Socks and Champion, and a highly sought-after shoe designed with Fila. Charitable association is key, but humble effort, such as when brands approach the Phluid Project for diversity training because they want to represent but not mess up, is also received warmly by the community.
LGBTQ+ representation matters
New York City is such a haven of diversity that it’s easy to forget that everywhere else is not. “Everyone wants to be seen and it’s important for others to see them,” says Kennedy. “Visibility was always the enemy of the queer community and it’s very hard to say now that we’re invisible with the global reach of the internet.”
The presence of gender non-binary figures such as Jaden Smith, Oslo Grace, Saskia de Brauw, Cara Delevingne, is also helping, as well as mainstream trans models such as Teddy Quinlivan or Nathan Westling. “The industry is catching up,” Kennedy says, “Because while we can sign whoever we want, it’s important that we can facilitate a nice living for our talent. Talent scouts are always ahead of the curve but if you’re too far ahead you can’t deliver anything for your client. It’s a great time now because you can do editorial, advertising, shows. It’s a positive reflection of society.”
Four years ago, Brito worked with Calvin Klein on CK Two, the relaunch of the iconic CK One fragrance which successfully presented gender fluidity on a global scale twenty-five years before the term became mainstream––it was “unisex” then. Says Brito, “It just made the most extreme sense.”
Gen Z views reshape customer behavior
“33 percent of Gen Z don’t identify as strictly heterosexual,” says Zervanos, “50 percent are or know someone who identifies as gender non-conforming while 60 percent shop across gender lines. It’s a staggering number.” But the question remains if marketers will not only address non-binary individuals in campaigns but also their families? These are the creative decisions that will make people pay attention, but Andrew says those conversations are already happening at American Eagle Outfitters. “How far can we push the envelope? It will come.”
With statistics on the tip of her tongue, Zervanos regularly challenges big brands which she consults for, “How are you not paying attention?” When Brito shared her coming out story to her almost 700 000 Instagram followers, a brand booked her based on the authenticity of her personal story.
Note to Market: Anticipation is high for the first mainstream brand with presence in middle America willing to put themselves firmly at the center of this space.
Awareness of pronouns
The recent “Identify as We” ad campaign by Sephora featuring a gender non-binary cast exposes everyone to the issue of personal pronouns in no uncertain terms. Beauty seems to be leading fashion in this area. “Everyone has the power to decide how they are identified,” says Kennedy. “It’s confusing to parts of America but it’s about respect. Some people catch on late, some people won’t catch on ever, but this shows that advertising can still be be powerful and thought-provoking.”
“Apart from the founder of the Phluid Project, I’m probably the oldest person there,” says Zervanos, “and we’re in a time of unlearning. Language is ever evolving. When I was growing up, I liked boys and girls, so I was bisexual. Now it’s pansexual. If I say I fall in love with men and women, someone reacts with ‘Then you don’t support trans––are you transphobic?’ Then that’s a whole new conversation I’m having. Identifying as bisexual is now offensive to people. I trained as a writer so “They/Them” is automatically plural for me. I encourage young people to be patient with the fact that people are learning, to open the dialogue. You have new language and words to work with as you go, I didn’t, so let’s all work together.”
“In the media, it can seem that talking about pronouns is part of the culture wars,” adds Kennedy, “but it doesn’t cost anything to respect people and how they want to be named. It’s free and makes people feel good, so why not?”
Despite the backlash some popular brands receive, requests for diverse models have escalated from high fashion to mainstream and streetwear labels. “All types of companies are definitely thinking about this although it doesn’t always translate in their interpretation,” says Kennedy. “I can see the struggle between concept and execution, but there’s room for all of us. I’ve seen more change in the past five years than in the previous twenty.”
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.
Photos: American Eagle Outfitters Facebook, ThePhluidProject.com