Standing in the middle of an empty retail store in Manhattan’s NoHo neighborhood last week, Rob Smith, founder of the forthcoming Phluid Project, gesticulated wildly as he shared his vision for the multi-brand, genderless retail store set to open on March 1.
“We’re not creating a movement, because it already exists. We’re carving out a space in the movement that’s different than most,” Smith said.
It’s an opportune time to experiment with a retail concept like Smith’s, as transgender and gender non-binary models take to runways in record numbers and designers continue to release gender-neutral collections. Smith — who has spent the past three decades working in retail, most recently as evp and general merchandise manager at Macy’s — said what will set The Phluid Project apart is its ability to act jointly as a fashion and event space dedicated entirely to gender-neutral style.
The store will sell an assortment of its own branded products, including hats, shirts and hoodies, as well as looks from Champion, Gypsy Sport, Fila, Kinfolk and Levi’s, among others. Smith said he tried to stick to gender-neutral collections from outside brands. Those that are “women’s” and “men’s” will be combined in floor displays. All products will be priced under $400, with the average item price ranging between $50 and $60.
The venue will also host nightly events and workshops to bring the community together around a message of inclusivity, sell products from rotating local artists, and hold spontaneous fashion shows on an in-store runway. In the space, Smith plans to build a cafe and, next to that, an “Instagram room” that will be decorated to encourage social media posting. The basement will be reserved for shoppers to rent out as a space to discuss projects centered on inclusivity.
“Ultimately, I was thinking about what it’s like to be a young person in today’s environment and how to create a safe, judgment-free zone to explore fashion ideas and culture,” Smith said.
He added that, while certain designers and mass retailers like Zara have attempted to launch gender-free collections, the efforts have been particularly limited within the physical retail world, as traditional floor layouts place women’s clothing in one area and men’s in another. While companies like the now-defunct American Apparel were able to create some semblance of a genderless space, Smith said he has yet to see stores deliberately featuring multi-brand displays that effectively transcend gender.
“Retail is a dying concept right now,” Smith said. “The idea was to create a space that was disrupting and challenging the way retail has been done in traditional formats. We created a unique space initially because it’s a non-binary shopping environment, and every shopping environment is binary right now. So for starters, it’s a groundbreaker in that sense.”
While Smith and his team are focused on creating an experiential retail space, the store will still have an accompanying website from which shoppers can purchase products outside of New York. The brand is already being built on Instagram, where it has 400 followers.
“We’re in no rush to get to 50,000 followers; we’re trying to communicate to the right people. It’s not about quantity, but quality,” said Smith.
Photo courtesy of Alberto Vasari for The Phluid Project