Last week Selfridges launched its in-store installation, Agender, introducing the concept of gender-neutral fashion to a largely unsuspecting public and the media response has been really quite remarkable: a feature in Time Out, an insert on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour among others, all seemingly taking the concept at least half-seriously. Even with a declared disinterest in fashion, you’d have to be wilfully unobservant to have missed at least some mention of it this week. While gender “play” and the concept of gender neutral fashion have become common parlance in high fashion circles in the last few years, as ever, what is an accepted part of current fashion debate can be the subject of fierce derision beyond its luminous boundaries (and as an occasional commentator on fashion and gender on the likes of The Guardian, I can vouch for the fierceness of some of those reactions).
In person, the extent that Selfridge’s Oxford Street building has been taken over by a singular concept is really impressive and merits the amount of discussion and media attention it has received, with window displays and key lobby points in the store driving attention towards the initiative – the crossed through “he she me” messaging declaring a potent argument for individualism.
Wanting to experience the thinking behind it all a bit more, I attended the talk on Tuesday led by ShowStudio’s Lou Stoppard with designer Rad Hourani, whose work is available as part of the Agender initiative, albeit at the couture/high end. Having focused on gender neutral fashion for his whole career, (he is the only member of the French Federation of Haute Couture to present unisex designs), Hourani was well-placed to discuss the concept and made a reasonable case for the democratic, idealistic value of clothing designed as a neutral canvas to be worn by either gender. But what I wasn’t so convinced about was whether taking the gender associations out of clothing altogether renders them sexless, devoid of risk or playfulness. What made a greater impression on me was the sheer range of designers that Selfridges has chosen to demonstrate their big idea, presenting some genuinely covetable fashion: ‘80s London legends Bodymap, Yang Li’s intriguing collaboration with pandrogyne icon Genesis P. Orridge, big league designers Dries Van Noten and Rick Owens and the seriously streetstyle-worthy Nazir Mazhar and Astrid Andersen. The range of names on display in the windows left me feeling quite moved to have been part of an ongoing fashion conversation that, for once, has gone mainstream. This is a positive reminder that fashion has a role to play in presenting issues up for discussion, however the mainstream media may decide to respond to them.