Walking into The Phluid Project in Manhattan is more than just walking into a retail shop.
The store is bursting with color and textures and the staff is always welcoming. The open energy is felt immediately and you feel encouraged to explore everything inside like a kid in a candy store.
A little over a year ago, the first gender-neutral store was opened in NYC. We sit down with CEO and founder, Rob Smith, to pick his brain about The Phluid Project and the future of fashion during pride month in NYC.
What has been the biggest struggle opening up the first gender neutral store in NYC?
I took a big risk, and self-funded The Phluid Project’s opening and premiere year. I started to share the idea with friends and business partners and got a cold reaction. It is difficult, and understandable, to go to investors with an unproven concept. There are a lot of retailers who feel like retail is dead, but it is just boring and needs to be reinvented. While I understood their perspective, coming from the background I did, I had to go with my gut. I wanted to do it on my own, prove the business model and then take it to investors. This is the stage we are now in.
In what direction do you see fashion going now in regards to non binary and gender neutral clothes have started to dominate the scene?
It is encouraging designers are starting to realize the appetite for gender-free clothing, and create collections targeting the gender-fluid community. It isn’t a new concept, necessarily, but the casting and language of doing so is starting to be both celebrated and normalized. The realization of non-binary collections being shown during NYFW, for example, is paramount. Statistics show 38% of Gen Zers “strongly agreed” that gender no longer defines a person as much as it used to, and 27% of millennials felt the same way. These generations are the future of retail, accounting for $143B in spending within the next year. I think the industry will continue to recognize genderless clothing is not a trend, but a movement, and a crucial demographic.
What were your doubts when first opening up Phluid Project last year in Manhattan?
Embarking on any new venture – especially when it is the first of its kind – will spark fear of failure. I chose the word Project in the name to signify that we are a work in progress in an ever evolving social and political climate. We are about working together with people collectively and making the world a better place through acceptance, education and activism. Gender is a spectrum. This truth demands a place like Phluid. I trusted that, and knew the community would carry us, and wished for allies to do the same. We’ve been very fortunate in crushing any fear I had.
What has been the biggest surprise with Phluid Project?
So many major corporations have reached out to us, wishing to collaborate. This extends beyond PRIDE, and that has been very encouraging to see, especially in our first year.
Every time I walk into Phluid Project, I am overwhelmed with inspiration, creativity, and the openness of the store. How do you keep this positive energy flowing?
We keep the positive energy flowing because we have a space that is safe, without judgment and celebratory of freedom and expression. The space is for everyone – beyond the LGBTQIA+ community. This attitude and perspective is required of our staff and consumers alike.
Our private label t-shirt collection offers slogans spanning Optimist, They Power, Be Kind, Have Hope, and Free Hugs. Such a spirit is at the core of who we are.
Phluid carries it’s own line but also independent designers. What is the process of picking which designers will show and sell?
When determining which brands we are going to carry, I look at the brand’s mission, their concept, casting, social media presence and its diversification, and charitable giveback. This is what I refer to as being ‘Phluid Ready’. We care and want to brands we work with to care just as much as we do.
How do you see the Phluid Project 10 years from now?
10 years from now I aspire to have Phluid presence stateside and abroad. I hope we are the first of many similar spaces internationally. Most important to me right now, is to replicate the success of our brick and mortar experience online. It is important for us to make our platform accessible, beyond the store. Our panels offer respite, intelligence, love and perspective – this need not be limited to our store, and it is crucial for us to make the beauty and tolerance and knowing in-store as readily available to a global audience as possible.
Describe Phluid Project in 3 words?
Community, fashion, activism.
Why do you think it has taken so long for a gender free store to open?
We are in a period of unlearning and relearning, and unfortunately that takes time and more so a demand for change, which I believe younger generations are doing. Young millennials and Gen-Zers, are actively shattering the restraints which has society pre-determined for them. Over 50% of Gen-Zers identity as other than strictly heterosexual. I am taken and inspired by their intuitive understanding of identity and wanted to create a safe space to nurture and encourage individuality.
How has starting Phluid Project changed your views on fashion today?
The Phluid Project has taught me that being your most authentic self – without boundary is what truly makes fashion fun. Being able to express yourself, but to be an activist through the lens of fashion, has created more of an impact than I could have ever imagined.
Photographer: Hatnim Lee
Stylist: Kat Banas
HMUA: Ahbi Nishman for Rebels & Outlaws
Editorial Graphics: Hannah Mill