Critical Shopper: Breaking the Binary


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At the Phluid Project, a new gender-neutral store in NoHo, community is free with or without purchase.

Inside the Phluid Project, a new gender-neutral store in NoHo.CreditStefania Curto for The New York Times

By Katherine Bernard

It took anarchy and ayahuasca for a person with retail expertise to see that “the world’s first gender-free store” was a worthy idea.

Rob Smith, the founder of the Phluid Project, went to Burning Man and then a two-week psychedelic-consuming retreat in the Amazon last year and came back committed to leaving his 30-year corporate retail career. Mr. Smith pursued his new dream and opened the Phluid Project in the NoHo section of Manhattan.

Though the concept of gender-free may feel familiar in fashion, to invest in actual space for it still requires a revelation in the desert. Then one in the jungle.

Retail is an incredibly gender-delineated space. For proof, look no further than this column: It’s traditionally written by a cisgender man and a cisgender woman so that the two distinct categories in the industry can be reviewed.

Though New York Fashion Week now has a nonbinary category, and many brands advertise that they embrace any customer (and why wouldn’t they?), brick-and-mortar stores are still mostly organized by gender. To be a gender-nonconforming or nonbinary individual in a retail space can be tense.

“I’ve been learning the art of tension diffusion since I was a child,” the comedian Hannah Gadsby said of presenting as “gender not normal” in her Netflix special, “Nanette.” “Back then, I didn’t have to invent the tension. I was the tension. And I’m tired of tension. Tension is making me sick.”

The main floor at the Phluid Project.CreditStefania Curto for The New York Times

Inside the Phluid Project, tension melted away when I smelled Glisten, a candle with fig, white tea and ginger root. The store’s candles ($40) will be my go-to housewarming gift as long as there are friends in new apartments to sort-of willingly receive them. All of the proceeds from the candle line go to organizations that support L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+ communities and youth, like the Trans Women of Color Collective and the Hetrick-Martin Institute.

Past the candles is a coffee shop, and a gathering space with bleachers padded with artificial turf and an installation with flowers blooming across a rainbow word cloud. “Fluid,” “balance,” “equality,” “masc,” “freedom,” “femme,” “openness,” “nonbinary,” “fearless” and more create positive word association.

The Phluid Project is a new kind of queer space. At first I wrote, “It’s not just a store, it’s a community center,” but I realized the truth that honors my understanding of queer history is: It’s not just a community center, it’s a store. “The world’s first gender-free store” is trademarked.

Sales of Phluid candles benefit L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+ organizations. CreditStefania Curto for The New York Times

There are rainbow-embroidered shorts ($69.50) and jackets ($98) from Levi’s pride collection, and Superga sneakers with rainbow soles ($85). But there are also capitalist quips on tees, like “Gender-Phluid” in the style of the Chick-fil-A logo, and “Optimist” in the style of the Supreme logo.

Events at the store include a talk about life hacks (for cutting crop tops and starting a business) with Rio Uribe, the founder of Gypsy Sport, whose long-sleeve tie-dye tees ($128) and velvet skirts ($198) are for sale; Queer Comedy Night; and a Design Challenge, with the prize of having your line manufactured and sold in the store. I love seeing pieces from labels like Gypsy Sport and Chromat, but I think there could be much more.

Prices at the Phluid Project go up to $300 so that more people can afford what they see in the store. But shopping is not only for buying. It’s for learning, inspiration and discovery, especially for those who want to be designers or who are finding their personal style.

Having a place for everyone to touch and try on well-made clothes without a double take (real or imagined in fear) would be a gift. A credit card can get you helped at most any store. A safe space will let you be.

Phluid tees and more. CreditStefania Curto for The New York Times

An in-house tailor would be an asset here, too. The Phluid Project has a section dedicated to boxy Champion sweatshirts, basketball shorts ($58) and WeSC bomber jackets. These pieces are extremely cool and do not have gendered labels, which is great. But as I was leaving the store, my impression was that gender-free clothing is shapeless clothing.

Still, I know there are to be new designer pop-ups regularly (a “nonbinary beachwear concept collection” by Official Rebrand this week), and the store is evolving. Fluid.

There was plenty more to love. I bought a pair of side-snap white culottes ($65) that I wore to the beach the next day, and I tried a pair of Meat latex shorts ($165) that smelled like a balloon and were perfect for my sex dungeon basketball league. When I stepped out of the dressing room wearing them, two sales clerks complimented me warmly.

As I paid, I noticed a child sitting on a stool peacefully reading “Sideways Stories From Wayside School,” guardian shopping nearby. I wished this store had been here when I was this kid’s age, even when I was three times as old.

Supreme also began as a hangout space with a lot of T-shirts. I would love to see an empire emerge with the Phluid manifesto at its heart and lines out the door, with teenagers who are hyped to, as the manifesto on the wall says, “express themselves openly, without judgment or fear — only freedom.”

The Phluid Project, 684 Broadway, 212-655-0551;



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