Each time Kimberly Wesson sheds her customary trousers and button-front shirt to put on aflowery dress, she suspects something is off.
“I feel like I’m dressing up in someone else’s clothes,” Wesson said.
Her frills-averse approach to dress has tested the tolerance of well-meaning friends.
“It’s gotten to the point where they’re pleading, ‘Put on a sequin skirt,'" she said. "Or 'Dressup like Joan from Mad Men.'"
Not likely. Wesson and Aimee Cho, her business partner, have poured their style convictions into1.61, a year-old gender-free label built largely on loosefitting trousers, swagger coats and easyshirts — items that they wear themselves and offer in varying sizes to both women and men.
Wesson and Cho are among the latest in a raft of designers to capitalize on fashion’s genderblur. The narrowing of the sexual divide in fashion emerged this year on the runways of topdesigners such as Rick Owens and Alessandro Michele of Gucci, each bent on eroding the once-rigiddemarcation between conventionally feminine and masculine clothes.
The trend today derives much of its impetus from fashion’s fixation with the late 1960s andearly ’70s, as younger consumers — and those in their thrall — resurrect a moment when unisex waslargely the province of rock royalty such as Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie.
The movement, though, has gained traction and a measure of cool that it hasn’t known since thatearliest incarnation, its latter-day grooviness the outgrowth of a loosened cultural climate.
“Five years ago, we weren’t ready for this,” said Humberto Leon, a founder of Opening Ceremony,a vanguard shop in New York. “The difference today is that this trend has a label. And it’s gainedacceptance by a mass audience.”
Ken Downing, fashion director of Neiman Marcus, was more emphatic.
“What we’re seeing now,” he said, “is a seismic shift in fashion, a widening acceptance of astyle with no boundaries, one that reflects the way young people dress.”
The concept chimes with the thinking of designers such as Rad Hourani, whose runway show inJanuary featured models in gender-concealing masks.
Recently, Miuccia Prada, who has subtly put forward a neo-unisex look in the past, feltcompelled to weigh in.
“More and more,” she told Style.com during the summer, “it feels instinctively right totranslate the same idea for both genders.”
Now, a handful of younger Americans — among them the designers of 1.61, Telfar and 69 Worldwidein Los Angeles — are advancing the cause, striking a chord that is in tune with the times.
“The whole perception of sexual orientation is being challenged by the millennials,” said LucieGreene, worldwide director of JWT Intelligence, the trend-forecasting arm of J. WalterThompson.
Trend watchers describe a generation that bridles at being boxed in and tends to shrug offconventional gender labels. Millennials are drawn to brands but skeptical of branding andprepackaged looks. Low-key and logo-wary, they often shop at stores such as Muji, Uniqlo andEverlane online for simple, self-effacing uniforms.
Some might be drawn to Telfar, an 11-year-old New York company. At New York Fashion Week inSeptember, its designer, Telfar Clemens, will show his one-look-fits-all collection ofoff-the-shoulder tank tops, trench coats and lacelike denim tops and trousers on a cast ofandrogynous models. Clemens has worked the TC logo into many of those pieces, but the branding, hesaid, is “almost subliminal.”
“It’s against my nature to do anything really overt,” he said.
Practically speaking, gender neutrality is a boon for designers, said Justin O’Shea, buyingdirector for Mytheresa.com. As he told the online trade publication Business of Fashion last month,designers, by showing men’s and women’s looks in tandem, are saving time and money, and honing anidentity.
Many women freely embrace the notion of gender fluidity, buying menswear in smaller sizes.
Men, on the other hand, “have traditionally been immune to gender-neutral fashion trends,” saidKimberly Chrisman-Campbell, a fashion historian and the author of Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.
“We may think we are in a new phase, but we aren’t necessarily,” she said. “What we’re talkingabout is the leading edge of fashion, not what you’re going to find at J. Crew.”
“Still,” Chrisman-Campbell said, “every time these trends come up they push the boundaries alittle bit more.”