In fashion-obsessed circles, the sold-out shoe of the fall season wasn't some crazy-high stiletto for women or debonair monk-strap for men. It was the same shoe across the gender divide: Gucci's fur-lined flat scuff slipper, with the house's iconic metal horse-bit.
The symbolic shoe made its debut just after the first of the year, when Gucci's just-promoted designer and formerly under-the-radar accessories head Alessandro Michele set the industry abuzz with his Milan men's show of pansexual styles that featured bow-front silk shirts and lace T-shirts. The same luxury slipper reappeared on the women's runway a couple of months later, paired with everything from floral silk dresses to boyfriend trouser suits.
In the months that followed, style-blurring on the runway has paralleled headlines about gender issues, from Caitlin Jenner's orchestrated coming out in Vanity Fair to Houston's recent defeat of an LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance. At the spring 2016 shows in September, gender-fluid styles appeared everywhere from Hood by Air and Baja East in New York to Maison Margiella and buzzy label Vetements in Paris. And to bookend the year in fashion, in November freewheeling New York label Gypsy Sport took home one of three annual awards from the high-profile incubator CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund.
"I definitely think we're starting something. I don't know if we're there yet, but it's a big step to be accepted," said Rio Uribe, Gypsy Sport's designer. "Vogue took a huge step as far as changing the fashion landscape."
Los Angeles-born Uribe, who started 3-year-old Gypsy Sport after a career in retail merchandising at houses including Balenciaga, said that when he designs, he thinks about a diverse group of friends who might wear the clothes, which for spring included denim boleros, pleated satin skirts and athletic-inspired basketball-net string tops for all.
"I think about the sex sometimes but only if I have a specific person in mind to wear it on the runway," he said, adding that much of his inspiration comes from Eastern and African cultures with gender-fluid garb such as tunics and skirts, not focusing on identity. "Making it as inclusive as possible is already a statement."
With his upstart line Nicopanda, designer Nicola Formichetti sees things a bit differently. While his previous collection was nearly devoid of sexual identity with its cartoon shapes and crayon-bright colors, his show for spring 2016 was a pink-hued streetwear mix of sheer ruffled skirts, glitter-mesh minis and satin jackets with trailing ribbons, worn by both sexes. Formichetti, whose "day job" is artistic director at Diesel, was perhaps channeling his former styling client, Lady Gaga, who was sitting in the front row.
"There are always going to be people who want to explore their masculine side or their feminine side or their androgynous side," Formichetti said. "I just wanted to serve my community, the people who like my stuff. It's for the younger generation that loves to mix things up."
In putting the collection together, he said he didn't want to limit himself to a genderless vision.
"I wanted to evolve. Feminine clothing can be beautiful on a girl or a boy," Formichetti said. "You can be a masculine guy and wear a lot of ribbons."
Or not. In a studio in downtown Los Angeles, a spokeswoman for the anonymous design team behind the denim line 69 Worldwide explained the ethos behind the drapey oversize shapes.
"We wear 'men's,' guys wear 'women's' — so demarcating a difference is not very intuitive. Genderless clothing is essential to our approach," she said. "And the looseness is about a universality of fit that looks good if you're 100 pounds or 400 pounds."
Besides the loose pants and oversize tops, styles like the Cocoon Dress ($
450, www.sixty-nine.us) are pictured on both male and female models on the website. In fact, about the only time notions of gender intruded on the design process, she said, was when it came time to fill out the documents for international shipping, which require clothing to be specified as men's or women's: "Customs is a little behind on the idea of genderless fashion."
Also based in L.A. is Sharpe Suiting, started in 2012 as a bespoke business by business school graduate and former studio executive Leon Wu. Producing suits in fine fabrics at around $1,000 and up, the line was pitched to the LGBT community and particularly "a lot of masculine-identified women who were dying to find a nice suit," he said.
Now, armed with 400 body measurements from 250 clients and funded by a recent Kickstarter campaign that easily exceeded its goal of $60,000, the company recently unveiled a genderless ready-made line of blazers, suits and shirts ($140 to $875, sharpesuiting.com) at an event in West Hollywood.
Wu said he's impressed by places like the venerable London emporium Selfridges, which scrapped dedicated men's and women's departments this year for three floors of gender-neutral presentation and an accompanying ad campaign under the moniker "Agender."
"I believe my label could be something like that," says Wu. "We're on the same path. Everyone should be equal."