Express Yourself

The Phluid Project honors the individual, not the purchase. Welcome to gender-free shopping.

By Lola Thélin

Madonna told the world to express itself in 1989, but for some, achieving a status of authenticity has not always been easy. Nearly 30 years later, in a world less constrained by traditional roles and structures, people are living freer and more self-expressive lives. With that acceptance comes new forays, such as the world’s first gender-free store and community-focused space: The Phluid Project.

Located in New York’s NoHo neighborhood at 684 Broadway (and virtually at, The Phluid Project represents both a movement and a retail experience. At the core of The Phluid Project is a desire to provide a gender-free space that incorporates community and experience. “The Phluid Project is a safe place, where intolerance is not tolerated and assumptions are left at the door,” says creator Rob Smith, who launched the concept in 2018. “This freeing energy, while intangible, is felt and seen through our staff, genderless mannequins and product sold, all of which encourages and embraces identity, expression and a fluid life.”

Smith is no stranger to freeing energy. After working in corporate retail for 30 years, he quit and traveled the world. He came back reinvigorated with a fresh idea. With nearly a decade of volunteer experience with the Hetrick-Martin Institute—a provider of social support and programming for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer/questioning (LGBTQ) youth—Smith realized how to blend his profession with his passion. Armed with facts, such as 56 percent of Gen Z and 46 percent of Millennials don’t always buy clothes geared specifically toward their own gender, Smith founded The Phluid Project, a trifecta (store, website and community) that is innovating the fashion industry while building a more connected and authentic world.

Location was key for this project. The team selected NoHo (North of Houston Street) for its easy access to trains from the other boroughs, its proximity to universities, its heavy foot traffic and its history with social activists, like Keith Haring. Renovations totaling $4 million transformed the 3,000-sq.-ft. location from a coffeehouse into a gender-free shopping experience, complete with café and community space.

The interior, with its natural light, white fixtures and open ambience, supports Phluid’s ethos to explore, express and embrace. “The aesthetic is a backdrop of clean minimalism contrasted with color, visiting artist residencies and positive language via our displayed social code,” explains Christina Zervanos, director of PR, The Phluid Project. The café and coffee bar area helps reinforce the reality that the future of retail is about experience and relates to a lifestyle. There’s a gathering space with bleachers, and the décor is a collaboration of art installations intermixed with unisex mannequins wearing available products. The space also is used for community outreach, including poetry readings, events and talks led by designers and other guests. The 300-sq.-ft. community space is available to all free of charge. It’s furnished with a central discussion table and director-style chairs to symbolize that everyone sitting in this space has a powerful voice.

“The [main] floor was designed to hold a high capacity of product without compromising the boutique shopping experience,” Smith says. “The shelving units and floor plan are intended to guide the customer through the store, leading them on a shopping experience unlike any other, showing them different ways to complete an outfit, as well as offering moments of discovery. We like to take risks and try new merchandising techniques, while sticking to old elements that are tried and true.” The points of sale are mobile and can be relocated throughout the store’s space. Retail products include The Phluid Project’s own apparel and accessories (100 percent of proceeds from The Phluid Project candles benefits charities), as well as footwear, cosmetics and gifts by other brands that run the gamut from Kinfolk and Levi’s, to Taschen and Soulland. Smith vets all the partnerships, researching their leadership, mission and give-back factors.

It’s just the beginning for The Phluid Project. Certainly, the concept challenges the status quo, but its purpose is greater. It serves as an outreach and connection for all people who identify as non-binary or gender non-conforming, to let them know they are not alone. It gives parents and their children a sense of place and understanding. “I hope designers will realize the appetite for gender-free clothing and create collections targeting the gender-fluid community,” Smith says. “On a broader scale, beyond the LGBTQIA [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex and asexual/allied] community, I hope to offer insight, influence and understanding of gender fluidity, identity, expression and sexuality.”


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