Outdoor Brands Are Dropping Gender Labels

Three people dressed in the REI Co-op Active Pursuits collection, sitting together on a wooden structure in relaxed poses and looking at the camera.

Dedicated runner J Solle likes to be expressive with their clothing, whether in daily fashion or when running the streets and parks of New York City. Yet, until recently, the 29-year-old program manager struggled to find technical apparel that fit the bill. As a nonbinary athlete, Solle had two options for running clothes: men’s or women’s. The choices left them feeling “trapped in a box that didn’t feel right.”

About a year ago, however, they learned of an athletic brand that’s removed gender labeling from its line. Today, you’ll often find Solle sporting a crop top from that brand, Bakline, and feeling themself very much.

“I’ve spent a long time looking for clothes that bring me joy and make me feel comfortable,” says Solle. “Clothing is a big part of expression—what we put on our bodies helps us express how we identify.” 

While Bakline is among the first athletic brands to design a line of unisex clothing, it’s gaining an increasing amount of company. From prAna and Smartwool to Janji and REI Co-op, activewear brands are making strides to be more inclusive.

A Long-Overdue Concept

The arc to gender-neutral activewear has been long, but it’s an essential step in the movement to diversify the outdoor industry. Outdoor brands—criticized for their homogenous advertisements, sizing and styles—have slowly come around to a more inclusive picture by featuring more women, people of color, athletes with disabilities and those who wear extended sizes

Bakline made a concerted effort to involve nonbinary runners in designing its unisex line, and Solle took part in these discussions when the brand put out a call for nonbinary athletes to share their thoughts, which Solle was pleased with. 

“One of the most important points we conveyed to Bakline is that we want to choose clothing that works for our bodies, and that’s descriptive in its name, rather than gender-based,” Solle says. The result is running clothing that falls into the categories of “contoured cut,” or “straight cut.” As the Bakline website states, the brand is providing athletic clothing “using language to better describe how garments are shaped, rather than traditional gender labels.” Attention to detail in design, the size guide and plenty of photos go a long way in affirming these clothing lines and delivering what the nonbinary athlete needs.

Outdoor brands—long criticized for their homogenous advertisements, sizing and styles—have slowly come around to a more inclusive picture.

Janji, which launched a unisex clothing line in 2018, has taken these considerations seriously when designing gear for all runners’ gender expressions. “For something like our Runterra Bio Tees, we make them a bit looser cut than a traditional women’s, but a bit tighter than a traditional men’s,” explains Janji co-founder Dave Spandorfer. “For prints, we don’t hold back, regardless of who it’s for and what gender you identify with.”

Spandorfer adds that Janji aims to recognize and affirm people’s differences. Just like it’s important to have different extended sizes, he says, it’s important to have different fits to represent the array of how people identify and how people like their products to be worn. “It won’t change the world, obviously, but it goes a small way to ensure more people are welcomed in the sport of running,” he says.

Smartwool Steps Up

As brands examine the viability of unisex clothing, they may find that introducing these lines could connect them to audiences they’re excluding or alienating by upholding the gender binary across styles. According to the U.S. Census Bureau 2021 Household Pulse Survey, Generation Z young adults are 20 times more likely to identify as transgender than baby boomers. Like Solle, Gen Zs want the freedom to express themselves through their clothing without being forced to adhere to binary gender labels. Athletic wear (and athleisure) is no different, but it has lagged behind its streetwear cousin.

“The outdoor industry as a whole hasn’t always made people feel comfortable and, until lately, has stuck with old-school gender-conforming styles and sizes,” says Sue Jesch, director of design at Smartwool. But when the Smartwool team collaborated with ski brand Jiberish 2021, they discovered there’s an appetite for a break from conformity. “That opened our eyes to the potential opportunities out there,” she said.

Smartwool began compiling macrotrends about what was happening at the consumer level. “We talked about this opportunity that exists and how it matches our vision, which is to get more people outside,” says Jesch. “We want to make people feel comfortable in their skin and in what they are wearing.”

The design team agreed that a gender-neutral line would align with their values and vision, and since fall 2022, Smartwool has built these options into its collection every season. “It was the right thing to do,” says Jesch. “Has it been margin positive so far? No. But it’s right to instigate change.”

REI for Everyone 

REI Co-op, too, has designed what it calls “a collection for everyone” that became available online this winter and will launch in stores this spring. Marisa Johnson, product manager for REI Co-op brands, says the update to the Active Pursuits collection is about celebrating all bodies, with broad extended sizing and fits. “This is partly a recognition of the younger consumer,” she explains. “We know that over half of Gen Z shops outside of their assigned gender category. We have a desire to serve a population that has been underserved.”

That means designing pieces that allow consumers to buy by activity or style, rather than gender. Johnson says the clothing will appeal to the LGBTQ+ community, and its allies, who want to show up in gender-free spaces. “Nothing is more uncomfortable than when a store employee directs you to a certain spot, one that doesn’t fit your identity,” she says. 

A person skateboarding in an olive green t-shirt and burgundy joggers from the REI Co-op Active pursuits collection
A skateboarder in the relaxed t-shirt in Harvest Sage and midweight joggers in Magenta Twilight from the REI Co-op Active Pursuits collection

Solle cosigns that sentiment. “For a long time, I’ve shopped in the women’s section in stores,” they say. “But when I walk into that space, employees will try to direct me to the men’s section. It’s uncomfortable.” 

The new REI Co-op Active Pursuits line includes six styles, broken down by color, offering a total of 15 choices in its first iteration. “It builds in the versatility of today’s lifestyles and is good, comfortable active clothing,” says Johnson. “So, you’ll be able to work out, work from home and take the dog out for a walk at lunchtime in the same clothing.” 

Look for cotton and knit-blend T-shirts, joggers, tights and shorts, among other items in the line. The pieces are wicking and quick drying, provide stretch, and feature an aesthetic that appeals to everyone, not categorized genders. 

And while this may be the first season of the line, Johnson says consumers should expect more to come. “We’re putting a stake in the ground,” she explains. “This isn’t an experiment, and we intend to constantly refresh the line and grow it.”

prAna Reimagines Its Heritage

This year, prAna brought to life its heritage collection, a unisex line that took inspiration from its “vault” of styles from the ’90s. Pieces fit looser than its other lines and were sized more for a male frame, according to the company. But people did not embrace it as the brand had hoped. “Our product team was noticing lots of cross-shopping in the market,” says prAna marketing director Jasmine Fernandez. “As we’ve launched it, however, we’ve found that our female consumers haven’t liked it.”

The feedback centered on the climbing pants’ sizing, which many women reported as too baggy or boxy in some areas. “We’re taking the feedback and seeing how we can better serve consumers in what they want,” says Fernandez. “We’ll reground and tweak the line for a relaunch in 2025.”

Expect to see the looser fits and cross-gender styling to remain in tops and layering pieces, says Fernandez. “We’re going to relaunch with a gender-neutral style, but consider the nuances of fit,” she says. “Our designers are looking at how to offer more variety and options so that we’re responding to our customers.” 

Designing for Inclusivity

When brands design gender-neutral clothing, they take different approaches, and often it comes down to the piece itself. When it comes to determining proper sizing, Spandorfer says that “no body is the same, whether you’re male, female, nonbinary or however someone identifies.” He recommends that athletes look at size charts (ideally advanced versions with different body types and visual references), reach out to customer service and, when possible, shop in person.

Similarly, Smartwool “laddered in” standard men’s and women’s sizes to its unisex line to look for synergies. “It’s about finding common language for design,” says Jesch. “We went with a looser fit to accommodate all body types, but kept them functional too.”

Consumers wearing these pieces can find adjustable details to make them work how they like. Cuffed wrists, for example, or an adjustable waist. Smartwool designers also carefully considered the fabrics they used so that customers had loose or tight fit options, worked in drop shoulders and drop armholes in certain styles, and sometimes oversized the necklines. “We added things, took some away, tested it, vetted it and then went to market,” says Jesch.

A runner traversing a city promenade in the REI Co-op Active Pursuits 6" shorts and pullover midnight crew
A runner in the REI Co-op Active Pursuits 6″ shorts in Sargasso Sea and pullover midweight crew in Alloy Gray Heather

So far, Smartwool is only selling its unisex line online, direct to consumers, and has experienced a slow but positive adoption rate. The brand says this is just the start: It will continue to add pieces to the collection moving forward, recognizing the need for change. Not every piece of unisex clothing is a hit for brands that offer them, but that’s true even of gender-specific clothing. “There are hits and there are misses,” says Spandorfer of Janji. “We did a gender-neutral singlet that didn’t work, both due to the natural constriction of the fabric and where it was merchandised. Meanwhile, our gender-neutral Runterra Bio tees have been a hit, and we quickly sold out of our split shorts, circuit crews, hoodies and joggers.”

When the REI Active Pursuits line launches in stores this spring, expect to see it holding its own space near the front, a nod to the commitment the company is making to gender-free shopping. “We’re excited about this,” says Johnson. “Our methodology on the apparel side is that if a product doesn’t have a specific reason to be gender-specific, then it’s open game.”

As more brands open their lines, athletes like Solle can now feel comfortable on the streets, and in their sport. “When we break down the silos, it creates opportunities for everyone to buy clothes that make them feel comfortable and included,” they say. “It’s better for the brands and for everyone who wears them.” 

The post Outdoor Brands Are Dropping Gender Labels appeared first on Uncommon Path – An REI Co-op Publication.

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