The big underwear rethink: Gen Z goes gender-equal

Remember Victoria’s Secret? A new wave of small, focused and inclusive brands are reshaping the future of underwear.

There was a time when shopping for women’s underwear meant going into a dimly lit boutique and searching through lacey thongs and pushup bras embellished with gems and sequins. However, for a new generation – my generation – it’s all about authenticity and inclusivity – and brands are now catering for us.

For a new wave of independent brands, the days of segregated, designated women’s and men’s sections are over. That’s great news for the demographic known by marketers as Gen Z (those born between 1997 and 2012), who are fans of a gender-equal approach.

As recently as 2016, sexiness was still selling. Victoria’s Secret dominated the intimate wear market, reporting $1.58 billion in online sales alone. With its boudoir-style stores and glamorous angels in extravagant wings, the American retail giant sold the dream of the “perfect” body with perky breasts, long legs and flowing blow-dried locks – and men and women alike lapped it up. The spectacle, glitz, glamour and celebrity surrounding Victoria’s Secret had consumers hooked, particularly at the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show which drew 9.5 million TV viewers.

Since then, as the Me Too movement has gained traction, the world of underwear has been turned upside down. In the 2020s, women are encouraged to speak out against sexual harassment and objectification. The time for promoting highly sexualised images of women in their underwear is out of step with the times. It wasn’t that Victoria’s Secret did something specifically wrong – it had quite simply had its day. The show was cancelled, sales plummeted, store footfall and teenage adoration for the brand vanished, leaving the industry wide open and searching for the next big thing.

Victoria’s Secret tried to keep up with the times by creating the VS Collective, a group of women known as partners and ambassadors of the brand, rather than performing for them. They include Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra and queer soccer star Megan Rapinoe – a diverse and inclusive line-up. For some, it was too little too late. American writer and lingerie expert Cora Harrington, best known for her blog The Lingerie Addict, took to Twitter to highlight her distrust in the rebrand, saying it wouldn’t improve the brand’s credibility but “it might hurt the image of those associated with it.”

The underwear industry has had to rethink what is important for customers. No longer is it about being sexy or provocative. It’s about being supported and comfortable in your own skin – no matter your shape, size or sexual orientation. And gender is becoming fluid. Marketing consultants Wunderman Thompson report that 56% of Gen Z shoppers are buying clothing outside of their gender assigned at birth. The stats also show 25% of Gen Z individuals globally are expected to change their gender identity at least once in their lifetime. As a result, many teens are turning to individual and start-up companies that reflect their fluid approach.

Play Out Apparel is a gender equal clothing brand founded in 2020 that allows customers to shop for underwear and streetwear with no gender divisions or ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ sections. All tops are unisex and bottoms simply come in a “flat pouch” or “pouch front”. Co-founder and CEO Abby Sugar wants her brand to be recognised as gender equal rather than gender neutral. “The difference with gender neutral to me is that it always tends to be the neutral that becomes the default and in the current system and the world we live in, default and androgyny are masculinised,” she says.

For her, all gender expression is equally valid and both masculine and feminine styles are available equally. “People can shop whatever they are comfortable with. It’s the same garments, the same price and available in the same prints and colours.” Items include jockstraps, thongs, bikinis and boxer briefs, all with the simple option of flat front or pouch front, designed to flatter all body shapes and sizes in comfortable fabrics sizing from S to 5X.

Smaller brands have been disruptive to companies like Victoria’s Secret, she notes. Abby Sugar sees her success in the customer feedback she receives from young customers via social media, TikTok reviews and the feedback section of the company’s website. “I feel like I am changing the world,” she says. “In terms of fashion, in terms of authenticity, in terms of self-acceptance, gender expression, we really feel like we see the future because it’s who we are, and we have been doing this our whole lives just personally. I am a millennial and our target customer is Gen Z. I feel like society has finally caught up with me in terms of that self-expression.”

Self-expression has become a paramount for a generation that has obsessed over the third season of Netflix’s hit series Sex Education. Sex, relationships and finding your identity are key topics for young people everywhere. The series sees new character Cal, who identifies as non-binary, being teased by other students in the girls’ changing room over her “weird crop top”, which is later explained as a binder. In one episode Cal helps fellow student Layla with binding, explaining how to do it safely. The scene is not over-dramatised but simply shows an everyday occurrence for those exploring their gender identity.

Jack Jones, company director of Spectrum Outfitters, is hopeful that binders have made their way into the mainstream media. The brand has featured on Sex Education and been cited by actor Emma Corrin, who took to Instagram to explain her own gender discovery and reveal she uses chest binders and is embracing a new and “intimate” journey. Gucci even featured a binder in its centennial runway show Love Parade, modelled by nonconforming gender model and activist Janaya Future Khan. Spectrum Outfitters is close to Jones’ heart: he explains how an injury to his ribs from unsafe binding inspired his business venture. “A cheap binder from eBay caused me pain,” he explains. “I wanted to make a binder that was more comfortable than the other available brands but still kept you looking flat.”

Certain traditional binding methods, such as tape and bandages, can be dangerous because they don’t expand with natural rib movements. For Jones, the key is in the sizing to make the wearer look flatter while not causing uncomfortable compression. “My business strategy is to provide what people need, not to try and sell them something they don’t. We follow what we feel the community would benefit from.”

Community building and breaking down divisions appeal to Gen Z. Not a Phase is a small UK charity that stands up for the trans community and supports wellbeing with different programmes and projects including talks on health and self- defence. For founder Dani St James, while it’s important that gender equal underwear be available, her biggest mission is to desexualise the image of underwear promoted by so many brands. Her new line, called Zoah, hopes to address this and the needs of trans and non binary people. “My aim is to make it available via the traditional retail route and at an affordable cost,” she says.

The ludicrously sexed-up style of old-school Victoria’s Secret seems very old-fashioned in the 2020s. Gen Z wants to feel comfortable and celebrate all different kinds of bodies, reflecting the variety and diversity of the world we live in.

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