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Inside New York City’s First Gender-Free Retail Space

The Phluid Project's Rob Smith talks Trump, the retail apocalypse, and why inclusivity is more important than ever

Times are tough in the world of retail, but Rob Smith sensed a void in the market.

Burnt out after his time in corporate America (he was a former fashion executive at Macy’s, Levi’s, and Victoria’s Secret) and perturbed by our current political administration, the 53-year-old opened the doors last month to The Phluid Project, the very first “safe space” (in the retail realm) free of gender binarism—in other words, no separate men’s and women’s sections and non-binary mannequins—that bills itself as “part community, part retail.” 

Located in Manhattan’s NoHo neighborhood, the 3,000-square-foot space is a gender-fluid wonderland that carries goodies from Soulland, Kinfolk, Champion, MEAT, Skingraft, Gypsy Sport, and Phluid’s in-house label, and more and allows for workshops, open calls for budding designers, and community events. This week alone will see urban sustainability expert Meredith Danberg-Ficarelli discuss “respecting Mother Earth while living in NYC” and trans activists and artists ALOK and Travis Alabanza conduct a poetry reading. There’s also a coffee and juice bar as well as rotating artist residencies. 

“We’re in kind of a strange time right now in the world and especially in this country,” Smith told Fashion Unfiltered. “In many ways, we’re moving in the wrong direction, but as a result of that, in many ways we’re moving in the right direction—we’re moving harder and faster and in a more united way. You see what happened with women when they stepped forward and created the #MeToo movement, and I don’t think that would exist if we didn’t have a president who was a misogynistic pig.”

Though Smith acknowledges the bleakness of the retail climate (“I ride my bike down Bleecker everyday and see storefronts closing left and right,” he said), he sees Phluid as a store of the future. “Maybe I’m a dreamer, but I think there’s something here. I think it’s going to be a model that other people replicate—it’s not just a gender-free store, but a space for the community.” 

Affordability is key, he added, especially since his customer base ranges from 15 to 25 years old. He said it’s common for teens to bring their parents in. “Because of our location, a lot of our customers have been tourists. Just last week, a family from Michigan came in and said Phluid was their first stop. The kids’ faces lit up and it’s so rewarding to see parents being supportive. Each interaction shows me that we’re on the right track.” 

With more and more designers merging men’s and women’s shows and the sheer number of brands rejecting  gender codes (look at Charles Jeffrey Loverboy, Eckhaus Latta, and Chromat, for instance), it was only a matter of time before brick-and-mortar followed suit. That said, Smith’s focus on accessibility might eliminate some of those aforementioned ready-to-wear brands (everything, for the most part, is under $500), so every Tuesday from 11:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., Smith sits and waits for emerging gender-fluid designers to come into the store and present their lines to him. “I’m open to new ideas all the time and that includes new designers,” he said. “There are people in the gender-fluid space creating clothes for really high prices, so I want to cultivate new talent and fill the space with non-binary brands at affordable price points.” Smith said he plans to form a paid internship program this summer and host designer pop-ups and collaborations this fall.

For now, he’s content in having created a space for “much-needed dialogues” to happen. “We’re being assaulted and having our rights stripped every day,” he said. “This is a time and a place that helps be a part of the resistance—that’s my role in life today and I couldn’t be happier. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my time, my money, and my resources than to create this space.” 

Phluid has yet to meet the wrath of a Trump supporter or anyone opposed to its mission, but “we’re ready for a protest,” Smith said. “We’re going to pass out popsicles when it happens.”

The Phluid Project is located at 684 Broadway, New York, NY 10012. Hours are 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Monday through Friday and 12:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

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