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“Theyby” Steps

Advice for selling to the new generation of gender-explorative children.

When Canadian Searyl Atli Doty was born in 2016, the baby made history as the first person issued a healthcare ID with the sex designation marked “U” for “unknown.” The baby’s parent, Kori Doty, a non-binary transgender person, had chosen to raise the child without assigning a gender. This type of parenting, referred to as “gender open” or “gender creative,” avoids divulging the sex of the baby starting in pregnancy—even to close relatives—to prevent a premature label. From birth, gender-creative parents raise their children using the pronouns they/them, hence “theybies.”

It’s no longer as simple as a pink for girls and blue for boys. While certainly not a mainstream choice, the number of parents refusing to assign gender at birth is rising as the LGBTQ community and discussions about the gender spectrum gain more acceptance. The #MeToo movement likely plays a factor here as the protests against sexual discrimination and harassment of women has extended into ending female restrictive practices and stereotypes in the workplace and beyond. The conversation is loud enough that the children’s industry is already noticing a shift in parents’ spending habits, offering a challenge—and potential opportunities—to retailers and brands who, until now, have divided their collections into “boys” and “girls.”

“I find a lot of designers at the trade shows are starting to take off into gray and black colorways,” says Geri Damone, co-owner of Cheeky Chic Baby & Kids Boutique in Scottsdale, AZ. She believes the swing toward more gender-neutral styles is legit and is now carrying genderless looks to meet her customers’ demands. “It’s really taken off in Europe, but I’ve already seen plenty of traction here in the U.S.,” Damone says.

Of course, gender-neutral products are not entirely new in the children’s industry. They’ve always been gift items for expecting parents who don’t want to know the sex of their baby until the birth. And plenty of parents have chosen not to raise their children in a monochromatic-defining pink or blue world. There are clothing options that span the color spectrum. For example, Sandy Sidoti, owner of Bringing Up Baby in Boston, has stocked neutral products in her layette section for years. “We started stocking neutrals before it became trendy,” she says, noting that the uptick in genderless options started a few years back with an “anti-pink” movement that prioritized geometrics and bright patterns over florals for baby girls. “Now gray is the new black as it’s suitable for both girls and boys,” Sidoti adds.

Although green and yellow are considered to be traditional gender-neutral colors, Millennial moms have thrown a wrench into that assumption . They are seeking a more modern palette. In response, Amanda Hsiao, design director at Baby Gap, says the chain has been working on a gender-neutral capsule collection to launch soon. “We chose black and white for the collection because it’s hard to incorporate color and say something is genderless,” she says. “We’ve come up with designs that have a cool edge including dinosaur shapes and exclamation points.”

Finding gender-neutral options over the 0-3 months’ category is still challenging. Designers admit how surprisingly easy it is to slip into gender stereotypes. Mindy Medvin, vice president of sales for Magnetic Me, says some graphics just can’t be used because they’re innately gendered. “We won’t do a gender-neutral ballet slipper or a gender-neutral football or sports team,” she says. However, as of last year, Medvin says the company no longer merchandises its clothes online according to gender.

Following in the footsteps of retailers like Target, which removed gender signage and shelving decoration in its stores in 2015, Magnetic Me customers can now shop by use of clothing (e.g. essentials, playwear or cold-weather wear) or by body style (e.g. footies, one-pieces or outerwear). “People didn’t like that the clothes were characterized by gender,” says Lauren Levy, co-founder. “They were upset they had to go to the boys’ section to find clothes with dinosaurs on them.”

BooginHead, known for its pacifiers and bibs, takes its gender neutrality efforts a step further by including it in its marketing strategy. Aiming for diversity in the photographs on its website, BooginHead isn’t just concerned about race and gender but also who is using what products. “We are making a conscious effort to reflect in our photos that products can be used by boys or girls,” says Jacky Bosworth, marketing manager. She adds that seeing helps believing, but sales statistics are the best way to convince retailers that a gender neutral approach can move the needle in their stores. “You have to show them that the sales and the audience is there, and there’s a proven track record for these patterns that speaks volumes,” Bosworth says.

Carrying gender-neutral products also adds a layer of practicality moms covet, according to Susan Correa, founder and CEO of Art & Eden. The company listened to what its online customers wanted and will be launching a gender-neutral line in May. “This trend is highly practical and has captured a zeitgeist moment where smart parents see value in investing in pieces that can be easily passed around through siblings of both genders, especially since kids grow so fast and can wear things for only a really short period of time,” she says. Correa also believes childrenswear is an easy place for designers to experiment with unisex styles because baby bodies don’t greatly differ between sexes. “Parents are now of the belief that a shared experience through toys or clothing can help children better empathize with each other,” she adds. “It is both a conscious and practical direction.”

While most retailers still merchandise their offerings into girl and boy sections, a growing number are adding a gender neutral area. It’s a good marketing tool, according to Hsiao. “While I can see us putting all clothing together in the future, for now the neutral section  meets in between the  boys’ and girls’ sections,” she says. “As a business, we want to feature the gender-neutral section for the customers to see.” Damone has also jumped on the bandwagon by adding a separate gender-neutral section in Cheeky Chic. “Our goal is to have the best and trendiest clothing in the industry for all children,” she says, adding that the separate section will avoid confusion about whether a clothing item is “boyish” or “girly” enough.

Although the rise of theybies and interest in gender-neutral fashions is just gaining traction in the childrenswear industry, the movement is still in the infancy stage. There’s also no guarantee it will continue to grow. “Parents will cross to boyish prints for their girls much faster than girly prints for their boy,” Medvin says. “It shows that things are changing, but not equally and not all at once.” Sidoti agrees, seeing an increase in parents buying brightly colored clothing, trucks and doctor toys for little girls, but no shift in parents buying tiaras and dolls for their sons (although she does stock them).

Correa, however, believes the gender neutral movement will have staying power as new generations of parents allow their children to express individuality without predetermined constraints. “It represents a generation that has assimilated the freedom of choice and expression, one that is free of traditional categorization of gender norms in fashion,” she says. For Sidoti, the gender neutral trend is as simple as loving children enough to let them be who they want, play with what they want and wear what they want. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons about kids who are transgender and the problems our society deals with around gender,” she says. “We have to make room in society for everyone and let children be who they’re going to be.” •

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