Why More Kids’ Brands Should Embrace the Gender-Neutral Movement

gender-neutral-kids-shoes
A growing wave of parents are pushing back against an industry they believe reinforces harmful gender stereotypes.
Joshua Scott

Irregular Choice’s kids’ collection is brimming with glitter, pastel colors and traditionally feminine motifs such as unicorns, flowers and dolls — but you won’t hear the brand call itself a girls’ label.

“Our shoes are designed to appeal to all kids. When we build the line, we don’t think about it from a gender perspective,” said Sally Glover, international brand and marketing manager. “Kids love all colors and anything that is fun. Why restrict our palettes and styles to what society deems appropriate for a male or female child?”

Irregular Choice’s stance reflects a growing movement in the children’s industry to do away with the rigid gender stereotypes that have long defined the way products are designed and marketed. Amid a broader cultural conversation on gender identity, enlightened brands and retailers are embracing the notion that kids are individuals and should be allowed to choose for themselves. “The world is becoming more open to the idea that gender is something that is fluid, and the fashion industry must respond to that,” Glover noted.

A shift in approach is especially critical for children’s brands since studies show that newer generations of parents are not so concerned with adhering to a strict gender binary. A 2017 survey by Mintel revealed that one in five U.S. parents with children under the age of 12 support the trend toward gender-neutral kids’ products. And support is especially high among millennial parents (ages 23 to 30). Coming up behind the millennials, Gen Z rejects in even larger numbers the concept of gender-segregated shopping. When it comes to shoes, for instance, only 39 percent of Gen Z consumers purchase styles aimed at a specific gender, according to a 2016 Innovation Group study.

“Generationally, there has certainly been a shift,” said Ryan Ringholz, founder of Plae, which since its 2013 launch has presented a universal collection for kids instead of dividing it along gender lines. “Modern parents realize how important it is to empower their kids to express themselves freely, rather than forcing them to fit artificial stereotypes.”

Surprisingly, these stereotypes did not always exist. In fact, gender-neutral clothes and shoes for kids were historically the norm until the late 1980s, when a seismic shift took place in the market, according to Jo B. Paoletti, a historian who studies gender differences in fashion and is the author of the book “Pink & Blue: Telling the Boys From the Girls in America.”

She noted that manufacturers were looking for ways to multiply their sales and realized they could convince parents to buy twice as much stuff by introducing gender segmentation to kids’ products. That move coincided with the wider use of prenatal testing, which enabled parents to find out the gender of their baby before he or she was born. “It’s a consumer society, so what are people going to do with that information? They’re going to go out and shop,” Paoletti said. “Suddenly, you had this explosion of hypergendered products.”

gender-neutral-kids-shoes One in five U.S. parents with children under 12 support the trend toward gender-neutral kids’ products. Joshua Scott

Thirty years later, however, a growing wave of parents are pushing back against an industry they believe reinforces harmful gender stereotypes. “We now know from decades of social science research that kids begin to understand at a very young age how gender is signified and expressed. They absorb what they see and hear, and they learn what it means culturally to behave and dress like a ‘real’ boy or a ‘real’ girl,” Paoletti explained. “Parents have started to say, ‘Is this really the lesson we want to teach our kids?’ Whether it’s gender or racial, stereotyped thinking hurts all of us.”

Clarks is working hard to re-examine its approach after facing criticism last year over the labeling of its kids’ footwear. Some consumers accused the brand of everyday sexism for naming a girls’ shoe Dolly Babe, while the boys’ equivalent was dubbed Leader.

Jason Beckley, Clarks’ chief brand officer, said the company has taken the feedback to heart. “Under new leadership, we are working to ensure that our children’s lines reflect our ethos that anyone can choose any style. When it comes to gender, our approach is clear and simple: Humanity chooses their personal representation, and it is not our place to judge,” he said. “Our focus is on making beautifully crafted shoes and [allowing] consumers to decide. We believe in letting kids be ‘free to be me.’”

While Clarks and other established brands grapple with a fundamental reset on how they approach their business, the market’s independent labels — many started by young parents frustrated with the options at retail — are championing the movement in a big way. Ashleigh Dempster is one such parent. After a fruitless search for black leather high-tops for her son, she was inspired to launch Akid in 2014. The brand, a favorite of Hollywood trendsetters such as North West, offers an entirely gender-neutral collection. And with its bold mix of colors, patterns and materials, Akid is busting the myth that genderless means styleless.

“Designing this way just came naturally to me. It was how I envisioned a kids’ brand should be,” Dempster said. “There are no barriers to what we create and how we present it. Our look books and campaigns will feature boys wearing floral high-tops with a hot-pink sweater and a cool pair of jeans. We make shoes that are stylish and beautiful, and we don’t care who wears them. We just want kids to love them.”

There are signs that things are also changing on a mainstream level. Target made headlines in 2015 when it announced it was removing all gender-based signs from several key departments, including toys and home. “We never want our guests to feel frustrated or limited by the way things are presented,” the retailer said at the time. “Our teams are working across the store to identify areas where we can phase out gender-specific signage to help strike a better balance.”

Since then, other retailers, including Abercrombie, Zara and John Lewis, have rallied behind the movement and launched unisex apparel collections for kids. But Dempster believes the retail industry still has a long way to go.

“It’s wonderful to see major retailers moving in this direction — it opens up the floodgates. But from a wholesale perspective, there is still a lot of catching up to do in the children’s market,” she explained. “We have quite a few accounts who need us to help them divide our collection into boys’ and girls’ buys, even though we don’t design our collection that way. So many stores are organized around a traditional two-gender model, and that’s a huge barrier to change.”

Plae’s Ringholz said he’s seeing some retailers begin to experiment with different, more inclusive ways of presenting product. For instance, Nordstrom uses a table display in select concept doors to showcase the brand’s entire collection rather than splitting it up between the boys’ and girls’ sections. “Interestingly, those are the doors where our shoes sell best,” Ringholz said. “It’s the right approach, and I hope we see more of it.”

Beth Goldstein, an analyst with The NPD Group Inc., noted that making small adjustments such as this to a store environment can have a big impact. “There are always going to be styles targeted to girls or boys — that’s not going away — but they don’t need to be merchandised and messaged that way,” she said. “Maybe it’s a matter of putting everything out there, offering a spectrum of choices and letting the customers decide for themselves. It can be that simple.”

Goldstein added that the internet presents an ideal opportunity to close the gender divide. “There is much more flexibility online — merchandising is more dynamic. Retailers can have a general kids’ category, put styles in multiple places or have different clicks lead to things.”

As the industry takes bigger strides to break down the gender walls, Paoletti emphasized that greater acceptance must come hand in hand with the changes. “If you give kids more choices, you have to be willing to accept the choices they make,” she said. “For that to happen, though, society needs to be a whole lot more relaxed about this stuff. Unfortunately, gender assumptions are so deeply woven into our culture and are such a big part of our identity that it’s hard to let go of them. But we’re certainly moving in the right direction.”

Editor’s note: A special thank you to Margot Wasserman and Tip Top Kids Shoes Inc. for providing many of the shoes featured in the photographs that accompany this story.