Rethinking UX, A Queer Perspective
The early days of e-commerce were a lot like the wild west. There were no standards or best practices. Every company had to create their websites from scratch, often making decisions without any prior experience. The go-to for most fashion retailers, was to mimic their stores where possible, especially in terms of separating out the womens and mens departments. However, merchandising a physical store is quite different than merchandising an online store. A brick mortar store is a 360 degree experience, wherein all five senses can be activated. The web is a flat experience, relying mostly on visuals and copy. A customer entering a brick and mortar store is able to take in multiple products, even outfits, at a time, while a customer online is more likely searching for or scanning single products. It can became very clear over time, that because web was so product based, the key to retailing online was developing a sensible hierarchy of product categories and filters, so that customers could whittle down their search into a manageable experience.
Hierarchy Starting with Gender
For most fashion retail companies, the top of the web hierarchy is based on the female/male gender binary. Under each of those categories comes overall style categories like tops and bottoms. While some of these categories are the same for both women and men, it’s typical to see more gendered styles as well at this level, such as dresses. And already implicit in this breakdown is that women’s bottoms are different than men’s bottoms, both in style and size offerings. Ironically, it is possible that a unisex style may have to be uploaded onto a site twice, to appear in both, the womens and mens sections.
The next level, under the top level styles, usually includes more specific style types. Examples include delineating between short sleeve shirts and long sleeve shirts within the top category. At this point, style names and descriptors often become more gendered. For example, a boat neck tee shirt may appear in the women’s section, while a wide neck tee shirt will appear in the men’s section. Additionally, some sites may use style attributes in this section as well, such as “draped” or “ruffled” for tops and “knee length” and “ankle length” for dresses.
From there, retailers start adding in product filters, that include size, color and pattern options. These filters might also include the ability for customers to search by fit (casual, tailored, draped, pear-shaped, etc.), occasion (day, evening, work, workout, etc.) and trend (rock & roll, boho chic, etc.).
This hierarchy, based on gender binaries, has become the norm for most retailers, even seen as a best practice. In fact, it’s normal to find this type of hierarchy pre-built into e-commerce platforms, effectively perpetuating a model that is far from perfect.
One of the hardest parts of shopping, in a traditional store or online, is fit. Because standards vary from company to company, and because there is no one standard body type, being able to try on clothes is the only true way to ensure a proper fit. Clearly, this isn’t possible online, and within the context of the typical hierarchy described above, that means a customer is usually forced to search by gender, category and style type before they get to sizing. What’s more, while fit can vary by gender (ie. breasts, hips), the current system doesn’t take into consideration the more obvious crossovers. For example, some cis-females prefer men’s cut pant, while some cis-males prefer a more roomy top. And of course, this hierarchy leaves no room for less obvious crossovers, by customers looking for styles that fall outside of typical gender expectations.
Additionally, inherent in fashion design are longstanding gendered norms. For example, clothing designed for women is typically more about aesthetic and ornamentation. Men’s clothing tends to be more boxy and less stylized, focusing on classic cuts and utilitarian features. The perfect example of this is pocket depths. Men’s pants featuring four pockets, all deep enough to hold keys, wallets and mobile phones. Women, on the other hand, are left with ornamental pockets that can barely fit change, leaving women in search of actual pockets to shop in the “men’s section.”
As a society we are slowly accepting more fluidity in gender expression and presentation. This, in large part, is being driven by the transgender community. And these variations in identity don’t fit into the gender standards the fashion industry has adopted. Initial efforts by fashion brands to be more inclusive have focused on unisex or activewear styles. Already, this creates an issue on websites, because of the built in gender hierarchy, forcing companies to add a third category, unisex, or to double imprint each style in the womens and mens sections. Additionally, because there is no universal unisex size standard, these clothes are often less about the “perfect fit” and more about flexibility in fit, notated as XS, S, M , L and XL. It’s important to note however, that these sizes don’t really serve a trans woman in search of a fitted gown, or trans man searching for a tailored suit, nor do they provide anything beyond a typical logo hoody, leggings or track pants. What’s more, most fashion brands still struggle to offer anything more than the standard sizes, leaving plus size customers out of the conversation altogether.
For more history and context related to fashion sizing, read our QC Blog article.
The desire for unisex style is clearly being driven and satisfied by activewear brands such as Supreme, riding the “casual dress” trend. And these activewear brands are taking advantage of new textiles that are more elastic, adaptable to shape and durable. However, these companies are not focused on more formal styles, or more tailored fits. They typically lack design and focus more on brand recognition, allowing them to sell simple products at a surprisingly high price point, leading the Business of Fashion to call these brands “Premium Mediocre.”
Read more about premium mediocre at The Business of Fashion.
However, it’s not just a desire for activewear that’s driving this trend. More substantially, it’s being driven by Millenial and Gen Z customers who expect to see more flexibility in clothing styles and who are less likely to see gender as binary. In fact, these younger customers are demanding more diversity and inclusivity in brand offerings, not just in terms of fit, but also in terms of the overall brand experience. What’s more, they demand authenticity, not just lip service to these social issues. With the amplification of their voices on social media, and their expanding disposable income, companies are slowly waking up to their needs.
For more on authentic brand engagement, read the five part blog series.
Clearly, it’s time for fashion brands to rethink best practices around retailing. For example, rather than trying to retrofit older hierarchical models to fit newer customer demand, online companies need to create completely new models, focused on fit and style, without gendered assumptions. Finding creative ways to communicate fit and style online is paramount. Brick and mortar retailers need to reconsider the mens and womens floors or departments, and instead build in-store narratives around fit and style. They must also consider the full customer experience and ensure that their marketing programs and packaging design are also not based on gender assumptions. Dressing rooms shouldn’t be gendered, which means retailers need to create safe places for customers to try on clothing. Sales associates and customer service representatives should be trained in inclusivity with a focus on less gendered approaches to sales support. Not assuming pronouns would be a great start.
Change is Happening
Luckily, there are examples of companies who are taking note of customer expectations and cultural shifts around gender and its effect on the overall brand experience. ASOS is a prime example of an online company rethinking strategy from the bottom up. A Gender Free World, based in the UK, is a mostly private label retailer that eschews a gendered online hierarchy. The Phluid Project, opened last year in New York City and offers a gender-free shopping experience, focusing on a club style and aesthetic, with a coffee shop and space for events.. L’Insane, a brick and mortar concept retailer, recently opened in Paris and caters specifically to non-binary and gender-fluid customers.
Radically Inclusive Commerce
QueerCut, currently being developed as a full-scale online marketplace, will feature a large cross section of brands that cater to queer customers. “We live and die by our mission to facilitate radically inclusive commerce. It drives our decision making from technology to marketing,” states Antonia Predovan, QueerCut CEO. “Our goal is develop a platform that takes gendered expectations completely out of the equation and focuses specifically on style and fit.” She continues, “We’re not trying to take existing size standards out of the equation, those can be valuable, but we will require brands on our platform to provide detailed, genderless descriptions of fit. We aim to facilitate a individualized, one-on-one engagement between customers and brands.”
—Adrian Gray, Chief Blogging Officer