Detroiter Rob Smith founded The Phluid Project, a gender-free store and community space in New York City.
By Eden Lichterman
For over 30 years, Rob Smith paid his dues to the corporate world. The 52-year-old Detroit native held executive positions at Macy’s, Victoria’s Secret, Levi’s and Nike. But he credits his first retail job at the former Jacobson’s in Grosse Pointe with inspiring his current role as the founder of The Phluid Project, which he says is the world’s first gender-free store.
“I watched girls shop and put on makeup, and I was like, ‘Wow, that looks like a lot of fun and so much more fun than the guys are having,’ ” Smith says.
Smith is no stranger to the women’s department, but he’s often told he’s in the wrong section of the store. He says he feels constricted by the gender boundary at the core of the fashion industry.
“We should be able to wear what we want to wear, express how we want to express ourselves and give ourselves an opportunity to change every day,” Smith says.
On a quest to overcome these standards, he quit his job in April 2017 and embarked on a backpacking journey around the world. He wanted to figure out how he could use his retail experience in a meaningful way.
This past March, The Phluid Project was born. The first part of the name “refers to gender fluidity and allowing people to live in a space between the two binaries,” Smith says. The “Ph” spelling signifies the balance between masculine and feminine. “And project because a project is something that people are working together on to make something better,” he says.
Half of the 3,000-square-foot space in New York City contains merchandise. The Phluid Project brand consists of everything from apparel to bags to water bottles made in Los Angeles. The unisex clothing features uplifting sayings such as a cropped T-shirt with “BORN TO LOVE” printed in rainbow letters. The brand also includes wardrobe staples such as solid-colored jogger sweatpants and a classic knit beanie. Customers can shop both in-store and online.
Rather than sizing his products in the conventional extra-small to extra-large system, Smith invented his own numeric size chart. “I try to reduce as much as possible any body-shaming people might have by associating those words with their body,” says Smith, during a phone interview from the store.
In addition to his own brand, Smith carries established designers, such as Champion and Fila, as well as up-and-comers. Potential brands must uphold The Phluid Project’s mission to “challenge boundaries with humanity,” Smith says. Each Tuesday, Smith holds an open call at the store from 11 a.m. to noon where designers can come and pitch their creations.
“I try to find brands that represent as many people as possible,” Smith says. The Phluid Project typically hosts around 50 brands at a time.
The other half of the store on Broadway features a coffee shop, an Instagram room and a community space people can use every day 3-8 p.m. “We allow people to have meetings for free to get together and share ideas and make the world a better place,” Smith says.
According to Carter Altman, founder of unisex clothing line Carter Young, gender-free clothing remains on the fringes of the fashion industry. “Right now, the majority of companies promoting these ideas are relatively small. I think there is a trend in consumer behavior toward becoming more open to non-gendered clothing, but it will take a paradigm shift in the older fashion houses to convince them of genderless (clothing’s) place in the market,” says Altman, a New York University student and Birmingham native.
Smith understands the importance of his store and ensures the salespeople greet customers with a positive attitude, making them feel comfortable. He recalls that a family came all the way from Wisconsin to shop in this inclusive space. For those who challenge typical gender boundaries, The Phluid Project serves as an essential resource.
“The ultimate concept (of the store) is to allow people to be their authentic selves in a safe way,” Smith says.
Salesperson Michael Holden, 23, attests to Smith’s claim. After hearing about The Phluid Project on Instagram and visiting the store, Holden wanted to work there.
“I just knew that I had to apply here … I literally was like, ‘I will clean toilets, I will mop the floors, I will do anything, but just to be in this space is what I need in my life,’ ” Holden says.
For Holden, The Phluid Project acts as a much-needed escape from New York City. While the city is home to a myriad of creative people and places, Holden says he occasionally gets looks from people when he dresses in an expressive way. In the store, however, he says he feels free to explore his sartorial imagination and encourages others to do the same.
“I work a lot here because I feel that I can really be comfortable and real with people and not really put up any sort of front,” Holden says.
With staff members like Holden, Smith fosters a space centered on building community and defying standards. Regardless of how people identify or choose to dress, they are welcomed and celebrated at The Phluid Project.
“I call it the store of the future without technology,” Smith says. “It’s about human connection instead.”
The Phluid Project
684 Broadway, New York