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Gender Blender Trender Ender

“People sit up and take notice of you

if you will sit up and take notice 

of what makes them sit up and take notice.

– Harry Selfridge

Kanye x Adidas. Versace for H&M. Kim Kardashian teaming up with Paper to #breaktheinternet. These days, on a near weekly basis, the web froths itself into a frenzy over the latest collaboration announcement. As much collision as collaboration, actually, the more unlikely the pairing, the bigger the hype becomes. From Saks Fifth Avenue’s SNL collection to Keith Haring motifs on baby strollers, and from David Lynch’s yogawear to Yoko Ono’s in-your-crotch designs for Opening Ceremony, we’ve entered an era of cultural mashup, which has made all our familiar categories—genre, gender, race, age, the line between high and low art—almost irrelevant.

Welcome to the post-trend universe

Today, we live in a world where Balmain is worn by everyone from Rihanna to Jane Fonda, and where fashion magazines are as likely to feature veterans like Angela Lansbury or Iris Apfel as they are the latest pop princess. It’s a world where it’s no longer incongruous for Hedi Slimane, creative director of Saint Laurent, to shoot his high-end thrift-teen garments on a 71-year-old Joni Mitchell. And it’s also a world where luxury labels happily partner with mass-market retailers, and where the next big idea is as likely to come from a Silicon Valley wunderkind or a bedroom-based YouTuber as it is from a big-name designer.

On paper, it doesn’t make much sense. But it doesn’t need to, because it’s not about nailing the zeitgeist any more. What matters now, more than ever before, is the full-frontal shock of the new – the provocative, the confrontational, the jaw-droppingly unexpected. Why? Because almost everything we can imagine already exists. In a recent New York Times piece, fashion critic Cathy Horyn described the era of trendlessness we’ve arrived at—a “post-trend universe” where anything goes. But when anything you can imagine is available, and when trends can change in an Instagram instant—how can any one brand command the attention of many?

Be bold. Be different. Be daring.

Few people these days follow a single brand with unswerving loyalty. It’s still important, though, in a universe of endless choices, to provide a point of view. But the challenge for retailers today is no longer about forecasting the next big trend. To really make an impact in the post-trend universe, retailers must get accustomed to generating audacious new ideas, taking dramatic risks—and doing it on a bold new scale. It may sound like a recipe for disaster, but it’s not. It’s the way forward—and it’s already happening, all around the world.’

Dover Street Market

Dover Street Market, Rei Kawakubo’s genre-busting concept store, is a prime example. With spectacular sites in Manhattan, London, and Japan, each more reminiscent of a contemporary art space than a conventional boutique, the Dover Street concept has turned the department store model upside down—and pioneered a kinetic, deliberately ephemeral new kind of retail experience.


Trailblazing e-tailer LN-CC offers another approach. In addition to shipping its well-curated selections of clothing, music, and books to more than 70 countries, it also has a physical East London store that defies retail’s conventional wisdom in more ways than one. Embracing the unusual and obscure, the store takes an avant-garde approach to merchandising. In its offbeat boutique (an old boxing gym), you’ll not only find Balenciaga bombers and Jil Sander sweaters – but also a library, music shop and nightclub.

In Tokyo, new boutique The Pool takes an approach to its merchandising that’s as interesting as its architecture. Letting one-word themes such as “white” or “flower” guide the product selections each season, The Pool ensures that the experience stays fresh and engaging. NYC boutique Story works even faster, changing its themes and product ranges at the pace of a fashion magazine. Emphasizing the experience as much as the products, Story boasts a rich calendar of events (from talks and classes to film screenings and performances) and collaborates with designers and guest curators to create a space for conversations between consumers and brands to evolve—both online, and in-store.

Sneaker Boy

On the other side of the world, Melbourne’s Sneakerboy is also reinventing the retail experience. Housing no purchasable inventory on site, the store’s fresh-out-of-the-box retail model ensures more sales productivity per square foot. Like Apple stores, it has no fixed points of sale. Instead, consumers check out via a Sneakerboy app (on their own phones or in-store iPads) that remembers their shoe size, payment preferences, and purchase history—and provides tailored information about new products. All transactions are processed via a single web platform, and product ships from a remote logistics hub. Sneakers are delivered within three days of purchase. Combining the tactility of the in-store experience with the efficiency and rhythm of the internet, Sneakerboy gives us an exciting glimpse into what’s likely to be retail’s new normal in the not-so-distant future.

The age of playing it safe is over

Everywhere you look, retailers are rewriting the shopping landscape, with thrilling new ideas. The message is simple: be bold, be different; be daring. Challenge formats, clash genres, mix disciplines. Excite, startle, inspire.

Retail Gender

This spring, London department store Selfridges is doing just that. It has just unveiled Agender—a multi-level unisex retail space that’s been billed as a “celebration of fashion without definition.” It’s a timely nod to the current mood; on the catwalks, the gender-bending ‘70s are back in fashion as never before, with long-haired boys in pussy bow blouses and tomboy girls wrapped in masculine tailoring.

Exploring the shifting boundaries of gender through fashion, music, art and film, Agender is an audacious, headline-grabbing move: dramatic, polarizing, and deliberately challenging. It’s spawned endless online comment, and a swarm of think pieces on the future of gender itself. And yet—whilst it may well represent an underlying shift in the way we shop, dress, and define ourselves—it’s essentially a temporary statement. In three months’ time, it will close; and Selfridges (and its customers) will move on without a backward glance. By then, of course, another new idea’s bound to have exploded, swallowing up everyone’s attention in the excitement of the next Next Big Thing.

From innovative new business models and fresh merchandising ideas to attention-grabbing concepts and super spectacles, there’s a wealth of success stories that demonstrate the shape of retail to come. There’s no way of telling, though, what the next big thing—or combination of big things—will be. Hardcore hipster, or sci-fi augmented reality? Multimedia maximalism, or back-to-basics simplicity? It could be anything. But one thing’s for sure: the way we shop has changed, and there’s no way back. The age of playing it safe is over. Take a chance.

If you would like to contact John Michael O’Sullivan about any of the opinions or insights in this article, please send an email to


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