Politics & Culture

The Phluid Project's Founder On Who He Thinks Is Challenging Gender Norms

Rob Smith shares how Indya Moore, Jaden Smith, Ruby Rose, and others inspire him.
Reading time 6 minutes

In a matter of months, Rob Smith has managed to have quite the impact on New York City's retail industry. At this point, you would be hard-pressed to find a magazine that hasn't covered his genderfree store The Phluid Project. Located at 684 Broadway in NoHo, the large space is more than just a store — it's a retail experience that challenges the gender norms of both shopping and dress. As soon as you enter, all of your preconceived notions what you "should" wear no longer exist, and you're free of judgment. There are no men's or women's sections and no binary sizing. 

Rather than another stuffy Q&A about Smith's store, we asked him about who he believes is challenging gender norms and acceptance and empowerment. 

Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe is known for her androgynous style, going as far as shutting down a male fan for calling her look "too soulful" and suggesting she switch it up for something sexier. 

This past April, Monáe came out as pansexual in an interview with Rolling Stone: "'Being a queer black woman in America,' she says, 'I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker.'” She also revealed that her 2013 song "Q.U.E.E.N." was actually meant to be called "Q.U.E.E.R." (but you can still hear the word "queer" being sung in the background.) 

"She does not allow herself to be categorized," says Smith. An anomaly in the overtly feminine and sexualized pop music industry, Monáe is a good example of breaking gender norms in the way she presents herself to the world. 

Jaden Smith

The son of actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett is known for his individualistic taste in clothes, frequently going out wearing skirts, dresses, and even women's sneakers. When he was only 18 years old, Jaden Smith became the first male to model womenswear for Louis Vuitton amongst a female-only cast. 

"His anti-bullying and self-expressive attitude is extremely reflective of our social code at the Phluid Project," Smith regards. 

In an interview with NYLON in 2016, Jaden claimed that he's "willing to take most of the blows' to change the culture" so that "later on, my kids and the next generations of kids will all think that certain things are normal that weren’t expected before my time." 

Indya Moore

Indya Moore is an actor and model who plays Angel, a transgender sex worker who begins a relationship with a married man played by Evan Peters, in FX's Pose, Ryan Murphy's new show about New York City's 80s ballroom scene.

An important goal within her modeling career has been to bring attention to the ever-expanding representations of gender in fashion. "Indya is a trans-model of color and advocates for underrepresented identities in the fashion industry," says Smith. 

In an interview with W, Moore has said, " I do what I can to best represent how people see me, and through the way that I express myself I try within my own art to make it more comfortable for other people to exist within the way they see themselves."

Ruby Rose

"She's not defined or limited by gender," Smith tells me about model and actor Ruby Rose. "Androgyny has been her balance throughout her modeling career, and her freedom in feeling gender-neutral is what makes The Phluid Project connect with her." 

The Orange Is the New Black actor was one of the most popular breakthrough stars on the show. In 2015, she was the 5th most searched person on Google and has since become known for her trendsetting and gender-nonconforming style. 

In 2016, Rose came out as gender-fluid in an interview with Refinery 29, adding: "The more we make [gender fluidity] mainstream, and the more this conversation continues and happens everywhere — that’s how a younger generation can be whomever they want to be. It’s freeing."

Elliott Sailors

Elliott Sailors started her modeling career almost twenty years ago, working with the legendary Ellen von Unwerth. She's since modeled as both a boy and a girl, moving seamlessly between menswear and womenswear.

According to Smith, Sailors is "another wonderful androgynous model, she captures the meaning of challenging boundaries with humanity."

Sailors is also the founder of #BeYouBeTrue, a movement that aims to empower people and brands to make a difference when it comes to gender expression. 

Miley Cyrus

Following her controversial 2015 MTV VMAs performance, Miley Cyrus came out to Elle UK as pansexual and gender fluid. She later told Paper magazine "Everything that’s legal, I’m down with. Yo, I’m down with any adult — anyone over the age of 18 who is down to love me. I don’t relate to being a boy or girl, and I don’t have to have my partner relate to being a boy or girl.”

From that moment, Cyrus felt the need to do something more than "shake her ass in a teddy bear costume." So she created the Happy Hippie Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded with the mission to fight injustice facing homeless youth, LGBTQ youth and other vulnerable populations.

"Her teen idol stardom made it all the more difficult for her to be her true self," Smith shares. "Now she is openly gender-fluid and works to make positive changes for the LGBTQ+ community."

Follow The Phluid Project on Instagram.

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