After all, the notion of a major brand designing and offering clothing that is not dedicated to be worn by men or women exclusively — but rather by either gender — is as humanistic and inclusive as it is fashion-forward, if not more so.
On its face, Zara’s move could have been viewed as an extension of what retailers like Target had done previously with its children’s products (first with toys, then with home decor) — stripping them of their exclusively “male” or “female” labels — moving the opportunity for consumers to choose their own identity, rather than having products do it for them, into a wider, more grownup space.
Good on them, right?
Well … maybe not so much.
While the release of Zara’s “Ungendered" line may have been quiet, the public response to it — both from consumers and the media — has been anything but. And it’s been far from positive.
The problem, as many people have pointed out, is that the ostensibly gender-neutral clothing line arguably represents “clothes for men and woman” less than it does, at best, “sweatpants, which were never really gender-specific to begin with,” or, at worst, “basic masculine clothing that you can put on a girl.”
Take a look at the current offerings: It’s literally just unadorned sweatshirts, sweatpants and t-shirts.
If Zara had expected to create some degree of controversy with its new line, it’s likely that the brand thought it would come from rigid conformists who sought to keep the line between men and women clearly drawn and would have been outraged by such an ostensibly “bold” (in Zara’s collective mind, anyway) challenge to traditional gender categorizations.
To take that hypothesis a cynical step further … perhaps the brand was counting on something like that happening (which, mind you, has not happened).
That’s a theory that many consumers appear to share, and they have taken to social media to call Zara out for what they suspect was little more than a marketing ploy attached to the not-actually-controversial (to most decent folks, anyway), corporately perceived “trend” of human acceptance.
"Zara release 'Ungendered' clothing!!!!" You mean, Zara release some more unisex clothing, but are desperate for media attention
— Harry Seaton (@harryseaton) March 8, 2016
@evanrosskatz @elielcruz will @ZARA have skirts / dresses / floral prints? or just "ungendered" clothes that masculine folks usually wear?
— Brian Gerald Murphy (@begeem) March 4, 2016
when will we move past this notion that genderless clothing simply = plain t-shirts/sweatpants? why is this "bold"? https://t.co/j5SyO3Z0go
— Tyler Ford (@tywrent) March 4, 2016
"Zara has boldly released its first Ungendered clothing line" it's literally just male coded lounge wear
— fay organa d-5 (@magicaIgirI) March 4, 2016
@evanrosskatz @ZARA so ungendered clothing means ugly sweatshirts for skinny white people?
— em :-) (@concretegravity) March 4, 2016
There are (as exhibited) a number of arguments to made as to where Zara may have misstepped in the presentation of its new line, and the retailer itself has (perhaps unsurprisingly) remained mum as to whether the not-exactly-groundbreaking inaugural styles of “Ungendered” are a result of it being intended as just one small step in the direction of greater progress or a straight-up miscalculation.
The idea that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity aside” (spoiler alert: there is), the backlash that Zara has experienced stands as an important example for any retailers that are considering diving headlong into an arena — such as gender identity — that brings with it a lot of strong opinions.
For one thing, as Vice points out, consistency in labeling is key. Regarding the fact that the product descriptions within Zara’s “Ungendered” use the term “unisex,” Parsons School of Design student Farideh Arbanian explains to the outlet: “For me, unisex refers to a piece of clothing that was designed to fit and flatter both male and female bodies. 'Ungendered,' on the other hand, is much trickier and ambitious, as it suggests an elimination of any trace of masculine or feminine traits on the garment.”
In addition to noting that inconsistent branding can bring to bear a second problem — a perceived lack of direction on the part of the company behind it, which can cause a loss of consumer trust — the Vice story also uses the Zara/“Ungendered” snafu as an illustration of the importance for any brand to keep social context in mind when developing marketing strategies. In other words, it is far more advisable for a company to let its consumers inform it of how issues that matter to them should be handled, rather than the other way around.
Particular to Zara’s case, there’s certainly no argument against the idea that a comfortable pair of sweatpants is a nice thing for anyone to have. For a brand to market such an item as a trailblazing effort to bring cultural change, however, isn’t quite the right fit — for any gender.