With His Phluid Project, Rob Smith is Leading The Way in Breaking Down Barriers, Creating a More Inclusive Future For All
In a world that can often feel hostile and unwelcoming to those who don’t fit into traditional gender roles, The Phluid Project is a beacon of hope. Today, when gender roles and expectations continue to hold a significant presence in our everyday lives, the idea of a gender-free space is a radical concept. Yet, that is precisely what The Phluid Project has achieved, offering a space that is both inclusive and educative to everyone, regardless of gender identity. Founded by Rob Smith(he/they) in 2018, The Phluid Project has become an important landmark in the movement toward gender equality and acceptance.
A former marketing executive, Rob Smith, was inspired to create The Phluid Project after years of feeling boxed in by gender expectations. Growing up as a gay man in a conservative household, he struggled with the idea of being forced to conform to traditional gender roles. “It was like I was being told that I had to fit into this very rigid box of masculinity, and if I didn’t, then I wasn’t a real man,” he explained in our interview on Zoom.
After years of working in the fashion industry, Smith realized that there was a void in the market when it came to gender-neutral clothing. He saw an opportunity to create a space that would not only offer gender-free clothing but serve as a community hub for people of all gender identities. And so, The Phluid Project was born.
Living in corporate America for several years, Smith developed a more altruistic way of life, giving more purpose and meaning than just selling clothes. His vision came to life after a trip to the Black Rock City of northwestern Nevada, attending the Burning Man festival. “When you go there, there’s a code of conduct, how they ask people to behave. By day three, everyone gets to be there, this fantastical version of themselves. And then people come back to their Monday lives in corporate America, putting on a suit,” he recalls. Deeply concerned, he decided to quit his job and find the answer.
Smith embarked on a journey to Peru, where he spent a month working with plants and immersing himself in a plant-based lifestyle. During a ceremony, an idea struck his head: to open a gender-free, nonbinary clothing store, and committed to making this idea a reality, by opening the world’s first gender-free store. The idea of a gender-free shopping experience didn’t really exist before. Still, the Phluid Project has proven that it’s not just a possibility but a necessity for those seeking a more inclusive and diverse shopping experience. He explains, “When it came to the stores, they tend to always be diverse in gender, race, age, sexual orientation.”
Launched in March 2018—in NYC and online, The Phluid Project is not just a store; it’s a gender-free fashion brand grounded in community, activism, and education, a social space where people can come together, connect, and feel seen and heard. Partnering exclusively with brands whose products celebrate the non-binary, the Phluid project is now in 5,000 stores across the US, including Target, Nordstrom, Macy’s, and other big retailers. “We want our clothing to be timeless so that you can wear it for years,” Smith said.
First, Smith opened the Phluid store in Soho, offering gender-free garments, not colorless, shapeless clothes. The store regularly hosted events, workshops, and panels that focused on issues related to gender and sexuality. People felt a sense of community there, being able to participate in fashion shows, panel discussions, and events. For Smith, that was a way to understand better the needs of the LGBTQ+ community.
After starting as a student, Smith progressed to become a teacher, guiding corporations and speaking at conferences about deconstructing gender and defying traditional gender roles. Amidst the pandemic era, the store was closed in 2020, but it soon evolved into something greater, the Fluid Foundation. Operating both as a platform for education as well as a retailer, the Phluid Project soon transformed from a wholesale business to a non-profit organization.
For Smith, it’s not about the praise; it’s about creating an inclusive and welcoming space. “I want The Phluid Project to be a place where people feel like they can be their authentic selves,” he clarifies.
For the LGBTQ+ community, fashion can be a way to express their identity and to feel seen and heard. The philosophy behind gender-free clothing and accessories is rooted in the belief that gender norms should not restrict clothing. By providing gender-free clothing and accessories, fashion brands can create a space for people to express themselves freely without the limitations of gender norms. This can be particularly important for people uncomfortable expressing themselves through traditionally gendered clothing. “We want things to be expressive both in silhouette and color. After all, it’s about feeling good in what you wear.”
With the Phluid Foundation, Smith allows retailers to connect with the LGBTQ+ more deeply. “I feel more retailers care about Gen Z and learn about it because, in that way, they can be more relevant. In a way, realizing that this is not a trend, it’s a very serious situation that has to change how we perceive the world,” he adds. For fashion and retail brands, it is essential to prioritize and celebrate the LGBTQ+ community, particularly during Pride Month, but not necessarily. “What’s really important is to carry products from and highlight brands, employees, and other owned businesses, whether queer-owned or Black-owned or woman-owned, not just on that month, but also to support them throughout the year,” he claims. Being an ally should not be a performative act limited to a specific time frame but rather a consistent effort to support and uplift marginalized communities.
For his latest campaign of the Phluid Project,“Freedom for all,”Smith wanted to create a campaign that was inclusive of people on different continents, with different stories and messages. People have put their lives on the line fighting for freedom. With violence, hate speech, and anti-LGBTQ laws escalating, standing up for what’s right is more important than ever. The Phluid Project is leading the charge, using creativity and truth to help create a world where everyone can live to the fullest without fear of discrimination or violence.“I wanted to put a global spotlight on what freedom means—something that we have to fight for, earn, and continue to fight for,” he adds.
Freedom is a human right; it is universal, and it is for everyone.
Launching in the spring, the campaign emphasizes the importance of the freedom to be yourself. The campaign promotes a universal message of freedom by featuring the experiences and highlighting the struggles of five oppressed artists. Through the lens of various artistic works, the Phluid Project is striving to raise awareness about the importance of inclusivity and equality. “We celebrate these heroes and every other human fighting against oppression and understanding the urgency to act now,” Smith said on a Zoom call.
Artists featured: Antonia Otoya (She/He/They), Colombian Indigenous muralist Daniel Skripnik (he/him), Ukrainian LGBTQ+ artist/activist Afolabi Oluwafemi, Nigerian visual artist Ghazal Foroutan (She/Her), Iranian graphic designer and educator Katy Riley (she/her) Body Positive/Fat artist.
Statistically, about 60% of Gen Zers shop across gender lines. They only buy what they like and don’t care about the boys’ or girls’ section. And more and more parents are trying to raise children and not just put boys in blue and girls in pink. If only parents could free their children and themselves from what society says they’re supposed to be.
From an educational standpoint, Smith believes a parent’s responsibility is to give kids an opportunity, and exposure to as much as possible, to create empathy and understanding, but also to allow them to find how they fit in this world and not make them micro versions of themselves.
“Kids are now teaching their parents about sexual orientation and gender. Kids are teaching up instead of parents teaching down.”
Expanding his philosophy into the Metaverse, Smith’s next big enterprise is to launch the Fluid City. The idea behind this is to replicate a store to promote gender-free clothing and create a safe community space for LGBTQ+ people along with their families and friends. “My goal is to lead with the community. Many retailers are not getting successful because they’re trying to sell a product when I, instead, like to build trust first and a meaningful relationship with the community.”
Fashion has the power to promote greater acceptance and understanding of LGBTQ+ identities and experiences and can create a more accepting and inclusive culture. With its commitment to social justice, the Phluid Project is not only revolutionizing the fashion industry but also inspiring individuals worldwide to take a stand for their future.