Outdoor Brands Are Starting to Roll Out Gender-Neutral Gear. Could it Become the Norm?

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CJ Greco (they/she) has never felt comfortable buying outdoor apparel. As a nonbinary outdoorsperson, choosing between men’s and women’s fits hasn’t felt right. With many outdoor brands offering a limited range of sizes, she’s also found it difficult to buy clothes that comfortably fit her body type, leading her to seek out gear from outside the outdoor industry.  Even when Greco finds clothing they identify with, it’s often from mass-market brands that don’t share their same values and commitment to sustainability.

“I’ve always had to make adjustments for myself in deciding what outdoor brands I shop from,” says Greco, an avid birder, backpacker, environmental educator, and leader at ​​Out in Nature, a Chicago-based queer affinity group that hosts accessible and safe meet-ups for LGBTQIA+ people. “There’s not a lot of variety in outdoor clothing for people who want to get outside that don’t fit the stereotypical small-to-large size ranges and don’t identify as strictly male or female.”

Walk into any store today, outdoor-specific or not, and the first thing you’ll have to do is choose between a men’s or women’s section. What may seem like a straightforward choice to some is an anxiety-inducing and often confusing experience for gender-nonconforming folks, myself included. Online shopping isn’t much better.

Today, 5.1 percent of young adults under the age of 30 identify as trans or nonbinary, according to a 2022 Pew Research study. Some 26 percent of Americans say they know someone who prefers others address them using gender-neutral pronouns. Those numbers are even higher for younger people, with 35 percent of Gen Zers saying they personally know someone who prefers to go by gender-neutral pronouns. Like Greco, many of those people struggle to find outdoor clothing or gear that suits them. But slowly, surely, that may be changing.

A New Era of Inclusion

A handful of industry giants to outdoor-adjacent brands, including Patagonia, Prana, HOKA, and Jungmaven have started introducing genderless apparel options online and in stores. Yet the movement is still in its infancy.

REI Co-op and Smartwool, two other name-brand forces behind the movement, launched product lines that go beyond the gender binaries within the last year. Both partnered with LGBTQ-led and focused organizations and nonprofits, as well as LGBTQ+ employees, to make sure the apparel and gear they design authentically meet the needs of nonbinary, trans, and gender non-conforming people.

Sue Jesch (she/her), director of design at Smartwool, has been leading the company’s effort to launch a gender-neutral line for years. Launching new product lines at Smartwool requires working 18 to 24 months ahead of time. The team started by hosting a series of department-wide discussions to brainstorm new ideas and map out a plan for new products, which Smartwool called their “Design for Change” sessions. The goal: Build a vision for new apparel that meets the needs of communities that have traditionally had few or no options on the market.

“We use our Design for Change sessions to get after how we can support cultural shifts we’re seeing in the world,” says Jesch. “During those sessions, we dove into topics like what makes tops or bottoms fit more comfortably no matter the body shape and what activities consumers will wear these products for no matter their gender identity.” 

Hearing from nonbinary and gender-nonconforming voices, both inside and outside of the organization, was a key piece of Smartwool’s design process. Smartwool invited in LGBTQ+ organizations, like The Venture Out Project, a nonprofit that brings LGBTQ+ folks together through outdoor trips and wilderness education, throughout every step of the design process. They not only listened to ideas and feedback from the Venture Out leadership team and community to better understand their needs but also provided product prototypes for modeling, testing, and candid feedback.

Ana Seiler (she/her), marketing and partnerships coordinator for The Venture Out Project, says that the collaboration could be a blueprint for other companies looking to diversify their offerings.

“For brands that want to pursue something like this, I think it’s important to figure out and build relationships with organizations outside of their own company for consultation, support, learning, and bouncing ideas back and forth,” says Seiler. “It also requires convincing people that have the power within their own company that this sort of work matters.” Those efforts include arranging and often leading trainings for CEOs and other top-level managers.

Seiler argues that moving away from gendered marketing language is another necessary step for the outdoor industry. Besides reinforcing stereotypes that certain types of clothing belong only to those of certain genders, reducing our reliance on gendered categories can help create a more welcoming and representative shopping experience for nonbinary and queer outdoors people.

“I really believe in our ability as a culture, and as human individuals who are empathetic and care about one another, to be innovative with our language and figure out new ways to say old things — and to say brand new things too,” says Seiler. “This requires learning and change, which can be tiring and taxing, but is necessary.”

The end result of Smartwool’s process was a line that includes merino wool base layers, t-shirts, hoodies, and more. Key features include dolman sleeves, which fall off of the shoulder to accommodate more body widths, adjustable waistlines, and universal zippers. Smartwool tested its prototypes on a wide variety of different body types and on individuals with gender identities across the spectrum, in sizes from XXS to XXL. 

Although Smartwool considers global and consumer trends when designing new product lines, Jesch says the brand’s push for creating more inclusive apparel stems from the company’s long-standing mission to help anyone get outside and enjoy life, no matter who they are.

“When Smartwool decides to get behind something like this, it is not from a trend perspective, it’s from the understanding that it’s the right thing to do,” says Jesch. “We’re not just going to design a new product line like this one year, ship it, and then be done. We plan to continue this work and show the rest of the industry that this is something everyone needs to start altering their product lines for.”

For its part, REI launched a gender-free sleeping bag as part of its Trailmade line in early 2023. The Trailmade 20 sleeping bag comes in six different fits, including three lengths and a wide-cut option. It’s available solo or as part of a backpacking bundle with the Trailmade 60-Liter Pack, designed with an adjustable torso to fit a wider range of body types, and the Trailmade self-inflating sleeping pad.

Like Smartwool, REI has opened up seats at the table for industry partners, co-op members, and LGBTQ+ customers to weigh in on specific desires and feedback for genderless products over an ongoing series of working groups and roundtable discussions in recent years. Over the last two years, REI has tapped its 1,400 brand partners to join ongoing design hackathons to dissect design topics and thinking on sizing, gender, and accessible gear and apparel — topics that often intersect.

Nicole Browning (she/her), senior manager of local and inclusion marketing at REI Co-op, says this approach aims to rally stakeholders around the same set of challenges instead of siloing them. The design hackathon conversations also helped inform decision-making around the REI Product Impact Standards, the holy grail of REI’s expectations and preferred attributes for any product sold in REI stores. 

“We know that from a community-centered design perspective, if we design with the communities that have been historically excluded by our industry at the very center of the process, we end up with offerings that are better for everyone,” says Browning. “We’re proud to work with a number of brands already creating gender-neutral and -inclusive products, like Teva, Smartwool, and Merrell.”

Each of these brands has also started to experiment with different ways to think about gender relative to specific product offerings online, uniform sizing guides across the industry, and how they’ll ultimately be merchandised in stores. But Browning says there’s still a long list of decisions to be made and work to be done.

“The reality is, REI and all brands across the industry, will need to continue this work for a while,” says Browning. “Hopefully, including more diverse voices and hearing feedback from customers along the way about what’s working and what needs to continue to change.”

Brands Must Support, in Style 

As the outdoor industry is beginning to awaken to the importance of gender equity, trans and nonbinary outdoorspeople are living through an onslaught of anti-trans and LGBTQ bills designed to further ostracize and marginalize them. Examples of these bills include the expansion of Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, which bans lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity up to grade 3 and, in potentially the future, grades 4 to 12, as well as the GOP-led bill banning transgender athletes from women’s and girls’ sports at federally funded schools.

By designing products for a wider variety of bodies and gender identities, Greco says companies can send a positive message and actionable support to the LGBTQ+ community and allies, particularly during these volatile political times.

“Given that trans and nonbinary bodies are actively under attack in this country, leaders in the outdoor industry should be doing everything they can to make the outdoors a safe space for all,” says Greco. “The outdoors is a space that’s historically been taken away from these marginalized groups.” If they care at all about nonbinary and trans customers, Greco says that outdoor brands need to do everything they can to keep them safe and comfortable outside.

For some advocates, change is coming too slowly. Alex Showerman (she/her) has officially “broken up” with bike apparel brands. The professional mountain biker, trail builder, LGBTQ+ advocate, and proud queer trans woman has spent more than a decade weathering the outdoor apparel industry’s shortcomings. In a recent Instagram post, she declared that she was done working with them, pointing to a laundry list of issues ranging from lack of sizing diversity and poor sustainability to excessively high prices and “motocross bro” styling.

“The industry has been failing to even scratch the surface of meeting the needs of non-cis-gendered white men,” says Showerman. “Typically…because the outdoor space is so male-dominated, brands turn unisex products into basically men’s gear.”

Aesthetics are a huge barrier to a lack of inclusive design in her eyes. To do better, Showerman says it will take brands hiring more designers from varying identities, getting direct feedback from queer people on new products, and drawing inspiration from the fashion industry to give apparel a facelift that goes beyond a “very straight, white, wealthy, and hetero design aesthetic.”

“What we really need is cross-functionality that draws inspiration from the fashion of what’s on trend and what people wear every day,” argues Showerman. “For me, if I look good I feel good. I find when I’m feeling stylish and fashionable, I feel more confident in my bike riding; I feel more confident in my trail building; And I feel more comfortable and at ease in myself.” Her peers feel the same.

Taking a note from the fashion industry’s book by weaving in what’s on trend, playing with color, and designing for cross-functionality across sports are a few ways Showerman says the industry can move forward in making its clothing more interesting and inspiring to non-binary, trans, and genderqueer people. That includes more expressive colors, patterns, fits, and a variety of styles. 

Her ideal: More options and choices so that more people can see themselves represented in the clothes on the rack — no matter if they identify as nonbinary, female, male, or otherwise.

“When mountain bike apparel [and outdoor] brands start making stylish clothes that serve more than one purpose, actually get sizing right, and are doing the work to support women and underrepresented communities, I’ll sign on [as a sponsored athlete],” she concluded.

Greco, for their part, is hopeful that companies will begin to recognize catering to nonbinary and trans people isn’t just right, it’s good business as well.

“We are not a huge bunch, but we’re still a significant portion of the U.S. population,” says Greco. “This is a whole market of people that the outdoor industry is not yet catering to. My question is: If you’re a corporation, why aren’t you designing products for such a fast-growing segment of consumers — the nonbinary community?”