The future of lingerie – is it genderless?

18 October 2022

When Bill Heinonen suggested creating a gender neutral underwear brand six years ago, the general response he received was “are you out of your mind?” This only spurred on the Swedish designer who felt determined to create the world’s most inclusive brand – a brand for everybody without judgement or prejudice.

But launching the world’s first gender neutral lingerie brand comes with responsibility – he thought – and it is crucial that it is done right.

Naming his label after a word that means both sex and gender in his native tongue, Heinonen dedicated three and a half years to the development phase, not settling for anything less than what he believed to be the perfect shape and fabric. In June 2020, KÖN was unleashed on the lingerie industry and has been making waves ever since.

“The response is amazing,” Bill told Salon de la Lingerie. “Some people are buying my underwear because they think it’s the most comfortable that has ever existed while others are buying it because it is unisex. It is gender neutral and they do not want to be defined as a man or a woman.

“I received emails from people all around the world saying ‘thank you for creating this, this is the first time I feel included by a brand because now I can define the product and not the other way around’.”

But is one man’s vision a sign of what is to come for the future of lingerie?

Both Vogue and WWD speculated that the future of fashion is going to be genderless and this shift has already begun for the lingerie sector. Between 2% and 3% of people in European countries identify as non-binary, transgender or gender fluid, according to data from BCG. While one in five adults in the US knows somebody who uses a gender-neutral pronoun.

Gabby Barrios and her team at the global consulting firm compared how different variables affect global purchasing decisions. Results revealed that gender, demographics and income did not influence most customer decisions, despite marketing assumptions. But rather, it is all about context – where we are, who we are with, and what we are doing – with many companies already creating immersive brand experiences.

“Because gender is such an easy thing to find in the market, to target, and to talk about, it actually distracts you from the fun things that could be driving growth for your brands,” Barrios said in a TedTalk.

Demand for gender neutral products is stronger among younger consumers, such as Gen Z and Millennials. More than half think binary gender division is outdated and instead, they support queerness and a move away from labels. Furthermore, almost half (48%) of Gen Z consumers and more than a third (38%) of other generations value brands that do not define products by gender, McKinsey research shows.

Major lingerie brands have rewritten their narratives to represent a broader audience. In recent years, there has been a notable shift away from marketing focusing on cis straight men to products designed with comfort in mind, more gender diversity and inclusive sizes.The lingerie sector has been one of the fastest adapting sectors of fashion as barriers break down.

On the runways, labels such as Gucci and Givenchy have merged their menswear and womenswear collections into one, unveiling looks that can move fluidly between the two. Celebrities such as Harry Styles and Lil Nas X are wearing skirts and heels, while Kim Kardashian is embracing Balenciaga menswear.

Traditionally, lingerie brands have been geared towards cis gender women, but that is also gradually changing.

KÖN’s Bill Heinonen and Leak NYC’s Louis Dorantes debuted genderless lingerie labels in 2020, both sharing a message “for all.” And they are not the only underwear labels to embrace the concept, with high street retailers such as Calvin Klein, Etam and Etsy also launching their own lines.

More niche LGBTQIA+ brands have also emerged, offering gender neutral lingerie among other clothing products.

Gender Free World offers ‘no labels’ unisex boxer shorts for “men, women, non binary and all genders” with a choice of 12 different designs priced between £18.50 and £19.50 a pair. The gender neutral lingerie stems from the company’s early vision to create less feminine shirts that are not defined by gender.

Cosabella is entering a new era and offering lingerie and loungewear in new sizing categories beyond women’s wear to all people regardless of shape, shade, identity, age and gender. And earthy and gender neutral colour palette is paired with a suite of elegant logo marks, including a reinterpretation of the brand’s iconic bow.

TomboyX is a further example of change, offering underwear in a large variety of styles, prints and colours – designed and fit-tested on all bodies for quality and comfort.

KÖN founder Bill concludes: “Imagine that any customer has the power to define the product themselves, rather than the opposite!

“I think we will see more and more brands follow this idea because society is changing fast. There is a bigger demand these days not to be labelled as something.”