The Phluid Project: Gender-Free Fashion, Community, and Activism
Anyone who’s ever been to The Phluid Project knows it’s a mesmerizing place. Perhaps you’ve shopped there before, enjoying the fact that the clothing isn’t separated out by gender. Maybe you’ve attended a performance or panel discussion in the space. Maybe you’ve hung out on the shag carpet risers, while sipping a beverage from their café. The Phluid Project offers a gender-free shopping experience as well as a home for art, community, and activism (The Phluid Project supports a number of causes, including #WeNeedAButton).
I asked Rob Smith, Phluid’s founder and CEO, some questions about his life, career, and how The Phluid Project came to be.
EL: Where did you grow up and what was it like?
Rob Smith: I grew up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. It was a conservative, white, preppy, affluent suburb of Detroit.
EL: Where did your interest in retail come from?
Rob Smith: My first job was Miss Jacobsen’s – the junior department of Jacobsen’s. Over the years, I found an interest in merchandising and this led to an extensive career in retail.
EL: How has your own personal fashion sense evolved over the years?
Rob Smith: I used to be super preppy, which was probably a reflection of where I grew up. The 90s, especially, my style became a bit more outrageous. It was loud. I then settled into a pretty classic style. Phluid has allowed, and encouraged, my getting back in touch with my feminine expression. More than ever, I dress for how I am feeling that day.
EL: What was behind the inspiration of creating The Phluid Project? Can you give a little company history overview for our readers?
Rob Smith: I’ve been a retail executive for over 30 years, and with that career, have a robust knowledge in merchandising. I also work a lot with young people and LGBTQ youth in my personal ventures and passions and realized their demand for a space like Phluid. A space where they were free to dress and shop without the binary constrictions retailers require. After taking some time off and traveling, it became clear to me opening a retail flagship which was grounded in community and activism was what I was meant to do – and what was needed by consumers.
EL: Where did the name come from?
Rob Smith: Phluid speaks to fluidity – the space between the binary when speaking to gender and identity. Ph is meant to represent balance. And project is because we are ever-evolving. We are in a time of an unlearning and a relearning.
I believe the landscape of retail is changing and this is the future of retail. Young people want a space that speaks to their lifestyle. A place they can hang out, meet people, engage, and connect. Connect with people and connect to your mission, concept and value system. The appreciation and engagement has been phenomenal and celebrated, which has truly allowed us to organically build community.
EL: Why is it so important for queer/trans/nonbinary people to have access to affirming places? How does The Phluid Project provide a different, affirming environment for customers, employees, partners, etc.?
Rob Smith: People need, and deserve, to feel safe, understood and embraced. We, as a world, need to challenge the boundaries of humanity and this starts in our own homes, places of employment and spaces we choose to spend our time. At Phluid, we understand the world is changing and it is our job to change with it, and to try to educate as we move forward. At the heart and soul of who we are is activism. We execute and share our knowledge through panel discussions, support of charities with whose mission we align, and have a resource page for members of the community, allies, parents etc.
EL: What does a LGBTQ community mean to you?
Rob Smith: Love, support, acceptance, kindness, beauty. And most importantly, home.
EL: Have you ever had a #WeNeedAButton story (an interaction with the medical industry that was negative because of your gender or sexuality)?
Rob Smith: I have been very fortunate in my career and with companies I have worked to have access to good and LGBTQ-friendly doctors. That said, I know this is not the case for all, and have heard very disheartening stories. A spotlight needs to be shed on this problem, and I am so grateful that #WeNeedAButton is doing so.