Gender Neutrality Meets Twin Cities Fashion

Local designers level the playing field in men and women’s clothing

All it took was one pair of exotic patterned boots, and I already knew I needed to talk to him. He was the only person in the crowd of Minneapolis theater goers at Illusion Theater who stood out from the rest of normality. After the show, I approached this colorful individual, decked out in high-end attire embroidered with gems and beading that somehow tastefully incorporated the rainbow. His personality was just as bright as his clothing; he was able to talk to strangers as if they had known him for years.

This was Ricky Morisseau, on whose Instagram you’ll find everything from crop tops and high heels to dress shirts and suit jackets—with no limitations as to what persona he might take on. “If the day is giving me casual, then I dress casual; if it’s giving me fabulous, then I dress fabulously,” says the Minneapolis-based actor, dancer, and singer, who goes by “he” or “she” depending on what energy he, or anyone else, feels he’s exuding. “Some days or nights I wear lipstick or make-up. Sometimes I wear heels or knee-high boots. Some days I just want to wear something that glides and floats. My style is very gender-neutral, and it is deliberate.”

Gender-neutral clothing lines have sprung up in some of the largest cities around the country recently, with sizable followings in New York and Los Angeles. Recently in Manhattan, The Phluid Project opened the “world’s first gender-neutral clothing store.” The idea was to create a safe space for shoppers to shop freely, without judgement, fear, or strict men’s-versus-women’s sections. Newbie brand 69, based in Los Angeles, is similarly a non-conformist and gender-neutral clothing company that plays with past and potential future to create clothing that’s both timeless and versatile for all genders.

And recently, the Minneapple has taken gender neutrality under its wing, working to integrate the no-bounds concept into Midwest style. First, there are the large local franchises. H&M and Target have taken a step toward blurring the line of who should wear what by introducing white button-up shirts and baggy denim that are wearable for both men and women, plus peachy and teal room decor that either gender can appreciate. Meanwhile, a limited number of small-scale shops and boutiques are embracing the movement, including Hensa, a Minneapolis-based bridal brand known for pant-suit wedding attire, and Showroom, a Minneapolis store dedicated to Twin Cities designers and home to Scott J. Lehmann’s gender-neutral collection, featuring custom-made geometric jackets. Lehmann also designs flowy, simple skirts and dresses for men that he models himself on Instagram. On a man, the local designer’s looks recall women’s blazers and punk-style sundresses, while on women, the same clothes suddenly look like bomber jackets, landing somewhere between feminine and laid-back comfort.

What makes something gender-neutral, exactly? Unisex comes close, but gender neutrality is more about blurring and freely crossing the line between masculine and feminine. Unisex entails something like the H&M and Target lines—still blurring, but more classic, without fuss or any traditional signifiers of gender orientation, like a white T-shirt and jeans. Morisseau uses the term “gender neutral” because he feels it gives him the freedom to choose different energies for different days. “I love not being bound by the standards of what men and women can or should wear,” Morisseau says. “A man can dress just as fabulously as a woman, and a woman can dress just as strong as a man.”

Another Minnesotan introducing gender neutrality to the Twin Cities is young menswear designer Alexander Lehr. He started out in fashion in the depths of college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and today, his most recent collection, Dichotomy, plays on the concept of opposites and how they coexist. Lehr just released two new looks on social media: One reinvents suspenders as a criss-cross pattern with avant-garde appeal, and another, a black ensemble, consists of a minimalistic crop top and high-waisted bottoms—a look usually intended for women and practically never seen on men.

His goal with the collection was to achieve a comfortable balance between two extremes, using pastels and hard lines and cuts to depict society as two-sided: “Romanticism and minimalism, masculine and feminine, positive and negative space—they all exist to keep the other in balance,” he says.

Lehr had not seen a lot of that balance in menswear. “That is what frustrated me enough to get into fashion in the first place: equaling things out,” he says. He envisions every person having the option to wear whatever cut, fabric, and design they like, inspired by the boredom he felt at constantly seeing suits and tuxedos as go-to men’s attire on red carpets and in fashion magazines. “I want men to experience ‘fashion over function’ firsthand. I make clothing that subjects men to the same stuff that women go through.” Ever hear that beauty is pain? Gender neutrality levels the playing field in more ways than one: Lehr believes both genders should experience discomfort for the sake of fashion. “Showing skin or wearing something truly fitted and tight—that’s not typical for men,” he adds.  

But while Morisseau has experienced nothing but positive vibes for his gender-neutral way of dressing, often with items he finds in thrift stores (“The reactions I get [are] always laced in support and praise,” Morisseau says), the 24-year-old Lehr has experienced criticism for his “risky” restructuring of the male silhouette.

“I have definitely gotten some hate,” he says. “I got slurs thrown at my work consistently, the likes of which I won’t repeat, but vulgar in their existence to be sure.” Even as a beginning designer, Lehr faced negative feedback in design school. “I went through my entire design program being misunderstood, and that was terrible, but it was those voices of doubt that made me realize what I am doing is relevant and, I think, needed,” he says. He never returns fire: “I just let them work through why it makes them uncomfortable on their own.”

Morisseau believes that even just stimulating conversation can be enough. If people are talking about it, then a difference has already been made, he says. For Lehr, the goal is to create a platform for other designers and innovators to embrace their individualized creativity, “a hub for creative fashion,” he says, in the Twin Cities. And you can’t say the young designer wouldn’t find support. “I would love to see more avant-garde wear in [Minnesota] fashion,” Morisseau says, “something real editorial and edgy.”

The Twin Cities are on their way, with designers taking less conservative approaches to Midwest couture. Here in Minnesota, we have our own all-inclusive fashion week to showcase local design talent. This spring season, designers displayed garments that played on structural form, inspired by top trends. The Innovations Fashion Show in St. Paul gave design students the chance to use unconventional materials to create incredible garments and wearable art. Local stylists demonstrated their eye for taste by putting together ensembles from thrift stores. Amid all this creativity, the show “Flagrant: Fashion on the Fringe” even spotlighted local designers “from the fringes of the queer community.”

We might still be growing our fashion culture, but Midwesterners are choosing to step out of their comfort zones and embrace new ideas. Active participants, such as Morisseau and Lehr, are making themselves known, and dozens of other progressive state designers are coming out of the woodwork. Designer Nickey Robo just released her new line, Thunder Thighs, an all-latex clothing line for plus-size men and women, and Wild In, by Wilden Weihn, displays fashionable loungewear pieces that can be worn interchangeably on both men and women. Bringing a newfound sense of acceptance and appreciation to the art of dressing, they—we—are ready to embrace a new silhouette.