These Gender-Neutral Kids' Clothing Lines Are Changing The Game

Photo: Courtesy of Muttonhead.
Clothing tends to be designed, marketed, and shopped for in very gender-binary terms, with separate collections, sizing, and store sections for men and women. But that's slowly shifting: In the past year, major retailers like Zara and Selfridges have introduced unisex ranges, with varying degrees of success. While progressive and forward-thinking, these collections tend to have a disconnect between intent and execution. However, there are some noteworthy, genuinely gender-neutral apparel options for one particular market demographic: kids.

A few labels prove that kids should just be (and dress like) kids, free of any gender-confining messaging. "Until around age 11 boys and girls have the same body shape and clothing needs," Karina Lundell, head designer of gender-neutral Swedish clothing brand Polarn O. Pyret, told Refinery29. "Kids need comfy clothes with good fit and function that they can play in." (Granted, it's a lot easier to design with a "one style for all" approach for kids' body shapes and proportions than adults' physiques.)

The same heteronormative pink-or-blue tropes dominate clothing as well as toy offerings for kids, but it hasn’t always been this way. Until around World War I, pastels were standard for children's clothing in the U.S., but today's gender-hue correlations weren't in place, per the Smithsonian. At first, pink was actually seen as a more masculine color, and blue was considered softer and more appropriate for girls — conventions that didn't switch until the 1940s, when gendered kids' clothing really became a thing. The effects go beyond merely dressing a tot in pink or blue: "Children may then extend this perspective from toys and clothes into future roles, occupations, and characteristics,” Megan Fulcher, associate professor of psychology at Washington and Lee University, told The New York Times.

Gender-neutral children's clothing brands have actually been around for decades, and they've been particularly popular in Scandinavia and in the U.K. (Polarn O. Pyret launched in the '70s.) More recently, major retailers in the U.S. are catching on. Target, for example, axed gender-specific labels for its toy and children's clothing departments last year, which was praised as a step in the right direction. And then there are the small-scale brands doing it differently. The labels ahead aren't using "unisex" as a marketing ploy. They talk the talk, and walk the walk: Taking gender stereotypes out of kids' clothing is ingrained in their mission statements and integral to their businesses.

Click through for four gender-neutral kids' brands changing the game.
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Photo: Courtesy of Gardner and the Gang.
Gardner And The Gang
This is probably the most mainstream stateside gender-neutral kids' label, thanks to its alignment with Jaime King (and constant sightings on her Instagram). However, it's relatively new; founder Kristin Nystrom started the brand in 2012.

The brand began as an extension of Nystrom's own artwork. "[I wanted] to convey a message of a deeper meaning with my illustrations," she said. She didn't set out specifically to design unisex kids' clothes, but the idea congealed shortly after the birth of her child.

Nystrom's approach is simple: "Children should be allowed to be free, and that should be transferred to clothes, as well." So, if a boy wants to wear pink, that's great. Nystrom's design process focuses on story and season, as opposed to gender-specific concepts.

And while she's gotten plenty of positive feedback about the brand, some people are a little confused by the genderless concept at first. "Sometimes [customers] are frustrated," she noted. "It will take some time to get used to the idea, I think, but in my mind, it's something that is only natural."
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Photo: Courtesy of Tootsa.
Kate Pietrasik founded Tootsa in 2011 as an alternative to British high-street brands' gendered offerings. "Girlswear departments were bland with aisles of pinks and purples, fairies, princesses, sparkles and fluffy baby animals, which dangerously stereotyped girls," she recalled of her experiences shopping for her newborn daughter. "[Brands were] pigeon-holing my daughter before she could even talk!" She also tried, unsuccessfully, to shop the boys' department. When Tootsa launched, Pietrasik says there weren't many unisex children's companies outside of Scandinavia.

"Customers were bored of what was on offer and [felt] the same despair as me when shopping for children," Pietrasik explained. For each collection, she chooses a specific geographic destination and revolves her designs around its flora, fauna, food, and color palette. Another big consideration for her is sustainability, so the label does everything possible to ensure its pieces are manufactured ethically, Pietrasik said. That includes working with family-run factories in Portugal, Turkey, and Hong Kong, and only partnering with suppliers that are registered with the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange.

"Defining a young child by gender is dangerous," Pietrasik said. "As a parent to a daughter, I'm ushered down aisles of pink, often sexualized clothing [and] toys that encourage an interest in beauty, passive play, and domesticity."

Customers often tell Pietrasik that their kids ask to wear their Tootsa togs over other clothing options, so she created a hashtag to document all the kids' #OOTDs, should other parents be on the hunt for pint-sized outfit inspo.
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Photo: Courtesy of Polarn O. Pyret.
Polarn O. Pyret
Katarina af Klintberg cofounded Swedish brand Polarn O. Pyret with Gunila Axén in 1976, offering striped unisex tops and leggings that could be worn by different members of the family. According to Jo Nilsson, who started the brand's U.K. arm, the two were "so influenced by the feminist movement in the 1970s that they decided to create their own brand that permitted children to grow up as people, not boys or girls." The brand's M.O. is to make “[what] is good for people and good for the planet," per Nilsson.

The brand describes its customer base as parents who want their kids to have traditional childhoods, instead of being raised as "mini adults." The designs are playful and colorful, but they aren't scaled-down versions of trendy pieces: Polarn O. Pyret also encourages the idea of hand-me-downs, hoping that families pass down their PO.P duds from one generation to the next (or donate the items to charity).

Still based in Stockholm, Polarn O. Pyret's 20-person design team always approaches new collections with gender neutrality in mind, Nilsson said. While the company added flowery prints and ruffles to its inventory due to customer demand (elements that may be considered traditionally "girly"), it still doesn't categorize its clothing according to gender. "Fit, function, and quality come first," she noted.

Polarn O. Pyret is currently in growth mode, with plans to expand its brick-and-mortar presence (particularly in the U.K.) this year. The company may be four decades old, but its message certainly resonates today.
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Photo: Courtesy of Muttonhead.
Muttonhead launched as a unisex clothing line for grown-ups, as designer Meg Sinclair's college collection in 2009. Shortly after, there was so much demand for a children's range that she expanded the label to include designs for little ones. The brand has a casual, outdoors-y aesthetic, with lots of cotton tees and sweats in neutral colors like gray, maroon, navy, and black.

While Sinclair has evolved the company from school project to a full-fledged brand sold in 50 retailers worldwide, Muttonhead maintains a strong commitment to sustainability, similar to PO.P's hand-me-down-friendly approach. "Slow fashion is important, because garments should be made to last and worn for as long as possible," Sinclair explained to Refinery29.