‘We’re Fighting For Everyone’: Alok Vaid-Menon On Why Genderless Fashion Is Not Just An LGBTQ Issue

Image courtesy of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas
While the fashion and beauty industries have been trying to better represent diverse communities in recent years, Alok Vaid-Menon reminds us that there's still a long road ahead.
Growing up in Texas as the child of Indian immigrants, Vaid-Menon was bullied for their ethnicity and gender expression. Eventually channelling their pain and trauma into art and style, they were able to challenge the stigmas and hate and express their true self.
The non-binary transfemme artist is the creator of #DeGenderFashion — a movement to degender the fashion and beauty industries. For many trans and gender-queer people, personal style not only helps them express their identities but represents a demand to others to face up to their own prejudices.
Some companies have attempted to embrace the concept of dismantling the gender binary, but sadly not without scepticism or an abundance of excuses that Vaid-Menon describes as a "cop out".
"What often ends up happening is that so many fashion and beauty brands completely agree with me with the idea that any gender can use their product," Vaid-Menon tells Refinery29 Australia.
"They say, 'We agree with you. It's just that people aren't ready yet. They're going to be upset if we depict people who they see as men in dresses. There's going to be an outrage and there'll be a backlash.'
"And that's so boring to me," they explain, "because actually, it's a chicken and egg situation. People aren't ready yet because they've not been shown how cool, how beautiful and how urgent this is."
Diversity has become somewhat of a buzzword at fashion week events around the world. This year, designer Gary Bigeni presented a gender-neutral collection at Afterpay Australian Fashion Week (AAFW).
Vaid-Menon says that designers like Bigeni showcasing a gender-neutral collection is "the right thing" to do, because people can't champion a concept that has no visibility.
"It's the right thing to actually say, 'Hey, anybody gets to wear my clothes. I don't get to determine that'," they say.
"My belief is that as people in the fashion and beauty industry, we know how to make things look good. What if we made freedom look good? What if we made gender fluidity look good? What if the goal then was actually about challenging the society that says we're not ready?
"I think that when people in the fashion and beauty space tell me that people aren't ready, it feels like a cop out to me," the 31-year-old continues.
"That's the entire purpose of being in fashion design and in beauty — that we're innovative and constantly reimagining the garment and the silhouette. Something as simple as a heel can be done 9,000 ways or more," they say. "How can we not bring that creativity into making people be ready?"
Circling back to fashion events, New York Fashion Week is currently underway and Vaid-Menon says that they've noticed some companies merely paying lip service to trans and non-binary people.
"Every time I'm out at fashion week, all these major editors and brands will come up to me and they're like, 'We all follow you on Instagram. Oh my god, you're such an inspiration'," says Vaid-Menon.
"And I'm like, 'Then why aren't you inviting me?' I think literally people are inspired by us, but they don't actually invite us or pay us or compensate us."
Vaid-Menon is appearing at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney, and wants Australia's fashion and beauty industries to step up and embrace local talent and not merely pay lip service to diversity.
"I often notice when I'm touring abroad, that people will talk about trans artists or designers or activists in the United States, but don't know their own people in their own backyard," they say.
"So I also want to hold fashion and beauty industries in Australia to task to be like 'OK, as part of this conversation around moving beyond gender norms, can we please invest in more and trans and non-binary talent?'"
Like a lot of of their work, Vaid-Menon's upcoming talk will highlight that "the true dangerous idea is the gender binary".
"Everything that I'm saying is actually about love and compassion and expansion. But the gender binary — which is the decision to divide billions of gnarly, cool, complex souls into one of two categories — is dangerous precisely because it's all-consuming."
They also aim to challenge the perception that "genderless fashion is for the LGBTQ community," explaining that "actually, we're fighting for everyone".
They believe it should be given the same weight as other issues the fashion industry faces, like sustainability, cultural appropriation and size diversity that have become "mainstream" in recent times.
Ultimately, progress can't be made when trans and non-binary people continue to be othered. They're in this fight for us all and we need to join them.
"We need this to stop being sidelined as an LGBTQ issue and we need this to be prioritised as a fashion and beauty issue."
Alok Vaid-Menon will appear at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney on Sunday, September 18. They will also perform their poetry-comedy show in Australia and New Zealand this month.
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