The Renegade Fashion Guru Who Wants to Change the Way We Think About Gender

How a former frat boy and high-flying retail exec finally found his calling—by opening America’s first gender-fluid clothing store.

The Renegade Fashion Guru Who Wants to Change the Way We Think About Gender

One bright day in May, standing near the front door of The Phluid Project, a new, gender-neutral clothing store in Downtown Manhattan, founder Rob Smith greets customers with a warmth on par with the weather. Tall, fit and soap-star handsome with bright eyes, sculpted salt-and-pepper hair and a flawless grin, Smith repeatedly extends his glittery-nail-polish-clad hand, asking prospective buyers their names, how they heard of the place, and what they might be shopping for. The showroom floor behind him is dotted with pink, mustachioed blowup bunnies, gold backpacks, camo pants, and rainbow-lettered tees offering “FREE HUGS.”

Smith, 52, sees The Phluid Project as part retailer, part community space. He exudes immense pride in the business he built himself this past year, after taking out a loan against his retirement savings and pouring $40,000 into the space’s renovation. A 30-year veteran of the commercial retail industry, Smith dreamt up The Phluid Project while on an excursion of self-discovery in South America. As a gay man who struggled with his identity throughout most of his life, he fancies the store as his chance to give back to the nonbinary and LGBTQ communities, to cultivate a place for people — anyone — to simply be themselves.

“I had this person come in last week,” Smith begins one story, carefully observing broad pronouns. Initially, this customer seemed reticent to interact with Smith, shyly asking about the clothing selections. But over the course of about an hour, they settled in, freely modeling clothes. “They didn’t end up buying anything, but I didn’t care,” Smith says. “It was such a rewarding experience to watch them try on things.”

“When you’re gender nonconforming, shopping in retail stores feels like a risk most of the time,” says Jacob Tobia, a gender nonconforming LGBTQ activist, producer and writer. It was Tobia who, after meeting Smith through mutual acquaintances, was the first to tell him about the challenges nonbinary clothing shoppers face. “The doubts can be endless: Will I be respected? Will I be misgendered? Will I be stared at? Will I be safe?

At The Phluid Project, Tobia adds, “We can shop in full knowledge that this space is for us, that we’ll be safe, and that we’ll be treated with respect.”

Smith was raised in the upscale Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan. He says he was an introverted, supersensitive perfectionist and teacher’s pet who dressed to the nines for school and didn’t have any friends.

“I think kids realized around fifth grade what ‘gay’ was,” Smith says. “They were on to me.”

He felt alienated, was picked on, and got into fistfights. At home, when Smith was around 13 he’d steal away to his bedroom with the latest Sears catalog to survey the men’s underwear section.

Seizing the chance at a fresh start in high school where fewer people knew him, he began going by “Rob” instead of “Robert,” and tried out for football — a sport his father played as a young man.

“I decided to manifest this new person,” Smith says. “He was going to be popular.”

Smith was an abysmal football player at first, but by the time he graduated he was a star on the varsity squad. He joined the crew team, too, and lettered in track and field.

The Phluid Project’s logo on stickers sold at the store in Manhattan. (Photo by Vincent Tullo)

His first sexual experience with a boy occurred when he was about 15, but he continuously dated women, “passing as straight.”

“Kids’ main mission is to survive,” Smith muses. “You start to conform to the subtle or overt messaging you’re getting.”

At Michigan State he studied marketing and became president of the fraternity system, once earning Greek Man of the Year honors. He did keg stands and planned epic parties. Maybe the most extreme place Smith’s super-bro persona took him was into the bedroom of one of his female professors, a place he says he only went because he “didn’t want to study that hard.”

Underneath the facade, however, he remained tortured, his depression manifesting itself during a freshman art class in which he drew a picture of someone blowing their brains out with a gun.

“My art teacher pulled me aside, and she asked me, ‘Are you thinking about this?’” Smith says. “I said I wasn’t, but I had. I thought at that time killing myself would be the better option [than] coming out to my family as gay.”

After college, Smith moved to Miami, taking a job as an assistant store manager at Burdines department store — a Florida-based chain under the Macy’s Inc. umbrella. Within a few months, he was promoted to assistant product buyer. “I somehow fell into this thing that I knew how to do,” he says. “It was easy for me.”

Living in the relatively gay-friendly confines of Miami, Smith came out to people in his immediate social circle there first, and eventually to his family, who, as it turned out, were completely supportive.

As his career in fashion continued, he shuffled around the country, overseeing Macy’s markets everywhere from Hawaii to San Francisco to New York City, where he’s lived for the past 15 years. (Thirteen years ago he started dating Rod Grozier, who develops real estate for nonprofits like the YMCA. The pair married in 2008, and they live together near the High Line in West Chelsea.)

In the mid-2000s, Smith says Macy’s had him on the C-level executive track and assigned him a speaking coach to refine his handling of public speeches and media. The coach also showed Smith photos of other Macy’s bigwigs, spotlighting their uniform hairstyles and accouterments — think full-body tailoring à la Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.

“She said, ‘Well, look at you,’” Smith recalls. “‘You’re wearing a skinny suit, pointy shoes, a hot pink shirt.’” C-levelers at Macy’s didn’t dress like that.

“I figured I’d maxed out there,” Smith says.

He worked for Victoria’s Secret for a year and a half in the merchandising department, taught at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and later worked for a childrenswear company. But he found something closer to a calling in his volunteer work with the Hetrick-Martin Institute, an outreach and advocacy group for LGBTQ youth. He served as a fund-raiser, event planner and eventually chair of the board of directors.

“I was able to go back and help young people be themselves,” he says of his time with the group. “They’re honest and courageous in a way that I wasn’t.” Supporting those young people, Smith says, “was a way to, without really being aware of it, address the kid that I was — and wasn’t — and give them a space to be authentic.”

About that time, Smith sought a more altruistic path. He had sessions with an energy healer and a psychic. Both told Smith he’d experienced great pain in his life, and had much more to achieve.

Then, in 2016, he went to Burning Man.

In the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, “Nobody knew who I was, how much money I made, what my title was, none of that shit,” Smith says. “People just like you for you. It opened up my mind a bit. It put me to another place in my life.”

Burning Man has a reputation for inspiring people to hastily quit their jobs. Even though Smith had been warned about such an impulse, he did just that, and then backpacked alone through Guatemala and Peru in early 2017.

“I thought there would be such value in his being removed from the experiences he was having,” recalls his husband, Grozier. “So I tried to keep the interface to a minimum.”

While on the journey, Smith booked a weeklong retreat in the Peruvian jungle, taking part in an ayahuasca ceremony. (Ayahuasca is a plant-based brew that, when ingested, has psychoactive effects. It’s been used in spiritual ceremonies for thousands of years.) “I don’t know if it’s real or if it’s just your subconscious releasing itself and telling you what want you want to know, but you get answers,” Smith says of his experience. “I guess whenever you want advice, you go to the person who you know will give you the answer you want, right?”

During his ayahuasca trip, he says, “This big feminine power came in, and I said, ‘Hey, I’m Rob,’ and she was like, ‘I know who you are.’”

Smith surrendered to the spirit. As he traveled deeper into his mind and reexperienced childhood events, he could understand the words of the shaman, even though he was speaking in Shipibo the entire time. “He passed along all this knowledge,” Smith says, about “how to not make people like me, but just be me.”

He left Peru thinking, “Fuck, I’ve gotta adapt my life.”

Just prior to returning home, he wrote in his travel journal: “Consider opening a nonbinary, gender-free shopping space.” In quote marks he also jotted down “Phluid.” On his mind was the work he’d done with young people at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, and his conversations with Jacob Tobia, the nonbinary activist.

Left: Eugenie Tempesta, a customer, tries on a unisex top at the Phluid Project. Right: Alan Chen tests out a pair of high heels before purchasing them. (Photos by by Kyle Kucharski)

Back in New York, he began scouting locations for his venture, settling on the 3,000-square-foot space at Broadway and Great Jones Street. He hired Kristina Keenan, a gay woman, as director of design, as well as a team of mostly queer and gender-nonconforming people through referrals from acquaintances. He attended myriad trade shows, convincing brand manufacturers to sell to his store before it even had a name. Eventually, Smith went with “The Phluid Project.”

“Phluid” is a nod to “gender fluidity,” with the spelling twist referencing “the power of hydrogen” — a measurement of the hydrogen ion concentration in the body, the balance of which is said to be essential to good health.

At the store, there’s a coffee and kombucha bar, as well as conference rooms downstairs, all of which are in place to spur connections and conversations. Smith also hosts the Tuesday Talks series — Q & A sessions that once recently featured Desmond Napoles, the 10-year-old drag performer who goes by “Desmond Is Amazing.” With his parents looking on from the audience, Desmond dished out fashion tips while scoffing at the broad misconception that drag queens are typically transgender. He also reminded the crowd he’s still just a fifth-grader, declaring, “I’m against homework.”

“I love the store because anyone is allowed in here,” Napoles says. “I think that Rob has created something no one in the world would think of. So I would call him a genius.”

Rob Smith at The Phluid Project. (Photo by Vincent Tullo)

In one of his more eyebrow-raising moves, Smith trademarked the phrase “The World’s First Gender-Free Store” for use in The Phluid Project’s promotion — a statement that was picked up by press outlets but has been disputed. Lisa Honan, the owner of Gender Free World, a single-brand clothing store on the southern shore of England, commented on a Phluid Project Instagram post: “Brilliant stuff guys. However sorry to disappoint. We have been trading since February 2016 and have a store in Brighton. We are the world’s first gender free store :)”.

In a recent interview, Honan told me, “The more stores that address the ridiculous gender nature of what’s going on in our shopping malls, the better. But to say that they’re the first means that they haven’t really had a look at what’s out there.” (I also found a now-defunct space billed as a gender-fluid clothing store in Yukon, Canada, and another nonbinary single-brand store in Amsterdam called Nobody Has To Know.)

Despite her initial chagrin, Honan say she has no ill will toward Smith, and she is open to selling her clothes at The Phluid Project, which Smith told me he’ll look into. Smith asserts his “intention was never to scam anybody,” that he’d scoured the Internet looking for other gender-fluid clothing stores and, to his surprise, came up empty. He also notes that The Phluid Project is unique in its size, scope and the variety of brands on sale — both its own and many others. “Nobody’s made a commitment the way we have,” he says.

Smith wants The Phluid Project’s platform and mission to remain amorphous, but he also wants to get the concept “right.” On Twitter, Reddit and other online forums, I read comments from potential shoppers who are hopeful that The Phluid Project will not fit their clothes based on default men’s sizes or be too expensive or monochromatic like some other attempts at gender-fluid styles from companies like Zara and H&M.

Customers, Nikki and Eva, try on sunglasses at The Phluid Project. (Photos by Kyle Kucharski)
Jacket with the original Phluid design displayed in the store’s front window. (Photo by Vincent Tullo)

The Phluid Project has its own sizing system that splits the difference between men’s and women’s sizes, and you’ll find a gray hoodie among their wares, but there are plenty of items in yellow, pink, blue and other colors. There are high-end selections, but Smith says that prices at The Phluid Project reflect the general financial standing of their ideal, young shopper. “The concept is that if someone has a hundred dollars you can come into this space and buy four pieces,” Smith says. “A t-shirt, a hat, a pair of socks and something from cosmetics.”

In wanting to better understand how to appropriately interact with gender nonconforming individuals, Smith has been tutored by Aaron Rose, a diversity and inclusion consultant who says he “helps companies create cultures where people of all identities can thrive.”

“We’ve been working to bring language to his lived experience,” Rose says of his work with Smith. Such exercises result in new behavioral norms, like asking people what their identifiable pronouns are instead of presuming they’re gender conforming, and understanding that gender is “not in the body, it’s in the mind, the soul, the heart,” says Rose.

Such planning may help Smith avoid the kind of bad press Vogue got when the magazine put Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik on the cover, championing them as leaders in the nonbinary fashion movement. In the article, the pair playfully seeks out clothing from each other’s closets, but this activity alone doesn’t certify a gender-fluid identity. Vogue issued an apology after it drew criticism on social media. In addressing the question of whether or not Smith should be the one to found a gender-free clothing store, given the fact that he cis-male, he says, “I didn’t wear junior dresses when I was a junior dress buyer.”

“I don’t want to be the front man,” Smith continues. “I think people could easily turn away from The Project because they see me as a cis white man, [but] I say to people, ‘Use me, use the space; this is the place for everybody.’ Would it be ideal if I was gender-fluid myself? Sure it would. But I’m not, and I’m not gonna apologize for it.”

Phluid Project employees and Rob Smith pose in front of the Phluid wall mural. (Photo by Vincent Tullo)

That said, he has drifted away from his somewhat traditional cis-male style, opting to wear at least one or two clothing items from The Phluid Project virtually every day. He says he feels “much more comfortable” in them.

An unseasonably cold spring in the Northeast might have contributed to a slow sales start at The Phluid Project, but Smith says that the store is still finding its customer base, and with the weather growing warmer, there’s been a sizable uptick in foot traffic.

“Every morning, I wake up and read emails to the store, and it’s like: Thank you for existing, thank you for creating this space,” Smith says. “People have come back now for the fourth or fifth time; they’re bringing friends, and this community is getting bigger and stronger. They know now there’s a place to be.”

Perhaps most important, personally, to Smith, “I’m living my authentic self right now,” he says. “And I love it.”

Phluid Project founder Rob Smith. (Photo by Vincent Tullo)