Although diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) has been in practice for a few decades, it has been in the spotlight for two years. Along with DEI’s efforts, companies are beginning to take LGBTQ+ communities seriously to create a positive and inclusive culture for all employees. Developing a culture where everyone feels recognized goes beyond tolerance; it is about fully accepting people as they are, regardless of their status and affiliations.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the term genderqueer became popular among social activists. It defines a person who does not subscribe to conventional gender distinctions. This paved the way for other terms like non-binary to become mainstream. The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law has released a new study indicating that approximately 11% of LGBTQ adults in the United States – approximately 1.2 million people – identify as non-binary. Over the past decade, more and more brands have positioned themselves as gender-inclusive. Just recently, fashion is one of the industries that has taken the initiative to make people feel accepted for who they are. The global unisex apparel market is expected to reach $3.2 billion by 2030.
Abby Sugar, CEO and Co-Founder of Play Out Apparel, and her Co-Founder and Chief Design Officer, Gray Leifer, created the egalitarian apparel brand and community to fill a gap in the market. They started the business because they didn’t see themselves reflected in existing brands and clothing. Specifically, they couldn’t find underwear and streetwear that was completely gender-specific.
Additionally, they work with a female-owned manufacturing facility that employs and pays a living wage to LGBTQ+ workers and workers over 50. In 2021, they did the Forbes Next 1000. Additionally, the company oversubscribed in the pre-seed funding round. He raised $600,000 and plans to launch another round of fundraising in June. This year, they participated in Macy’s workshop program, making Play Out collections available on the retailer’s e-commerce platform.
“We’ve embodied that our whole lives,” Sugar says. “I finally feel like even since 2018 it’s become more mainstream, if you will, for us. It’s not a trend. It’s who we are. It’s also the future of the retail. … We feel number one, we’re changing the world. Gen Z is the new consumer that no one else really tries or knows how to talk to yet. And then the world is catching up with us, right? Finally, this more inclusive and authentic approach.
Sugar began her career in the literary space working as an editor at a newspaper while writing freelance. Having always wanted to be a personal trainer, she decided to train in a gym before becoming a freelance trainer. Almost ten years ago, she met Leifer through a mutual friend. They started discussing the queer and transgender community as well as how slow fashion was at the time to provide inclusive options.
As Sugar and Leifer continued their talks, they realized they were onto something. Leifer has always been a painter and began his career as a television and film set designer, painting sets. Eventually, he started styling and working in e-commerce at an early childhood stage. He eventually went freelance, taking him on an 18-year journey with corporate America.
“I was talking to Grey, and the original product we had was underwear,” Sugar shares. “Grey and I had been friends for many years. I was like, ‘Those are the things I’m really good at. That’s what I look for in a partner. And he said, ‘Well, I do all those things. So why wouldn’t I do that with you? And we were just crazy enough to do that.”
So they started to develop the brand that now belongs to gays, lesbians, gays, trans and non-binary. It wasn’t about erasing pronouns or gender identity; it was about removing categories that tell people what they should or shouldn’t wear based on them. Additionally, the prints on the garments are limited edition and created from original Leifer paintings.
“From a design perspective, because the binary is so strong, even trying to classify ourselves as being outside of it is really difficult,” says Leifer. “It is important to note that we were not gender neutral; we’re not trying to make clothes that just erase that neutrality. Anyone can have the gender experience they want. What we are is we take gender out of the shopping experience and the design experience. »
Sugar and Leifer didn’t just start a clothing brand; they built a community. It was important to them to have a safe space for their consumers to feel included. Additionally, Play Out is a good social enterprise with 20% of net profits going to LGBTQ+ and BLM organizations.
As Sugar and Leifer evolve Play Out and transition within their careers, they focus on the following critical milestones:
- Self-reflection as much as possible. You need to understand who you are, the value you bring to the table, and where you want to go.
- Find out how the pivot you are making helps those around you or in your community. Understand what your long-term mission will be.
- Be comfortable with who you are. It’s embarrassing if you don’t recognize your uniqueness – the authenticity doesn’t shine through. People buy first which is the brand, then buy the product.
“I’ve always identified as a leader,” Sugar concludes. I’ve always done my own thing, and maybe it comes down to that bravery or that madness, whatever you want to call it. When people tend to be decisive, they tend to be leaders because other people can wait for someone to make a decision. Leifer adds, “Being a creative person myself, it’s almost like I used to joke around and say, ‘I’m a creative, but I also speak in costume.'”