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Fashion students break down gender barriers

'It's supporting that person’s right to self-expression free from discrimination and free from prejudice'
Designs: Pierrot Model: Chet Gibson Photographer: Hannah Tabert

Three fashion design students at Kwantlen Polytechnic University are breaking down barriers through their gender neutral fashion lines.

Sondra McGaw, Erin Chisholm and Joel Jhocson are all in their final months at KPU’s four-year fashion design and technology program. All three wanted to create unique fashion lines that made people feel comfortable with who they are – regardless of gender.

“The idea of gender is so contextually relevant and it’s ever-changing and therefore sort of arbitrary,” said Chisholm who designed the line Pierrot under the brand th.on.

“I think that fashion is a means of self-expression. It’s the first thing that people see about you and I think that to be completely comfortable in yourself you need to have that sort of self-expression. So to be able to wear the clothes you want to wear and that fit your body is really important.”

Chisholm's line has a historical influence and celebrates ambiguity. One of Chisholm's pieces features a high neckline that comes under the nose, covering the wearer's mouth. 

“It plays into the idea that for the longest time, people who were not heteronormative or lived outside of what society expected them to be were silenced,” Chisholm said. “So I’m taking back that idea…even though their mouth is covered, they are fully expressing themselves and who they want to be.”

McGaw’s streetwear fashion line, X:Y, aims to be gender-inclusive by juxtaposing traditional femininity and masculinity. As a result, McGaw’s gender-neutral line isn’t like typical unisex clothing which is often monochromatic. Instead, X:Y uses pink, frills and other traditionally feminine details and combines them with traditionally masculine silhouettes.

“In Vancouver, there’s a huge lack of self-expressive clothing designed for individuals who don’t really fit into traditional gender categories,” McGaw said.

“Gender non-binary individuals or people who don’t necessarily conform to female or male gender exclusively, they have really limited clothing options.”

Jhocson's line also plays with gender-neutrality through the fashion like, KNEW. While KNEW focuses on a fit for men, Jhocson said anyone can wear the clothing. "Society has always created a separation between women and men. Men are always expected to be strong and independent while women should be pretty and sensitive," Jhocson said. 

All three of these lines can be seen at KPU’s year-end fashion show on April 19 and 20, but these three designers hope their lines have a longer lasting impact beyond the two day show. For McGaw, fashion – particularly when it embraces all identities – can have a significant effect.

“It goes beyond supporting someone’s sexual or gender orientation. It’s supporting another person’s right to just be who they are, supporting that person’s right to self-expression free from discrimination and free from prejudice,” McGaw said. “It’s human rights that it comes down to.”

– Alyse Kotyk, Richmond News