Gender-Neutrality Hits The Streets of Philadelphia

About three years ago, Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele redefined masculine flamboyance. A young boy with long blond hair, in a red pussy-bow blouse, opened up the Menswear Fall/Winter collection, and it was beyond androgynous. When describing a personal style that is androgynous, it desires to create a look that is gender-less and aims to avoid gender stereotypes. Alessandro Michele did just that. Aside from the sheer floral lace tops and ruffled turtlenecks, he featured four female models, with the same boy-cuts or hippie counterculture-hairstyle of the 70s as the male models.


It had people shook. Confused by the lanky body types, editors and spectators debated their gender as the models hit the catwalk. The overall look blurred gender lines. Considering the show was produced and designed in five days, attendees expected to see the brands classic looks, but the assumptions were quickly shut down as soon as the pussy-bow blouse was in sight. Frida Giannini, who was the creative director for a little more than a decade, had left the company just two weeks before the show. Michele, who was the accessories director at the time was brought in to lead the team, they worked day and night to push Giannini’s known 70s looks the extra mile while at the same time integrating Michele’s vision. In the end, Michele and the design team received a well-deserved standing ovation and spectators got a dose of the future of fashion. The future is female and male, it is both and neutral.


To many, the idea of gender neutrality can seem ‘’scandalous”, but for me, it has always sparked curiosity. My fondest androgyny memory comes from watching VH1 and its nostalgic-swarm of shows that featured artist and videos of past decades. There, I familiarized myself with rock bands like Twisted Sister, The Rolling Stones, and Queen, whom coincidently all had front-men who were openly androgynous. I vividly recall wondering why David Bowie dressed in colorful, skin-tight tops and wore makeup, the only people I associated with makeup was my mother, aunt, and grandmother – all who are women. Unknowingly, at the age of nine, I was holding onto gender stereotypes.


Truth is, androgynous behavior have been lingering around way before Gucci and Bowie. One royal example can be found in our history books. Known as the “female prince”, Queen Elizabeth I is remembered for having a masculine touch in style and rule; when she ascended the throne at 25, she adopted the signature Tudor-style which influenced her V-shaped high dresses, she intentionally wore these pieces to downplay her breast and hide her form. In the 1920’s, the inspiring Coco Chanel liberated women from organ-squeezing corsets and introduced them to manly-inspired jackets, an inspo she discovered while wearing her boyfriend’s clothing. Moving on to the 80’s, when the “power woman” stepped into offices nationwide, neck details and strong shoulder inspo from Queen Elizabeth I era were similarly used in the decade in which shoulder pads gave a manly and authoritative illusion for the corporate woman.


It made sense that the hippie-inspired GUCCI show had the level of androgynous pieces and accessories that it did, the counterculture-style of the 70s was made up of unisex pieces that many loved, and that some wish to forget. Ponchos and fitted bell-bottoms were worn by both men and women, and psychedelic colors were embraced by all. Throughout the past decades, men in music were also exploring androgyny. Little Richard and his shimmery tops, hair metal bands played with makeup, and frontmen like Mick Jagger to Kurt Cobain performed in dresses. Today, the fashion capitals of the world are hosts to a variety of gender-neutral brands, but it’s not just Paris, New York, London and Milan, it is also present here in North Philadelphia.


I met Daryl Bright while he was a support coach for The Center of Male Engagement at The Community College of Philadelphia back in 2012. Students that were frequent visitors to the center were drawn by his hipster Mr. Rogers-like personal style and laid-back personality. I distinctly remember his collection of bow-ties, cardigans, and interesting choice of socks. He would make his way down the halls, there was this unintended-swag type of aura around him, that made him stand out but approachable. It was as if he was a J-Crew model strutting his body down a runway, expecting everyone else to the catwalk with him.

His appetite to help his students grow academically made him one of the most sought-out coaches in the office, but the more he helped students the more he thought about his life. “I was motivating them to follow their dreams and thought ‘well what about my dreams?”, said Daryl. At the time his clothing brand Brightmanor and Co., which he co-owns with his wife Nieka Bright, was strictly screen-printed T-shirts and crewnecks.

That year, Daryl resigned, to pursue his dreams and focus on pushing his clothing line. This December he will obtain his M.B.A in global fashion enterprise from Philadelphia University as well as launch, alongside Nieka, their gender-neutral collection.

Stepping into Daryl’s and wife Nieka Bright’s apartment is like entering a bite-size version of Project Runway’s studio set. With three different sewing machines, their mini-studio stands out from across the kitchen. In a quick glance, the North Carolina natives living room may seem like an ad straight out of an Urban Outfitters catalog, with its interesting mix of contemporary furniture, vintage camera-equipment, and bohemian add-ons, it’s the epitome of an urban-Philly-hipster apartment.


To this edgy couple, gender-neutrality is the norm. Although Daryl’s classic look became his trademark while he was a support coach, in his free time he always went for a more urban-comfort look, a look that his wife knows very well. “It’s pretty much our lifestyle, she wears my clothes and is constantly raiding my closet. Recently, I persuaded her into buying bigger sizes so it can fit me as well. It got us looking at what we are buying, and how it can look on each other” says Daryl. Oversized plaid-poncho drapes casually on an adjustable mannequin. A beloved piece that both have had the pleasure of wearing.The couple has been married for over a decade and over time created what they consider a “sharedrobe”, a shareable gender-neutral wardrobe that has been apart of their lifestyle since the commence of their relationship.

In addition to sharing clothes, the duo also shares responsibility for the company and production. Nieka, works as a biology learning specialist during the day, once her office hours are up, carefully cut-out pieces await her.“I’ll do the cutting and pattern making, Nikki handles the sewing and the details.” says Daryl. Aside from working towards his M.B.A, Daryl works two days a week alongside brother/sister duo Nicole and Jordan Haddad for their women and men sportswear line Lobo Mau. Daryl assists with textile-printing at their studio located in the BOK building on 9th and South, “ he is very enthusiastic, always has a great attitude and jumps in whenever we have a project” says Nicole.

“I’ve always been a tomboy,” says Nieka as she threads “Ebony”, her featherweight Singer sewing machine. Ebony is beautifully designed, her gold decorative detail makes its own statement on the black mobile machine, the collectible was made between 1933 and 1969. As she adjusts the machine, she sits on the bar stool across from her latest project – his and hers joggers. “Getting the elastic perfect is the annoying part”, she says in frustrations as she starts to wrestle the elastics way out. Even sitting there frustrated, Nieka’s edge is still present. Her perfect tight-curls sways to one side, revealing her shaved side. Yup, super edgy. At the moment she is channeling a modern day Lisa Bonet, back when she played Denise Huxtable kind of swag, with her wild hair and oversize boyish sweater.


Niekas passion for sewing developed the same way her husbands did; we can thank Daryl’s grandmother for the collection Brightmanor and Co. will drop this month. Dorothy Cole, seamstress, and owner of Cole’s Tailoring sparked Daryl’s curiosity for clothing and production at a young age. She is also the person behind Nieka’s curiosity to learn how to sew seven years back. Over the years, she self-taught herself to sew various pieces with the help of You-Tube of course.


There is one thing on my mind as I make my way towards the clothing rack – what is the material and are these pieces wearable by men and women? In an instance, you’ll realize that the quality of the material is very fine, a factor that can make or break you as a designer. “Our clothing is for the young professional, who may not live a traditional life but is creative and understands quality,” says Daryl, he crosses his leg over and goes on “We aren’t interested in mass producing, our pieces are made to order, and its for a specific type of person.”

In this seasons Brightmanor Co. collection, light neutrals were the theme and cozy fabrics like Neoprene, boiled wool, and scuba was used for the creations. The texture of these materials does not hug on the female body, which lessens the chance of appearing overly-sexy or showcasing one’s form. On the site, a male models all of the sweaters in the collection, which featured a Clueless-like black fuzzy crew neck, long dusters, and oversize neoprene turtlenecks.

From Queen Elizabeth I, to GUCCI, to Brightmanor and Co.; it is proven that gender-neutral clothing is the future of fashion, and will keep evolving as years come. “People are becoming more aware and are thinking of men and women, equally, intellectually, and androgyny embraces that” Nicole Haddad Lobo Mau