Although diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) have been in practice for the past few decades, it’s been under the spotlight for the past two years. Along with DEI efforts, companies are starting to take the LGBTQ+ communities seriously to create a positive, inclusive culture for all employees. Developing a culture where everyone feels acknowledged goes beyond tolerance; it’s about fully accepting people for who they are regardless of status and affiliations.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the term genderqueer became popular among social activists. It defines a person who does not subscribe to conventional gender distinctions. It has led the way for other terms like nonbinary to become mainstream. The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law published a new study stating an estimated 11% of LGBTQ adults in the U.S.—approximately 1.2 million people—identify as nonbinary. Over the past decade, more brands have been positioning themselves as gender-inclusive. Just recently, fashion is one of the industries that has taken the lead in making people feel accepted for who they are. The global unisex clothing market is expected to reach $3.2 billion by 2030.
Abby Sugar, CEO and cofounder of Play Out Apparel, and her cofounder and chief design officer, Grey Leifer, created the gender-equal clothing brand and community to fill a gap in the market. They launched the company because they didn’t see themselves reflected in existing brands and apparel. Specifically, they couldn’t find underwear and streetwear that was completely gender-inclusive.
In addition, they work with a woman-owned manufacturing facility that employs and pays a living wage to LGBTQ+ workers and workers over 50 years old. In 2021, they made the Forbes Next 1000. Also, the company oversubscribed in the pre-seed funding round. It has raised $600,000 and is looking to start another round of funding in June. This year, they participated in the Macy’s workshop program, making Play Out’s collections available on the retailer’s e-commerce platform.
“We have been embodying this our whole lives,” Sugar states. “I finally feel like even just since 2018, it has gotten more mainstream, if you will, for us. This isn’t a trend. This is who we are. This is also the future of retail. … We feel like number one, we’re changing the world. Gen Z is the new consumer that no one else is really attempting or knows how to talk to yet. And also, the world is catching up to us, right? Finally, this more inclusive and authentic approach.”
Sugar began her career in the literary space by working as an editor at a journal while freelance writing. Having always wanted to be a personal trainer, she decided to train at a gym before becoming an independent trainer. Almost a decade ago, she met Leifer through a mutual friend. They started chatting about the queer and transgender community along with how fashion was slow at the time to provide inclusive options.
As Sugar and Leifer continued their talks, they realized that they were onto something. Leifer has always been a painter and started his career as a scenic artist for television and film, painting the backdrops. Ultimately, he began styling and working in e-commerce at the infancy stage. He eventually freelanced, taking him on an 18-year journey working in corporate America.
“I was talking to Grey, and the original product that we had was underwear,” Sugar shares. “Grey and I were friends for many years. I was like, ‘These are the things I’m really good at. This is what I’m looking for in a partner.’ And he said, ‘Well, I do all those things. So why don’t I do this with you?’ And we were just crazy enough to do that.”
So, they started building out the brand that is now queer, lesbian, gay, trans and nonbinary owned. It wasn’t about erasing pronouns or gender identity; it was about removing the categories that tell people what they should or should not wear based on them. Also, the prints on the clothing are limited edition and created from original paintings by Leifer.
“From a design perspective, because the binary is so strong, even in trying to classify us as being outside of that, it’s really challenging,” Leifer states. “It’s important to note that we were not gender-neutral; we’re not trying to make clothes that just erase that neutrality. Everyone can have whatever gender experience they want. What we are, is we’re taking the gender out of the shopping experience and out of the design experience.”
Sugar and Leifer didn’t just build an apparel brand; they built a community. It was important for them to have a safe space for their consumers to feel included. Additionally, Play Out is a social good enterprise with 20% of net profits going to LGBTQ+ & BLM organizations.
As Sugar and Leifer evolve Play Out and transition within their careers, they focus on the following essential steps:
- Self-reflect as much as possible. You have to understand who you are, the value you bring to the table and where you want to go.
- Figure out how the pivot you’re making helps those around you or in your community. Understand what your mission is going to be long-term.
- Be comfortable with who you are. It’s awkward if you don’t acknowledge your uniqueness—the authenticity doesn’t shine through. People first buy into who the brand is, then buy the product.
“I’ve always identified as a leader,” Sugar concludes. I’ve always done my own thing, and maybe that comes into that braveness or craziness, whatever you want to title it. When people tend to be decisive, they tend to be leaders because other people might be waiting around for someone to make a decision.” Leifer adds, “Being a creative person myself, it’s almost like I used to joke and say, ‘I’m a creative, but I also speak suit.’”