Transition of Style





Gender-free future - Rob Smith of the Phluid Project

Rob Smith smiles towards the camera in this professional headshot. He is the CEO of Phluid Project, a gender-free brand.

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Learn about the journey of building a groundbreaking gender-free brand with Rob Smith, the visionary CEO behind The Phluid Project. In this episode, Rob discusses the expansion of Phluid into a wide array of retail stores nationwide, the development of gender-affirming products, and his ambitious goals for the Phluid Foundation. He delves into the challenges and triumphs of advocating for marginalized communities, particularly trans women of color and homeless queer youth.


Rocio Sanchez: [00:00:00] Welcome to Transition of Style, the podcast about fashion, identities and how queer leaders are disrupting the fashion industry today. I’m your host Rocio Sanchez. Feel free to use any pronouns for me. And I’m a digital marketer with a specialization in queer business and fashion. The LGBT community is no longer a footnote in the fashion industry, and today’s guest is proof of that.

Rocio Sanchez: I would like to welcome Rob Smith, CEO of the Phluid Project and Phluid Foundation, doing amazing stuff. 

Rocio Sanchez: How are you?

Rob Smith: Awesome. On a scale of one to 10, I’m a nine and a half. How about that? 

Rocio Sanchez: That’s amazing. So I would love to just start out with, because, before you started Phluid Project and all those things, you were, you.

Rocio Sanchez:My mission with this podcast is to really peel back the layers and talk about the people themselves and how they came into their own. So my first question to you is, how [00:01:00] did you come into your own style right now, and how does that relate to how other people see you versus how you see yourself?

Rob Smith: It’s funny cause that’s assuming I have style, which I’m not sure I do. I’m a, mostly a jeans and t-shirt kind of guy. I like sneakers. I dress up occasionally and I dress, for like suits and events. But I also dress up in, less traditional male clothes.

Rob Smith: When I feel like I wanna express my party side, my feminine side. I just have different ways of showing up and never one way. but whatever feels comfortable for me at the time, that’s the beauty of fluidity, right? You don’t have to wear the same thing every day if something feels good for you some days, and some days it’s just like, I just need to paint my nails and put some, my makeup on and, wear some sassy, cutout top. And that’s how I feel sometimes. Today I’m wearing a polo shirt and corduroy short. So it just depends who I am and how I feel. And that’s my personal style.

Rob Smith: But the Phluid Project, if we pull it back to Phluid, less about me, more about Phluid. Is [00:02:00] really giving folks permission to be creative to be explorative to, to try different things that maybe they’ve never had the option before. Because a very, very binary construct in retail is, this is where the men’s section is, the women’s section, and it tends to be feminine or masculine.

Rob Smith: The colors are very gendered. And there’s really not a lot of space to move from, you know, one area to the other without someone from the gender police, coding or checking you and saying, Hey, you know, you’re in the women’s section. Well, maybe I wanna be in the women’s section, and maybe this is reflective of what I want to present myself as.

Rob Smith: So. We open up as the world’s first gender free store. So the first time that anyone has ever basically taken gendered clothing, gendered fashion and threw it up and then said, okay, this is the dress section, this is the casual section. It was just so remarkable to see people walk in and go, what’s this all about?

Rob Smith: And they walked out [00:03:00] and they go, hmm, I get it. And almost everyone got it. Young people really got it. They were like, what’s the big deal? Parents were like, wow, this is insane. And then lots of retailers who would come visit, like Target and Nordstrom and all these other retailers would fly from around the world and check it out and, and just try to get their head around this.

Rob Smith: Not a colorless, shapeless, boxy, oversized sweatshirt and sweatpants as being gender neutral, but something that was colorful and expressive and cropped and just, had a point of view. So, 

Rocio Sanchez: Yeah, I think that your, your personal story, is interesting We’ve previously talked about this, I would love to hear more about your connection with the multiple expressions, masculine, feminine. I believe the last time we spoke, you went on this journey to discover your, ancestry. So can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Rob Smith: Well, my journey started off in a, in a interesting way when It comes to style. This journey started at Burning Man. It started in the playa, in Black Rock city. So So [00:04:00] what happened is you show up and you, its kind of fantastical. It’s how you’re, kind of your best expression.

Rob Smith: If you were able to dress this way every day, I think people would dress this way every day. Cause it’s just like, look at me like I am the best form of myself. Or, or that could be, you could just be naked, you know, just whatever, however you feel. But it’s, it’s magnified. And what I found was that in, with 75,000 people really quickly, people adapted to the social codes and then the being allowed to be free in your expression in many ways and non-judgmental. 

Rob Smith: So people were running into our RV like the second day, like cis heteronormative men saying, can I borrow your tights, you know, today can I wear your tutu? Can you paint my nails, can you do my eyes? And to really have this liberation of like, wow, I can do this.

Rob Smith: Because we created a space that allowed people to do it. And they got to feel really good about themselves. Then they had to go back to [00:05:00] corporate America, into suits and their support groups, and it’s just, it’s really hard for people to leave that place. But I thought, how do I capture the essence of this?

Rob Smith: What happens at Burning Man and how do I bring it into the world? So, I didn’t know what it was. I just knew I had to quit my job and go backpacking around the world, and I went to Central America, South America, India, Nepal, Tibet, and finished on the reservation that my great-great-grandmother was born on. That’s where I learned about Two-Spirit which is the parent company LLC for honoring my indigenous heritage. And in Peru, in the Amazon, I did about a month of ayahuasca. And I went in with an intention one day and said, what do I, what do I do with my life?

Rob Smith: And I wrote down, on April 14th, 2017, consider opening a gender free non-binary shopping environment. I wrote fluid in quotation marks. And I opened, March the next year, so less than like 11 months later. Yeah, so it’s just, it was just whispered into my ear by the [00:06:00] universe, the plan just to say, this is what you do.

Rob Smith: And so, just taking basically my profession, which is retail, working in corporate structures, and my passion around social justice and putting them together to make a really unique and special brand.

Rocio Sanchez: Yeah. Yeah. I imagine that that there are unique challenges to bridge the, the gap between those social justice values and bringing it over to corporate America, to that retail background that you have. My next question for you is that while you were building Phluid even to, to this day, what has been like your biggest struggle as a leader with what you do?

Rob Smith: The biggest struggle I’d say first is no one wanted to invest in me because it was a really new idea, really unproven. It was a store. It was gender free. It was one third community space. So taking great real estate and turning it into a community space with bars, and you remember, it was like cafes [00:07:00] and just a place to hang out.

Rob Smith: It was so, as much a community as it was selling product. And people just didn’t get it. So I largely self-funded it by myself, which was incredibly taxing on my health, my husband, my relationship, it was, it was tough. But we got through that and we’re on the other side of that I think now. But the other challenge was I would say filling the store cause it was hard to find brands that were at that time, gender neutral.

Rob Smith: But we found some really cool indie brands and we made a lot ourselves. And the last would be navigating in a company like going to Nordstrom or Urban Outfitters and saying, okay, so where does it go? And how do we not just put it on the store, but how does it go on the website? And how do I coach all of them and teach them how to create an all gender navigation?

Rob Smith: And how do I make sure that it doesn’t say unisex. That it says, whatever gender words we use, gender free, gender full, all gender, gender inclusive. But it’s always a lift. Like if [00:08:00] anyone’s interested, it’s always gotta be a big lift. And then how do we show up in marketing? How do they use the right models? How do they use the right language? The communication and train the associates. So there is so much to do to sell the product in to a traditional retailer. It gets everybody involved. 

Rocio Sanchez: Yeah. I can imagine. I was gonna say that the fact that there was a physical aspect of it is, quite different than all the other people that I’m talking to at the moment. So we have people who are just exclusively e-commerce. So you have this difference in that you have this physical space.

Rocio Sanchez: If I recall correctly, there was a shutdown of the physical space during Covid, right? So how was transitioning in and out of that? 

Rob Smith: Well, it shut down actually just before Covid. I would say we closed on January 31st. Just before Covid. it broke my heart because that store was the soul. 

Rocio Sanchez: The heart. 

Rob Smith: It, it was the heart and soul of Phluid. It was something that you could walk in and feel community, see things that were [00:09:00] interesting. There was a very tangible energy in that store and a place of acceptance, regardless of your gender identity, sexual orientation, it was for everybody. You know, it was a place that all people could come together. And we had 250 events in two years. So you can imagine like there was Comedy night and, and panels, and it was just so beautiful. My plan was to open 13 of those around the world. That was my goal. 

Rob Smith: And then the store closed and, I was like, oh, okay, now what do I do? That was, that was a real reckoning. I had a huge debt And and, and a nice idea I thought And then we started to pivot first to wholesale for pride assortments and have been building from there. So it’s not at all what I expected it to be, but it’s exactly what it’s supposed to be and doing some great things. So, yeah, and it’s gonna keep growing. I can’t even tell you where it’s gonna be in five years, but I’m excited to find out cause I’ve got a plan, but I’m not sure it’s gonna, the brand’s gonna follow, my plan’s gonna do its own thing. Which is great. 

Rob Smith: It’s like raising a child. You, this is the child you kind of think you’re [00:10:00] gonna raise and then they end up being this kid and you love them regardless. 

Rocio Sanchez: Yeah. Yeah. So, so that’s really interesting to hear about how the unique challenges you had, that it wasn’t even necessarily cause of Covid, it just happened, before Covid anyway. I would love to know what kind of tips you might have for people who might wanna go jump into that physical space and go from e-commerce to a physical space.

Rocio Sanchez: So you mentioned the struggle was getting people to back you and you had to get it out of your own pocket. What would you say to people who are in that same position? 

Rob Smith: Well, there’s a couple different ways to do it. So we still have the marketplace, the store on a website. So we still have our brand and we carry other brands. So it has a, a similar feel. It just doesn’t have the same energy for sure, that the store had in the same kind of like, wow, I’m, I’m gonna make a trip into, I’m walking by the Phluid Store, so I’m gonna go check it out, you know, and see what’s going on there. And how nice the people were, and just how good you felt when you walked in and [00:11:00] when you left. 

Rob Smith: If somebody is saying, Hey Rob, I’m wanna open a store, what do you think? I would say don’t find a big, so what is I found, I found, it was like a 3000 square foot store on Broadway, but I wanted to go big and I wanted people to go, like, they couldn’t miss it. They couldn’t miss it on a corner street in Brooklyn.

Rob Smith: It had to be on that street for me to have the world say, Hey, guess what? This is happening. And so that was important. I would say that there’s ways to get help, have other people help you pay your rent. So, could be that it’s multi-functional. So there’s maybe a hair salon who’s paying rent or like there could be a barber shop. There could be a nail salon.

Rob Smith: Brands could pay rent if they’re in this space. I just did a profit share with them, but I never charged anyone for anything. I also think you could findsponsorships to host events at your space and say, Hey, listen. My friends did this, and they did very well.

Rob Smith: They said, if you’re gonna have a party or event, it’s $25,000. We’ll provide the bartenders, the caterers, the chairs, the [00:12:00] set up, the take down. And they had it all like down to a science and they just charged $25,000. So like four of those a month paid for the rent or the mortgage. So there’s different ways to approach it, not just a traditional space, but. An amazing thing is to also use it as your photo studio.

Rob Smith: So think about if you want content. You use that store space, that physical space to create content so you’re not paying now for a photo studio. You can use your iPhone, so you’re not paying for a photographer. You can do so much stuff at that physical space that it cuts down cost in other areas.

Rocio Sanchez: Mm-hmm. 

Rob Smith: And, it’s also your distribution center for your e-commerce sales.

Rob Smith: It’s also your, the place that you pick and pull from as opposed to paying another place.

Rocio Sanchez: Yeah, multitask. It’s your studio, it’s, it’s your store.

Rob Smith: Yeah, yeah.

Rocio Sanchez: And I wanted to add to that, I actually learned this from you last time we spoke, was that there are grants out there and there’s the amazing NGLCC, the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. 

Rob Smith: That’s right. That’s right. There’s Start [00:13:00] Out, there’s NGLCC, there’s the GAYngels. So there are organizations that allocate money primarily to LGBTQ+ businesses. So they also offer services of how to do things as a startup, to learn lessons from people who have been through it already.

Rob Smith: And you can always call me, you can always call Rob and say, Hey Rob, reach out to me on LinkedIn or whatever and say, how was this for you? My experience was my experience. It, it doesn’t mean it’s gonna be yours, but it certainly is helpful if I can help anybody avoid a pitfall, or trip over something and lose somebody.

Rob Smith: I also lost, I think, $20,000 because we weren’t tracking the money going to the bank. And so $20,000 disappeared and they’re just things that you, if you can teach somebody how to like, not have that stuff happen, I’m happy to share it.

Rocio Sanchez: Yeah, it’s inevitable to learn the mistakes as you go. But if you can avoid it, avoid it. 

Rob Smith: That’s right. That’s right. Yes. 

Rocio Sanchez: Yeah. So I, I would love to know also about. Now that [00:14:00] you’ve learned all these lessons and you’re going forward and you have this plan and you have accepted that it may not go that way.

Rocio Sanchez: I would love to know what trends you see in your industry. Whether that’s trends in the way people talk about your brand, or gender free brands online or just, the investment capital, that side of things. 

Rob Smith: The biggest trend that I love that I’m benefiting from is, uh, since George Floyd died. Since The BLM movement. Corporations are saying, what can I do now? How can I do my part? And sometimes there’s this pen that they have, and that’s the only power they have to do something big. So they’re looking for queer owned businesses, Black owned businesses, queer and Black owned businesses, you know, so they’re just trying to find manufacturing partners that they can buy from and do their part. 

Rob Smith: So I found a huge willingness of people to try to work with us. And that’s why I found a manufacturing partner who can manufacture it and ship it. Because I can’t do that. I don’t have the money to [00:15:00] like go buy a half a million units of t-shirts for Target or something like that.

Rob Smith: I, I can’t do that. But they can, so I take a percentage of what we ship. So I don’t create the overhead, I keep my overhead low and let them do it in a, it’s called like a Licensor Licensee agreement. So that’s great. So companies wanna do the right thing. 

Rob Smith: Sometimes it can come across as very performative. So it’s always a challenge. Sometimes I say no, and they don’t like that, but I’m like, you know, listen, I don’t like where you’re donating money to, . Don’t like your position on any issues around , anti-trans legislation. Or the way they don’t support their employees.

Rob Smith: So I, I say no, and that feels really good. And it’s hard because I want the money, but I also don’t want to look like a hypocrite. I have to have my values and my values are Phluid’s values. And the Phluid community, really wants us to stand up and do it’s right. Of course not everyone’s gonna agree with everything we do.

Rob Smith: Even just being in corporate America[00:16:00] almost feels like we’ve crossed the line into the other side. But I’ll tell you what, once we get our foot in the door, then we come in with our gender expansive training. Where we teach companies how to use more gender inclusive language. How to look at their policies for insurance for TGNC folks.

Rob Smith: How did it start to tackle these systematic problems that sometimes government isn’t facing, but corporations will. So I feel really powerful in those spaces. That’s where I come from. I speak their language and we are doing a ton of business. I think we have like 40 businesses that we’re working with this year that are really getting into the work.

Rob Smith: And then we also launched the Phluid Foundation. So it’s a 501c3. The money goes towards bipoc led trans organizations across the country. So you think about something in New Orleans or something in Alabama, something, you know, all of these towns across the country, especially in the South where the state government’s not funding them. There’s not a lot of people supporting them.

Rob Smith: [00:17:00] And it tends to be that Trevor Project and HRC gets all the money for donations. I love those two organizations, but I’m taking big money, funneling it in and pushing it out in a gift versus a grant and just putting the money into the community, the people who really need it and are doing the grassroots organizing and work. And its saving lives. 

Rob Smith: So that’s, So that’s, what I get corporations to do once they sign up for Phluid. 

Rocio Sanchez: Yeah. It really speaks to the trend that I’m seeing, which is that more and more companies, are realizing that, they need to lead with values and not just with profits, right? So obviously there’s a balancing act, cause there’s a bottom line. But more and more companies, especially bipoc led companies Its all about the values.

Rocio Sanchez: Like, what really undergirds all of what you do. That speaks to you being able to say yes or no to certain partnerships. So I think that that’s valuable information. 

Rob Smith: It’s something that, uh, gosh, I, it’s, it, it can be [00:18:00] a, a challenge for some people cause you’re like, oh my God, I’m gonna go to Macy’s and they’re a big monster and, sometimes you can’t help until you’re on the inside. So if you at least say, Hey listen, I don’t love everything you’re doing, but are you gonna have an, an open ear and open to listen to some opportunities for you to prove?

Rob Smith: And if they say yes, that might be worth it. And if it doesn’t work it, you just pull up. But I think that corporations are really siding on, in the large part, the better side of inclusion and belonging because it’s more profitable, they’ll do better business because of that. 

Rocio Sanchez: Yep. I see, I see. I would love to know if you could just shout out any other queer owned brands that you’re loving right now. What are they doing? What are they up to? 

Rob Smith: Oh, I mean, I’m just gonna go to our website, some of the brands we carry. So I love Fang. I love Fang, this really cool stuff. I love stk. They’re both minority, like, you know, racially diverse queer brands. I love Bianca Design. I [00:19:00] think they’re really fun on our website that I think are really cute and fun and nice. 

Rocio Sanchez: Please tell me like what’s with Phluid right now. You said a lot of fun stuff is happening, so shout out. anything that you would love to share 

Rob Smith: First and foremost, between pH by the Phluid Project, which is our diffusion label, and the Phluid Project, will be in almost, I’m gonna say about eight to 9,000 doors across the country. So all Sam’s Club, all Targets, all Kohls, all Macy’s, all JCPenney, Nordstrom. Sacks on Fifth, like it just goes on and on and on.

Rob Smith: So Phluid is gonna be everywhere. A lot of it’s for pride, but a lot of it’s outside of pride and that makes me feel really good. Our education and training is moving into more strategy work. So we’re helping one company launch next month, a gender affirming undergarments collection, which will be accessible across the country at really affordable price points.

Rob Smith: I hope that comes out well. We’re just educating companies. And then, I’m hoping to raise, a million [00:20:00] dollars this year for the Phluid Foundation and make so many organizations happy and give them the support and the love they deserve. And the communities that they serve, because we want to focus on the most marginalized and the most vulnerable in the queer community, which includes trans women of color and homeless queer youth. Life expectancy of a trans woman of color is 35 years old in this country, and 50% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. So, you know, trying to figure out how to get money in those spaces.

Rob Smith: New York’s a sanctuary city. Yes, we wanna support all of the wonderful organizations here, and we do. But we also know that somebody can’t move from Charleston, somewhere in Texas, it might take them a while. So where do they stop in between? 

Rob Smith: We’re working really hard with a lot of organizations in the South to give them the support they need. And then we launched Phluid’s City on Trans Day of Visibility which was really fun. It was a virtual safe space for LGBTQ+ folks. And we hope to be doing more of those in a virtual space where anybody can show up, [00:21:00] everybody’s safe. Like the store was. 

Rob Smith: Come together and have conversation and, I’m super jazzed z about that. 

Rocio Sanchez: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you so much for sharing. And of course, anything that you haven’t shared or any new stuff that will be launching soon? Where can people find the news?

Rob Smith: Accessories, and maybe a few of the categories in the beginning of 2024. And I would say just, always follow Phluid on Instagram. You know, that’s probably our, the best place that w e communicate. We have a great newsletter, so sign up for that. And if everybody could follow us, it’s @ThePhluidProject. And the website is, 

Rocio Sanchez: Yes. thank you so much Rob for being here today. It was great to talk to you and I’ll see you next time.

Rob Smith: Rocio, I’m so proud of you. I’m so proud of what you’re doing. Thank you.

Rocio Sanchez: Transition of Style is brought to you by FC Podcasts, a division of Fashion Consort. Learn more about how FC Podcasts can help you with podcasting, from strategy and creation, to production and marketing at [00:22:00] That’s Thank you FC Podcasts, for making Transition of Style possible. 

Rocio Sanchez: Now, back to the show.

Rocio Sanchez: Welcome back to Transition of Style. After every episode, we get into a case study of our guests. I share with you three key takeaways from these business owners brands, and you learn from it what you will. Whether you’re a fellow entrepreneur or not, who knows, maybe these takeaways will help you out someday.

Rocio Sanchez: Today we learned from the CEO of The Phluid Project, Rob Smith, how important community is to building a brand. Before Covid, the physical storefront of The Phluid Project stood proudly in the NoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. It brought a lot of foot traffic to an already established e-commerce brand.

Rocio Sanchez: It was the heart of the brand for a bit, having its own profile in The New York Times in 2018. A lot of business owners dream of having a [00:23:00] physical space to foster community and to proudly call their own. Phluid had this, and then it didn’t. So what can we learn from this case?

Rocio Sanchez: The first thing we can learn from The Phluid Project is to not let the limitation of a physical storefront and the added requirements of capital for that, stop you from providing your goods. Consider e-commerce or digital products first. 

Secondly, do not rely on the physical space to hold the entire essence of the brand. By having e-commerce and digital presence with a mix of in person events, the presence stays strong. Phluid manages this mix with strong social media presence, firm digital storefront, and brand collaborations. 

Rocio Sanchez: Lastly, don’t lose hope if your storefront closes. We can’t predict the next pandemic that will close down businesses. But we can foster the community that will support us through hard times no matter what. The closing of a [00:24:00] storefront is not the end of things. Just look at Phluid, still going strong to this day. 

Rocio Sanchez: That’s all for this episode of Transition of Style. And for the season. Thank you so much for supporting this podcast by just listening. Remember to give us a like and a rating on whatever podcast app you listen to. And for news on the next season of Transition of Style, please follow us @TransitionofStyle on Instagram. You can also sign up for the newsletter at 

Thank you so much for all the support and I will see you next season.

About Rob Smith

As a futurist and advocate for social equality, Rob Smith (he/they) has transformed his 30-year career with major brands like Macy’s and Nike into a crusade for breaking societal binaries. His creation, The Phluid Project, is not just a gender-free fashion brand but a movement towards inclusivity and understanding of the non-binary mindset, marking him as a pivotal figure in shaping a more inclusive future.


  • Rocio Sanchez, host and producer
  • Caitlin Whyte, audio engineer
  • Sophie Jacqueline, video editor


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