He had a good job and was making good money, but Rob Smith wanted more. He decided to quit his job and pack his bags for the adventure of a lifetime. He didn’t know where he was going or how long he’d be there, but he knew he needed to restart. “I had to find what me is. I put my backpack on and set out to travel the world,” Rob said of the moment that changed everything.
Somewhere between his travels from Guatemala to India, Rob found himself taking ayahuasca in the mountains of Peru, and it was then that the purpose for his trip became clear. “I found myself writing down: open a gender fluid shopping environment.”
Rob returned to the states and opened The Phluid Project, the first ever gender fluid retail space in the country. "I opened the store in March of 2018 and everyone told me that was the stupidest decision in the world,” he said of the warning many retailers in the 21st century hear. While he was aware of the risk he was taking, he knew it would be worth it. “I love engaging with customers, I’m old school that way,” he said of his need for a personal connection with his customer base.
The store, which was 2/3 retail and 1/3 community space, set out to create an open environment to celebrate gender fluidity. “I built the store to create a space for conversations and celebrations of this community.” The Phluid Project was born to not only highlight Rob’s own designs for a gender fluid future, but those of others in the space. He welcomed brands to join him as he attempted to build the largest community of LBTQ+ designers.
“My goal was to feature queer owned, minority owned, women owned brands who are aligned with who we are and what we believe in,” Rob explained of his vision for The Phluid Project. For mission driven designers, this is the best of both worlds: sharing your designs, and those of your community, with the world in a shared space.
Rob's garments, which vary from tees to hoodies, promote messages of love and inclusivity. Each message and design is screen printed by a group called Work in Progress, an NYC non profit that runs internships for prospective designers.
While the store closed its doors at the end of the year, Rob’s mission to serve the gender fluid community has only grown stronger. He’s now developed an educational platform, G.E.T PHLUID, to support larger corporations create a more gender expansive workforce with authenticity. His clients range from Morgan Stanley to Free People, and his goal is to help them design strategies for best supporting and engaging with their gender fluid employees.
As he continues to navigate this ever changing landscape of COVID and city shut downs, Rob has no regrets. While it hasn’t been easy, and he’s had to make many sacrifices just like any other small business owner that has put their livelihood on the line for their dream, he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’m glad I didn’t listen to everyone who told me I was making a mistake. I listened to myself because I trusted my gut,” he said as he reflected upon the last year. And to all future small business owners out there with a dream that seems crazy to most, Rob added, “Don’t listen to all of those people who tell you your idea is stupid. They may be smart and successful, but they’re not adventurous.”