Bentley Wederski is using his childhood trauma as fuel to ignite cultural change. Wederski faced constant bullying for dressing in neon colors when he was growing up in Wyoming.

Fast-forward a decade, the 24-year-old fashion designer created Utilitarian, a gender-neutral clothing brand with the mission to lay the bricks for a more equitable path for all genders. The inaugural line is expected to launch in mid-October.

Gender-neutral fashion isn’t a new concept, but it has rapidly grown over the last few years. According to a study conducted by the Innovation Group, 78% of Gen Z consumers agree that gender is not as important as an identity marker as it once used to be.

“There’s so much inequity,” Wederski said. “Men can only wear this. Women can only wear that.

“If you take those basic roles away and we just starting wearing what we want to wear, I think these gaps can be bridged and societal wounds can be mended,” he said. “I truly believe that can happen.”

Fall 2021 line to be released

All products are designed by Wederski, with pieces ranging from boots and sneakers to cross-body bags and matching leather pant and shirt sets. He’s been independently running the LLC since October 2020 and has been working on the startup full-time since May. The brand’s price point is described as “accessible luxury,” which means a pair of boots cost anywhere from $380 to $580.

Wederski describes the style of his wear as “modern construction with minimal design.” The brand aims to offer a collection of timeless clothing and accessories that embrace the intersection of gender inclusion and equity. While the fall 2021 launch will take place online, Wederski hopes to open a pop-up shop and eventually a brick-and-mortar store, either in Jackson or New York.

The line focuses on footwear in particular, where there aren’t many options for consumers. Wederski claims that Utilitarian likely offers the biggest selection of gender-neutral footwear of any brand.

Although Wederski is Utilitarian’s only full-time employee, he attributes much of his success thus far to consultants, mentors and incubation programs. Locally he benefited from Wyoming’s Small Business Development Center and Silicon Couloir, Jackson’s entrepreneurial hub.

Wederski was one of six entrepreneurs out of nearly 30 applicants selected to participate in Pitch Day, which took place last week. Even though he didn’t win the competition, he said mentorship that Silicon Couloir provided has been vital in his business planning and development. Wederski described coaching sessions with former CFOs and marketing experts who live here.

“There is an insane amount of knowledge and experience present,” he said. “If you’re part of the Silicon Couloir community, you pretty much get access to all of that.”

The Utilitarian designer

At a young age Wederski knew that fashion was a crucial part of his identity. He remembers being bullied for wearing bright, colorful pants in seventh grade at Riverton Middle School and was even advised by the superintendent to stop wearing them.

“I got the s--t bullied out of me,” he said. “I was given the labels girly, fruity, flamboyant, faggot. You name it, I got it.”

Wederski spent most his childhood wanting to leave Wyoming and move to a big city. In 2016 he was accepted to study fashion business management at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, which was recently ranked as the top college for fashion-related degrees by CEOWORLD magazine.

Before founding Utilitarian he worked at fashion brands The Row and Anthropologie, which inspired some of the concepts used in his designs. Up until May he worked at apparel retailer Nest in Wilson a community that he attributes as one of his primary support systems in the area.

A shift toward genderless fashion

The fashion industry is quickly embracing gender neutrality, which has exploded over the past few years. The same Innovation Group Study found 56% of Gen Z respondents know someone personally who uses gender-neutral pronouns and 56% also said they already shop for clothing outside of their gender.

Outside of clothing, California could soon force large department stores to display some child products in gender-neutral ways after its state legislature passed a bill earlier this month aimed at getting rid of traditional pink and blue marketing schemes for items like toys and toothbrushes.

Wederski has experienced his own personal frustrations while shopping: “I was forced to choose between men’s and women’s sections. You’re confined to the merchandise mix and the size range that the retailer deems appropriate for your gender,” he said. “Fashion plays a big part because it is a direct mirror to the culture and the age that we’re in.”

Future of the brand

Wederski hopes Utilitarian will become one of the largest gender-neutral apparel brands in the market and one of the largest retailers in the fashion industry. He’d like to spotlight minorities in Wyoming through his business, particularly those in the LGBTQ+ community and eventually establish a foundation to support youth interested in the arts in rural areas.

“My goal is that one day we can get to a place where young boys in Riverton, Wyoming, who want to wear colorful pants can do so without having to fear the labels, scrutiny or bullying,” he said.

Contact Carlyann Edwards via 732-7071 or jlove@jhnewsandguide.com.

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