John Lewis, the upmarket retailer best known for its tear-jerking Christmas ads, has become an unlikely flag-bearer in the gender equality movement.
The favorite department store of the British middle classes has created a gender-neutral children's clothing department, and in so doing is attracting the kind of controversy that it has spent the last 150 years trying to avoid.
Gender neutral clothing itself is hardly new. Both H&M and Zara have created unisex ranges for adults, while more high-end fashion names like JW Anderson and Rick Owens have championed unisex designs. Last year, Louis Vuitton dressed Jaden Smith, the 17-year-old son of Will Smith, in pieces from the women's clothing range for an ad campaign promoting its spring 2016 collection.
John Lewis's own-brand children's clothing is being labeled "Boys & Girls" or "Girls & Boys," (in equal numbers) while all in-store signage is gender neutral. A line of unisex pieces is also in production.
"We do not want to reinforce gender stereotypes within our John Lewis collections and instead want to provide greater choice and variety to our customer," Caroline Bettis, head of childrenswear at John Lewis, says in a statement, "so that the parent or child can choose what they would like to wear."
The move comes after many stores have been criticized for gender stereotyping children's clothes and toys, spawning campaigns like "Let Clothes Be Clothes" and "Pink Stinks."
Gap U.K. was accused of creating a sexist email campaign in the U.K. last year, labeling girls as "social butterflies" and boys as "scholars." Tesco, Britain's biggest supermarket chain, was recently criticized for putting yellow dinosaurs on its boys' school shoes and pink butterflies on shoes for girls.
Despite John Lewis' good intentions, some are slamming the retailer. A school, Tottenham Grammar, tweeted, "Surely they need to drop 'John' from their name. Blatant genderphobia."
TV host Piers Morgan joined the dissenters. "Britain is going officially bonkers," he wrote on Twitter, calling John Lewis's move "political correctness gone completely and utterly insane."
Others are applauding the initiative. Let Clothes Be Clothes tweeted "Thank you @JohnLewisRetail childrenswear team!" James Wong wrote, "When I was a kid everyone told me "Flowers are for girls. Go @johnlewisretail for supporting kids right to be kids #GenderNeutral."
In another statement, John Lewis admits it was "surprised by the reaction these changes have received." The retailer says "As our customers would expect we're still selling a wide variety of children's clothing including traditional clothing for girls and boys."