My boyfriend and I recently got back from a long-planned trip to Texas and other parts of the South. Along with a list of barbecue joints and rib shacks, we were armed with a list of sneaker and streetwear stores to hit up during our trip. Because we're from New Zealand, a relative sneaker blackhole when it comes to exclusive drops and limited edition releases, we were keen to make the most of the cornucopia of kicks available to us in the United States.
The first store we visited was in Austin, Texas. Walking in, I clocked three walls and two tables of sneakers, many of which I hadn’t seen in anything other than pixel form. Practically rubbing my hands with glee, I asked the guys working there which was the women’s section.
I was sheepishly pointed towards the smallest table in the darkest corner of the store, and told that it was the women’s and kid’s section. The women’s selection consisted almost entirely of Nike Air Max Theas and Air Max 90s in varying colorways of black, grey, blue, purple, and pink. On a mission for some new everyday kicks—my Theas had taken a hammering—I wasn’t interested. That’s ok, I thought, other stores will have a better selection.
Nope. We visited stores in Austin, Houston, New Orleans and even Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and I struck out every time. There were plenty of men’s sneakers that I liked the look of, but when you’re a woman who wears a women’s U.S. 8 and the smallest size stocked is a men’s U.S. 9, you can only window shop. (I confess to longingly stroking several pairs, knowing we could never be together.)
The stores that did carry women’s sneakers suffered from the same issues as our first stop in Austin—largely outdated designs, and traditionally feminine colorways in pinks, blues and purples. I’ll never forget the blank look of bewilderment on the assistant’s face in one particular store when I asked about the women’s section. Meanwhile, my boyfriend was like Augustus Gloop at Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, grabbing armfuls of kicks to try on in each store and coming home with a solid number of pairs from his “in your dreams” sneaker list.
At first, I thought this might be because of where we were traveling. In the South, people tend to dress neatly and tidily along clear gender lines. Androgynous style doesn’t seem to be a thing. When we visited the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, we came across a bunch of groups on campus tours. I noted that the women wore floaty summer blouses, denim shorts or jeans of varying lengths and strappy sandals. All the men wore—almost universally—khakis, polos and your grandpa’s old brown shoes from Brooks Brothers. Kids dressed exactly like their parents. It felt like Stepford.
After coming home and doing some research, however, it seems my experience wasn’t unique to the South. The lack of an exciting selection of women’s sneakers in-store seems to face women who love kicks everywhere, whether they’re in New Orleans, New Zealand or Paris. This problem can be neatly summarized by one single design—the Nike Dunk Sky-Hi sneaker boot.
I love sneakers because they allow me to express my style in a way that doesn’t require me to painfully harness my feet into sky-high shoes, which are often fashioned from unforgiving materials. The textural and color possibilities provided by increasingly ambitious sneaker designs are far more interesting to me than a high-heeled boot made of leather and more leather.
The Sky-Hi removes most of the exciting elements of sneakers, being mostly available in neutral, monotone colorways, and combines them with the most frustrating aspect of women’s footwear—that damn heel. To me, the Sky-Hi is a well-intentioned misinterpretation of what women want from sneakers. It says, “oh hey, you’re a lady? You like sneakers? Here, have a sneaker with a high heel, so you can lady while you sneaker!”
I’m not saying that streetwear in general doesn’t cater for anything other than traditionally “feminine” style—in New Zealand, for example, women like me who prefer low-key, androgynous styling are far better off than we would be anywhere I visited in the U.S., even the liberal island of Austin. We have a great selection of labels in stores such as Good as Gold, which carries an excellent selection of streetwear in a range of styles, with far more trousers than they have dresses or skirts. Local labels like Five Each and Huffer have excellent collections of low-key basics that would pair perfectly with sneakers in a booming colorway.
The trouble is, when it comes to the women’s sneakers carried by these otherwise excellent stores, the relative gender-neutrality of the clothing available isn't translated through to their sneaker stock. Click into the women’s sneakers section of a store like Loaded, widely regarded as New Zealand’s premier sneaker store, and it’s a blur of neutral blacks, grays and whites, with splashes of the standard feminine palette—pastel blues, pinks and purples. Given that neutral is on-trend for men and women right now, it’s a boring selection.
It seems like sneaker stores are afraid our tiny female brains will explode if confronted with too many bright and shocking colorways, and too many choices—Loaded stocks four times as many men’s styles as it does women’s, and the women’s shoes include a couple of pairs of wedge heels.
To get to the core of this problem, we need to look at who is pulling the strings at the influencing and design level. The highest echelons of the streetwear/sneaker scene are essentially a boys’ club, and any women involved in the area know that all too well. If you consider the ground springs of influence in sneakerdom, key influencers are drawn from other heavily male scenes such as hip-hop and basketball. Outside those scenes, key figures are men with impressive collections and collaborations, like Spike Lee, Kevin Hart and Mark Wahlberg. Think about it: how many women collectors can you name? How many women’s signature lines?
When all the heavy-hitters in the scene are men, of course sneaker culture is going to be regarded by mainstream stores as being by men, for men. This goes some way to explaining the disparity in the selection of men’s and women’s sneakers in stores, and why I left every store sadly empty-handed.
On the flip side, the women looking out for their fellow ladies when it comes to sneakers are doing a great job of flying the flag. Small Feet Big Kicks, established by East London based Jessica Gavigan, aka Juice Gee, has grown steadily since its launch in 2011. Following a Twitter campaign in 2013, PUP London, by Emily Hodgson and Emilie Riis, evolved from a wish-list website that re-imagined men’s sneakers as women’s designs to a fully-fledged label.
PUP dropped its first unique “capsule” featuring original apparel and a pair of kicks in May this year. French/English website Sneakers Madame is another well-established online store with a loyal following. That said, there is still a long way to go, with the UK’s first women-only brick-and-mortar sneaker store, Pam Pam, opening only last year in London. The appetite for a broader selection of women’s sneakers still needs to make the transition from online to in-store.
Men and women’s clothing, for the most part, needs to be structurally different to cater for the different body features of traditional genders—boobs, butts, hips, etc. However, at our literal lowest level—our feet—gender lines should be irrelevant when it comes to kicks. To me, the consistent gendering of sneakers is as ridiculous as these stupid-ass Bic pens for women. Much like writing, we generally all walk and balance the same way (performance shoes excepted, I’m talking casual sneakers here). Most people have 10 toes, and most people’s feet run from toe to heel, with some kind of arch in the middle. Think about that for a second, and ask yourself if there is any salient reason that sneakers designed for men should not be available to women.
Hodgson and Riis of PUP acknowledge that women’s sneakers have evolved to include colorways beyond the pink/purple/blue holy trinity, but it’s clear that women’s kicks have a long way to go to catch up with where men’s are, constantly pushing the frontiers of design and widely available to the discerning buyer. The streetwear scene has the potential to erode gender constructs in fashion. However, while women are obliged to select between the high-heeled Nikes, the purple adidas and the pink Reeboks, we will continue to languish in the limbo between a men’s 8 and the largest kids' size available.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
While we're on the topic, check out our piece about emoji's problem with women.