At the end of 2020, Titi Finlay, social media manager at Laced and Nike Air Max 90 guest-designer, posted a tile on Instagram to her 7,700 followers with a simple message: “We don’t want women’s exclusives. We want inclusive sizing.” In just over 24 hours, the post had been shared over 2,000 times.
Women have fought long and hard to be treated equally in the sneaker industry but being a female sneaker fan continues to be a bittersweet experience. Lack of inclusive sizing is still too common and women’s-exclusive models, like the recent Dunk Disrupt, often miss the mark and are chunky, slimmed down, or fashion-ized versions of a great sneaker that women really just wanted in their own size.
Unsurprisingly, women are fed up, but there is a positive upshot: the female sneaker community is stronger than ever. From designers to collectors, marketers to editors, female sneaker fans are uniting over their shared frustration and taking things into their own hands.
Helen Kirkum, one of the most-watched rising sneaker designers, has worked in the sneaker industry for four years and has witnessed it evolve. “Two amazing things are happening at the moment,” she points out. “One is that many women within the industry are supporting their peers, shouting each other out, which builds an incredibly strong community. Secondly, you can feel that this same network is aware that they have a responsibility to share the knowledge with the younger generation through mentorships, teaching, and inspiration. Showing that we believe that there are so many diverse and powerful female voices to be heard, that we respect and admire each other's work, and that we want to share our experience with a younger generation is a winning combination.”
As Kirkum notes, there is a growing sense of solidarity among the community at a time when action has never felt so urgent. Women are empowering women.
Copenhagen’s women’s sneaker boutique NAKED donated $5,000 to the Malala fund, a non-profit organization that envisions “a world where every girl can learn and lead,” to celebrate the release of the first women’s Dunk High colorway.
Across the community, there has been a surge in women-led platforms, podcasts, and feeds dedicated to connecting and amplifying women's voices in sneaker culture. Steph Hulbert-Thomas, global lifestyle marketing manager for On, started _Womeninsneakers, a podcast to celebrate women in the sneaker industry. She has spoken to an impressive lineup of women including Kirkum, Titi Finlay, Sneaker Freaker’s managing editor Audrey Bugeja, and Footpatrol creative lead Asheeba Charles.
“I started it for several reasons: underrepresentation, sexism, and lack of recognition — not just in my work, but for the amazing women I’ve had the pleasure of working with. _Womeninsneakers was born as a way to give teams behind the scenes a voice,” Hulbert-Thomas explains.
Her words echo those of Damaries Negron, aka @Kickitwitdd. Negron has been buying sneakers for 15 years and, frustrated at the absence of women being represented in the industry, started the Instagram channel @Kickitwitdd365. Her goal is to get 1,000 women to showcase their sneakers — and she’s already halfway there. “Every woman has a story behind why she collects sneakers. I tell women to voice their opinions about the game,” she shares. “Another reason for the project is that I saw the same women used repeatedly, and I got tired of that. I don’t think brands or blogs know how big the women’s sneaker community is and I want to show them the women who are like me.”
The sneaker industry isn’t the niche subculture it used to be, and yet seeing women in these spaces still isn’t normalized to the extent that it should be. Hulbert-Thomas speaks of her personal experience: “Being a Black woman in the industry comes with double the challenges, and I’m not talking about the ‘we have to work twice as hard’ rhetoric that I have definitely felt. It’s more having to validate, and by that I mean companies looking to you to tick the boxes — have we been diverse, are we being ‘cool,’ are we ‘culturally’ relevant? I don’t want women taking up space to become tokenized.”
Being one of the only women at the table is something that every woman sneaker fan can relate to. Award-winning filmmaker and OG sneaker collector Shernay LaTouche was recently invited to join a panel on sneakers by friends she knew from hanging out back in the Crooked Tongues days. She was one of four women in a room of 30. “All these men knew women who were into sneakers and could’ve actively put one more person in. But you don't invite us in the masses, you invite in a very small percentage to then feature in a video that you've created to say, yes, we tick the box. It shouldn't be like that.”
LaTouche is the founder of The Imprint, a collective of female sneaker industry professionals whose goal is to celebrate and share the female experience in the sneaker world. “Our stories are always told through the male gaze and the time is now for women to lead the conversation from the very start by creating their own narrative,” she stresses. “Women need to be in spaces where they can stand amongst one another, that share the same passion without any biases or prejudices.”
LaTouche brings up an important point. Women need to control their own narrative for there to be any hope of undoing the damage that has been done by portraying women through a degrading and patronizing male lens for so long. It’s without question the reason biases continue to permeate the women’s sneaker and streetwear industries. Sexualizing women makes it so much easier for the idea that they aren’t authoritative voices in the culture to propagate.
“I remember searching ‘Women’s Jordan’ in Google and the first thing that came up was a woman wearing nothing but a T-shirt and a pair of men’s Jordans,” Parisian sneaker collector Selma Kaci recalls from when she first started buying sneakers. Growing up in Paris, her access to sneakers in her size was limited, and her aunt used to send her US-exclusives by mail for her birthday.
When she was older, she traveled to sneaker conventions around Europe, meeting other women — “I would always remember who had a US kids size 6 for when we would resell” — and eventually began posting pictures of her cops on Instagram. “At the beginning, I had a lot of guys asking me if I was into sneakers because of my boyfriend, or if he bought them for me,” she shares. “I wasn't even showing my face on Instagram back then. I was trying to avoid being stereotyped, like I was a cute girl into sneakers, that I just bought them because they were ‘hype’ or fashion at the time. I know it shouldn't bother me, but it's hard. I have a great collection and great taste, and I actually like sneakers. And that has nothing to do with my sex.”
Dismantling these stereotypes around women is critical to achieving equality, and as much as we’d like to think that everyone working in the sneaker industry would get it by now, it’s clearly not the case. The only way to encourage authentic change is by having women in decision-making positions where they can pave the way for more women to follow. Thankfully, more companies are reshuffling their senior teams, and high-profile partnerships with women are on the rise. Through them, women are breaking into coveted product spaces that have long been male-only, such as Jordan's collaborations with Vashtie, Aleali May, Olivia Kim, and Melody Ehsani (several of which now resell at four-figure prices), and Yoon Ambush's three-way partnership with Nike and the NBA, made her the first female fashion designer to collaborate on a Nike x NBA collection.
Even though men buy into these collaborations, they are still mainly being marketed as women’s exclusives. As Kirkum points out: “Men have been designing shoes for women forever, but for some reason, there can still be a stigma against women designing shoes or sneakers for men — that makes no sense to me.” The hesitation to let women take the reins on prominent projects for men is groundless and reinforces the fact that they aren’t considered authorities in their field. There is no shortage of skilled women designers — just take Charlotte Lee, designer of the highly-praised New Balance 327, as an example — so to relegate them to less prominent projects and women’s exclusives makes even less sense.
While lack of product, tone-deaf marketing, and dodgy women’s releases are still huge issues, a problem that runs deeper is that women’s voices aren’t being heard — or, even worse, are being ignored. Fortunately, the female community is only getting stronger, and depriving them a place at the table is only fueling their fight. Finlay concludes: “The female community is one close-knit family. We all know each other and we welcome and support new members because we all know what it feels like to be overlooked and not have anyone relatable to talk to about it. We’re all passionate about a common goal — making sneakers equal to everyone.”
The resounding message is clear. Gender shouldn’t affect the legitimacy of a person’s love of sneakers. Women are banding together and holding brands to a higher standard. All we need now is for them to listen.