This piece appears as part of our initiative on Identity & Representation, a six-month-long project highlighting different facets of identity and how they shape the practices, conventions, and conversations happening in the Highsnobiety world. Head here for the full series.

Sneaker and streetwear culture has long been considered a boys club. Sneaker stores used to be desolate places for women; retailers would often cover their walls with styles for men and provide a range of grade school kicks for boys, while the women's section would look empty in comparison. But in recent years, sneaker brands have started to think outside the box marked US men’s size 11 and cater to women.

Sneakers have even trumped luxury handbags to become the new in-demand accessory, with celebrities such as Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid routinely spotted rocking limited edition kicks.

"I think a lot of brands are now developing their women’s line and making them stronger than ever, as they see the importance of the fast-growing female market,” explain Jade Yeung and Celia Solf of The Store in Berlin. "Years ago, the sneaker industry was male-dominated, but now there are a lot more girls on the scene, so there’s a need for cooler sneakers in women’s sizes, rather than catching the smaller end of men’s."

To capitalize on this, sportswear brands have started unveiling a wider selection of women’s-only styles, many of which capture the attention of men, too. From the extra-chunky (and oft-memed) FILA Disruptor to Nike’s forward-thinking M2K Tekno and ’00s-style P-6000 silhouettes, women and men alike have been hankering after these women-focused offerings. For the first time, men are having to do the math to figure out what size they wear in women's sneakers. But what’s prompted the change?

To a degree, it’s down to the strategic way in which women’s sneakers are currently designed and distributed, with more women-specific outlets popping up. Danish retailer Naked, for instance, abides by its tagline of “Supplying Girls With Sneakers.” This year, the company has already released two high profile collaborations with Nike and adidas Consortium, both of which also proved popular among male consumers.

“With the Naked x adidas Consortium Magmur Runner, it was almost like designing a men’s shoe but with a female consumer in mind,” Naked creative producer Emily Petersen explains. “Women have always wanted exactly what men want when it comes to sneakers — because what is a gender-based shoe anyway?”

The Naked x adidas Consortium Ultraboost from the “Waves” pack is Naked's bestseller — and the majority of the stock was bought by men. The shoe is dipped in a pastel-mint shade, a hue perhaps more traditionally associated with women’s fashion. “Nowadays, universal appeal is more down to the silhouette than the color,” says Petersen.

There has been a shift away from stereotypical tropes across the fashion industry, with “unisex” becoming the go-to buzzword. From a luxury perspective, co-ed catwalks have become standard, while sportswear and streetwear brands have started to debut lines tailored to everyone, from Lacoste’s SS19 collection and accompanying unisex lookbook to Nike’s recent “Gender Neutral” campaign.

ASOS content creative Nic Hayman believes this rise in genderless marketing is a key reason why women’s-only sneaker drops have gained in popularity.

“A brand shouldn’t change their language or creative concept because of the sex of the target audience,” says Hayman. “As a category, I see sneakers as unisex, and I think it’s the role of marketing to lead the way and change consumer behavior. If you don’t consider women’s footwear to be an afterthought or a sub-category, neither will your customer base.”

A glance at the well-received Cactus Plant Flea Market x Nike VaporMax 2019 campaign is enough to verify Hayman’s view. With shots of women and men of varying ages, the campaign is all about the silhouette rather than any gender-based considerations, but the box still features a "W" on the label, denoting Women.

“I think, like women, some men really enjoy the crazier designs that you can't find everywhere on the high street,” says Supanika Richmond, head of PR and marketing at London women’s sneaker store pam pam. “Sneakerheads are essentially looking for the rarest and most unique sneaks out there.”

The success of a women’s-only release also often relies on who’s behind the campaign. After enlisting stylist and blogger Aleali May, Nike’s Jordan Brand has drawn vast amounts of hype for each of May's collaborative kicks and campaigns. Similarly, following a campaign fronted by Kylie Jenner, adidas Originals’ Falcon silhouette became an instant sellout.

“The industry has a history and tendency to create more collaborative releases targeted toward men, and I’m happy we’re now seeing more special projects like those with Aleali May and Yoon Ahn — as women, too, love stories and product like this,” says Danielle Krasse, who heads brand activation at Sneakersnstuff. “[It’s] not just the stereotypically feminine silhouettes designed for women and marketed in an overly girly or sexual way, but it’s the dope shit that speaks to us, to be blunt about it. There’s a huge demand for great stories and products that women and men alike want to wear.”

With Instagram having become one of the biggest marketing tools in the world, so-called “influencers” have also started to have an effect on sneaker trends.

“Back in the day, sneaker brands exclusively worked with celebrities and athletes,” says Sanne Poeze, founder of the blog Girl on Kicks. “[But] repeatedly seeing a certain product on various accounts or being worn by people you like and respect always has an impact.” It’s no surprise, then, that influencer-backed women’s releases garner so much attention online.

Taking the women’s releases from the last year into consideration, the industry seems to have left behind the days when women's sneakers were exclusively pastel-colored or glittery. As brands have come to recognize their female customers as legitimate consumers, sneakers are no longer seen as the preserve of men only. And with women’s exclusives drawing male attention, will gender-specific releases eventually cease to exist?

Naked's Petersen certainly hopes so: “Eventually, there’ll be a unisex shoe size guide and everyone’s lives will be a whole lot easier.”

For more about women in sneakers, check the video below.

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