The sneaker industry has, since its inception, been largely male-dominated. In fact, it wasn’t so long ago that many sneakers only came in men’s sizes (for instance, the first women’s Air Force 1 debuted in 2001, almost 20 years after the style’s debut). But a select group of female sneaker retailers are working to disrupt the status quo and reinvent the culture around cult trainers by centering the needs and desires of women. As part of Nike’s 50th anniversary, the brand held a May 18 panel featuring female entrepreneurs who are expanding the culture of sport. There, five of these movers and shakers came together to discuss both the difficulties of breaking into the sneaker space, and how women can change it for the better.
At fashion weeks around the globe, it’s now a normal phenomenon to see women eschewing the once-required high heels for a pair of rare Nikes or the latest “It” style from the likes of Adidas or New Balance. But, even as the fashion industry has embraced a comfier, sportier, new normal, the ways in which women can drive sneaker culture are only being realized now. “Sneakers are currency now,” says Jennifer Ford, owner of Houston-based Premium Goods. “Sneakers can get you into clubs; you can trade them for other products. I’m excited to see people who didn’t necessarily know where they fit in in corporate-America careers and businesses find a place in this world through sneakers and design.”
With the wide variety of styles finally available, created specifically for women and through a female lens, there’s more opportunity for expression. And, as many workplaces adopt a more casual dress code, sneakers have become a way to convey a unique sense of style.
Julie Hogg, the partner and CEO of Wish ATL explains that while quality, woman-specific product is important, many female customers come to women-led retailers also looking for access in what can be an extremely competitive shopping space. “There is a lot of great product out there for women, but it’s not necessarily coming to neighborhood stores,” she explains, citing the online drop model. Often new releases are highly competitive, with limited stock, and the potential of a markup of thousands of dollars on the resale market. “Women have been fighting to have something for themselves, and now they’re fighting so hard online against resellers, which is kinda funny because I don’t know any female resellers. They’re fighting against men to get product for themselves.”
Research has indicated that the resale market was estimated to be a $6 billion dollar business as of 2021, but it is still largely dominated by male resellers. For women to participate more actively, there needs to be a way for them to gain access to product, and feel that there is an opportunity for them within the market as well.
This is where a growing group of women entering the space — designers like Yoon Ahn of Ambush, to influencers like Aleali Mei, and store owners like Hogg or Ford — are pushing the conversation forward. By creating physical spaces where women are centered in the experience, these female retailers intend to not only create that first-hand access but to make sure that shoppers feel represented. “For us, listening is the number one [priority],” explains Abby Albino, the co-founder of Makeway, a Toronto-based store that opened amidst the pandemic. “We built insight groups prior to even opening our doors [to understand] the pain points of being a woman in the sneaker industry as a consumer.” Placing sneakers on shelves (both virtual and physical) next to dresses, jewelry, and handbags may not seem like a novel concept, but it helps to contextualize the shoes, whether they’re designed specifically for women or are unisex, as part of an everyday wardrobe.
As the only female-owned sneaker store in Canada, Albino seeks to promote not just big sneaker brands within the space, but to also use the store as place to spotlight emerging female designers as well. “Making sure that women walk into our space and see themselves in all of our products is super important. We love to share our floor space with our big vendors like Nike, but then also provide opportunities to local women, specifically BIPOC women, for floor space as well. When we bring in new vendors, we want to make sure our women can see themselves in our product.” Makeway labels products on their site as woman-owned and BIPOC owned, and their current lineup includes accessories label Microdose and clothing brand The Ugly Twin.
Community has been a central tenet for these female business owners as they build their physical spaces. For Sally Aguirre, who has owned El Monte, California’s Sally’s Shoes for almost 30 years, connecting with her customers has helped the business to flourish over time. “I’ve known a lot of my consumers, my girls, since they were 16. Now my girls are 46, 45, 44. They have babies, and their babies have babies,” she explains, adding that she feels it is part of her responsibility to act as an example and mentor for many of those women. “At a very young age, I learned from my father, my mentor, for almost 50 years. He said, ‘Mija, nothing is given in life, it’s earned,’ and he said ‘if you fall, you’re gonna get up, but you’re gonna do it yourself.’ so for me, [I give similar advice] talking to my girls that come in.”
Aguirre adds that early on in her journey, she faced criticism from local male businessmen, “They would come by and say ‘oh no, they’re not going to open you up, you’re not going to get a sneaker account, you’re not going to get the Nike account.’ And I said ‘watch me.’” Now, when talking to her customers about opening their own businesses, she hopes to set an example of what success looks like. “It’s telling them that, as a woman, whatever race, whatever color, whatever creed you are, love what you do. Respect yourself. Go forward in life. Believe in yourself.”
Beyond striving to create spaces that celebrate ladies who love a great pair of kicks, it’s worth noting that by simply launching their businesses, these entrepreneurs are breaking barriers for future generations of women looking to be a part of the sneaker-sphere. “I really hope to inspire other women, especially Black and brown women, to get into the creative world and creating,” explains Beth Birkett, the co-owner of Union Los Angeles and founder of Bephie’s Beauty Supply. “It helps to move not just the culture, but the world forward. [At Union] I work around so many men, I’m used to seeing men come together and say ‘what are we going to do with this design?’ Through [Bephie’s collaboration with the] Jordan brand, I’ve seen a bunch of other women coming together who are also creators. I want to encourage it as much as possible and pass the baton to the women coming up.”