Sneaker Culture Isn't Fully Inclusive of Women, and That's a Problem

Women haven't been given a level playing field in the world of sneaker culture, and this is a problem.

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Complex Original

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I've had a thing for sneakers since grade school, studied athletic footwear design and work in footwear, yet I’m always asked, “So, who got you into sneakers?” It's always assumed that a male influence is needed when, in reality, I turned my father into a sneakerhead and my male friends call me for sneaker plugs. Ask most female footwear fiends and they’ll tell you similar stories—sneaker culture is just naturally not inclusive to women.

There is a certain aspect of the footwear and sportswear industries as a whole that is changing—from the ever present "athleisure" blogs and Instagram accounts to the fashion industry embracing sneakers with all kinds of high/low collaborations.

Will there ever be equal footing or are we doomed to be a sexualized and substandard subset of a growing industry?

But is it enough to change the dynamic?

Are women bound to be either pin-ups, viewed as accessories to sneakers, or as strictly sexless tomboys? Will there ever be equal footing or are we doomed to be a sexualized and substandard subset of a growing industry?

The footwear industry is, at the core, a sports-centric market which inherently caters to men before women due to the bigger market for sports footwear and sneakers. Women, after all, have more options when it comes to shoes. But specifically in the sports market, how many women have player’s edition sneakers? And what’s the viewership of women’s sporting events compared to that of the professional men’s leagues? The money always talks loudest in footwear.


Few people understand what it means to be a woman in a man’s sneaker world better than Susan Boyle, owner of Rime sneaker boutique in Brooklyn, N.Y. One of the major problems for female sneakerheads and store owners alike are the huge gaps in the female-friendly products outside of stereotypical designs.

“The female market has been providing very little diversity in product due to the dumbing down of footwear into ‘shrink it and pink it’ pieces designed by men. Brands have been launching female sneakers with what they think we want to wear, and have little insight as to what we actually want to wear,” says Boyle.

More often than not, we see women who are sneaker enthusiasts wearing a grade school sneaker than a women’s-specific colorway or shoe. We want the story, or what looks good—not just something generic or overtly-girly. I bought Jordans growing up, not Swoopes.

We want the story, or what looks good — not just something generic or overtly-girly.

Even more so, it’s tough to find a well-known female sneaker designer. The average sneakerhead will know who Tinker Hatfield or Jason Petrie is, but women as designers are not given the same visibility or often the same opportunity as a male designer or male-endorsed athlete.

Thankfully, brands are beginning to pay attention and more female collaborators are slowly filling the void. Designer and illustrator Sophia Chang has her own collection with Puma and even she didn’t realize the enthusiasm for women-designed products.


“Growing up I definitely felt like I was an extreme minority interested in streetwear and footwear and it was very exciting, especially with my collaboration with Puma to see other girls styling themselves in a dope way with my kicks,” Chang says.

Women tend to dress more for themselves than for the validation of others.

Too often, brands were missing the mark by not targeting women effectively, while sneaker culture always focused on the male gaze, rather than what appeals to female buyers—even when it’s a female product. “Women tend to dress more for themselves than for the validation of others, especially for those of the other sex,” Boyle explains. “As the business changes, the ads will have to change alongside it.”

Puma is pushing forward in the women's market thanks to collaborations with Chang, Boyle at Rime, a collection with Vashtie, and, now, Rihanna’s appointment as creative director. Additionally, Nike and Under Armour are using women’s apparel and, by an extension, footwear, to grow their businesses. Slowly, we’re seeing a push towards female empowerment, especially in fitness. Jazerai Lord, Director of Operations for Kicks on Fire, points to adidas, Reebok, and Puma as standouts.

“Each is positioning strong, successful, business savvy women like Solange [Knowles], Melody Ehsani, Sophia Chang, and Stella McCartney to serve as role models and fashion idols for young women,” Lord says.

Under Armour recently launched a $15 million dollar advertising campaign with super model Gisele Bundchen, pro skier Lindsey Vonn, and dancer Misty Copeland. Similarly, Nike is pushing its women-specific products, like the Nike Training Club app, events, and apparel collaborations with high-end fashion designers.


There’s an audience, a demand for product, and money to be made. So are more women’s stores next in footwear? Lady Foot Locker stores and Finish Line in-store women’s department shops exist, but Boyle is hopeful that women’s boutiques like hers will succeed.

“Due to my sizable, female sneaker head clientele, I see the want and need for a female owned store that caters to us,” she says.

However, the overhead for traditional retail is expensive especially in a competitive market like New York, so Chang sees e-commerce being the next frontier thanks to the power of branding and current trends.

“The best part about e-com is the buzz you can create with the Internet and just having your products and your online shop accessible globally is always good in terms of sales. The whole fusion between fashion and sportswear, it’s just a good opportunity for all footwear,” Chang says.

Lord remembers when there were women’s only sneaker stores like Laces in New York and Kendo in Los Angeles, but now? “In today's market, I'm not sure a female-only store would be as successful as a grade school-size only store. There has been a serious influx of female sneakerheads... I could definitely see a GS store dominating e-com,” Lord says. 

GS—or "grade school" sizes—originally meant for growing kids but perfectly suitable for any foot that'll fit, are now being scaled up to higher sizes, meaning that a wider range of women and girls (and smaller-footed men) can buy the products, which can translate to more sales than a purely women’s-only shop.

to truly make headway in sneaker culture, women need to voice their opinions.

We can talk about sexism, lack of product, size runs, colorways, and designers until we’re blue in the face. But to truly make headway in sneaker culture, women need to voice their opinions. Gone are the days of just lurking NikeTalk or swapping stories at the local shop, the Internet is providing an outlet for all of us.

Chang agrees. “Women have to talk more and be more vocal about our tastes. That’s more than just taking photos, but having a dialogue and a conversation the same way that men do... [and] create content around that,” she says.

It’s not only about women supporting women, but also pushing through and ensuring we can make a voice heard. For all the women who are perceived to buy popular releases to get noticed by men, there are just as many men who buy a dope sneaker like the "Concord" XIs to try and look fresh. Perhaps we all just need to focus on buying what we want and if it doesn’t exist, then we ask for it. And when we can’t get it, we make it.

It’s less about judging for what you like and more of wearing what you want.

And as Lord explains, “Being in this business as both a consumer and professional has taught me one thing: It isn't about the judgment, but how you react to the judgment.” 

Megan Ann Wilson is a stylist, consultant, and writer specializing in sports and footwear. You can follow her on Twitter here.