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Nike is finally taking women who love sneakers seriously

Why it matters both to the women who’ve been left out and to Nike’s revenue targets.

Legendary Colette founder Sarah Andelman will curate Nike’s new women’s shop.

Unlaced is Nike’s new “curated destination for female sneaker lovers.”

(In other words, it is a small store.)

It was announced at Paris Fashion Week in February and launched online in March. It’s hitting brick-and-mortar stores later this month, and this new round will be curated by Sarah Andelman — the famed co-founder of Paris’s Colette, the concept store (1997–2017, RIP) that arguably kicked off the modern, nonstop proliferation of brand collaborations, crossovers, and general hype.

It’s 2018, Nike is trying to include women in sneaker culture, and this is news. How’d we get here? Why does it matter? Has it actually been unclear whether women have feet?

In a February press release, Nike itself laid the problem out fairly bluntly: “As sneakers transcended sport and initiated street-style trends, collaboration became an integral component of sneaker culture, blossoming into a symbiotic relationship between brands and external creative communities. That community has been predominantly male.”

The “community” Nike is referencing is the $20 billion global sneaker industry, which has grown alongside the evolution of sneakers from a utility object to a fashion statement. Historically, it’s been all about boys. This includes big brands like Nike, but also the big blogs — like Kevin Ma’s Hypebeast media empire and Marc Ecko’s similarly enormous Complex — and the shoppers and the redditors and the $1 billion resale market and the scammers and the icons. Nike’s signature Jordan brand was designed exclusively by men from its advent in 1984 all the way up to 2010, when artist and filmmaker Vashtie Kola became the first woman to design an iteration of the shoe.

“In pushing new female voices, Nike is challenging the sneaker status quo,” Nike claims in its press release. But women already have their own sneaker communities. There are thousands of them in the women’s streetwear subreddits. They’re largely influenced less by the major blogs and more by their own, slightly less high-profile heroes like designer Aleali May, Small Feet Big Kicks founder Jess Gavigan, and streetwear vloggers like Jennifer Tiffany, Andrea Kyriacou, Karen Yeung, Julia Dang, and Maya Nilsen.

New Nike Air Jordans designed by Virgil Abloh, available in women’s sizes.

It’s not that women don’t participate en masse; it’s that participating is harder because brands have largely ignored them. The biggest pain point for women in sneaker culture is that the most coveted shoes often aren’t even made in their sizes.

While all major brands have women’s sizes in certain styles, many of the most popular classic styles and almost all buzzy, limited-edition collaborations come only in men’s sizes. (For example, Tyler, the Creator’s many GOLF le FLEUR* collaborations, the majority of Virgil Abloh’s Nike projects, most limited-edition Nike Jordans, almost all of Kanye West’s Yeezy styles, and dozens of others.) Women find themselves left out of the major “drops” that hyped-up teen boys get to celebrate, or — as a patch solve — they wind up buying the largest possible kid sizes in boys shoes, which are often made with cheaper materials.

Nike’s new women-oriented Unlaced project will tackle that problem by offering “unisex sizing on select classic Jordan styles,” expanding sizing for the wildly popular Nike Air Force 1 and Air Max lines, and breaking with its tradition of collaborating almost exclusively with buzzy male designers by hiring two super-famous women — cult favorite British menswear designer Martine Rose and avant-garde Japanese jewelry designer Yoon — to create new ready-to-wear clothing lines and sneakers. It’s a start, but is it enough? And why so late?

Progress on the woman’s sneaker front has come in dribs and drabs. Last summer, Nordstrom’s director of creative projects, Olivia Kim, designed a limited-edition reimagining of the Nike Cortez, a classic style introduced as the brand’s first track shoe in 1972. The other major contribution to women’s sneakers that season was almost laughable: a Nike and Swarovski line of ultra-feminine shoes coated in crystals. There’s not a single mention of them in the entire women’s streetwear subreddit. (One opinion, from me: They are hideous.)

In the lead-up to Unlaced, Nike also had a 14-woman design team work on a line of reimagined Air Force 1s and Air Jordan 1s, which came in styles called Explorer, Lover, Sage, Rebel, and Jester. They’re objectively cool. The company also made women’s sizes available for the hotly-anticipated The 10 line, designed by Kanye West’s creative director Virgil Abloh. Abloh then designed Serena Williams’s Queen line for the brand, which debuted this summer. The attempts are getting markedly better.

The Nike Air Force 1 Lover XX, from the all-woman design team behind the 1 Reimagined line.

But this is not altruism; it’s just smart business that took way too long to figure out. It wasn’t really until 2014 — when Rihanna was named creative director of Puma and French luxury brand Céline sent a pair of Air Force 1–inspired sneakers down the runway — that Nike started sitting up and paying attention. To test the idea of a women’s sneaker shop, Nike had Nordstrom’s Olivia Kim curate a small selection of women’s styles for Nordstrom in the fall of 2016.

Nike VP Amy Montagne became the general manager of Nike Women in 2014, and she has been open about Unlaced as a way for Nike to push its women’s business from a $6.6 billion annual endeavor to an $11 billion one by 2020. In 2017, sales of “athletic footwear” were up 2 percent overall, but 5 percent among women. Women’s sneaker sales are growing faster than men’s, and the market is not yet saturated. Nike still has time to take a huge chunk of it: Amazon’s Zappos has a relatively small section (called “The Ones”) dedicated to women’s sneakers; Adidas just nabbed Kylie Jenner as its spokesperson and partnered with Refinery29 to make 50 pairs of women-specific Ultra Boosts; and Puma is almost embarrassingly dependent on Rihanna, who now has plenty of other business concerns.

On the internet, the counterpart to a “hypebeast,” a guy who gets excited to spend money on the latest clothes and shoes from the most hyped-up designers and celebrities, has been “hypebae.” It’s not a compliment: It refers to a girl who dates a hypebeast and wears his clothes. The women’s version of the publication Hypebeast is called Hypebae (it launched just two years ago), but the active users in the women’s streetwear subreddits rarely use the term.

There’s some concern that Nike’s pivot is similar — expansion via condescension. Reddit user jetejypsy, who did not want to be referred to by name, is active in the major women’s streetwear subreddits and tells Vox that she appreciates expanded size options for sneakers but doesn’t love the other elements of the Unlaced project. They’re what you’d expect from a brand trying to cater to the trope of a lady shopper: vaguely referenced “special packaging” and “one-on-one appointments” with guest stylists in stores.

“It makes streetwear culture approachable for [women who want] their skinny jeans, flannel, a [pumpkin spice latte], and some kicks. I think this service was made for them, not women already in streetwear, and that makes sense because at the end of the day, there’s more of them and Nike wants their money.”

Nike’s ad campaign for the 1 Reimagined series, which launched in January.

She wishes sneaker culture weren’t so oriented around men’s fashion, leaving her without many resources for figuring out how to style her shoes with full outfits. But she doesn’t see Unlaced as much of a solution. “By adding the extended sizes, it’s like Nike is saying ‘doesn’t matter your gender, we can all rock dope kicks!’ But the rest of the features are kinda saying ‘females are different and they have different shopping needs and we need to treat them different and special’ and I don’t like that. I don’t want to see other companies do that.”

Stefanie Knoblich, a 22-year-old redditor from Germany, echoes her, saying, “I don’t see a point in Nike trying to make sneaker culture more appealing for women … women are an equal part in sneaker culture. What these companies could do to improve things is to sell every sneaker in every size.” Callie Fontana, a 22-year-old streetwear redditor from Baton Rouge, says sneaker companies spend too much time trying to “make all their sneakers pink, and what their idea of ‘feminine’ is.”

She adds, “I think both sneaker companies and sneaker culture media should just strive to make sneakers be unisex.”

I’m loath to oversimplify, but it sounds like the solution this whole time has been: Just sell the same sneakers in every size? Yeah, just sell the same sneakers in every size.