You see a pair of fresh sneakers on Instagram – it’s love at first sight. You just have to get your hands on this pair. First, you look at local sites, but nothing comes in your size or colour. So you decide to go to different stores, but it’s all sold out. You then scour international websites, (hoping the shipping’s free). The colour is available, but not your size. This is the struggle of a female sneakerhead.
Sneaker culture is big. “The US retail sneaker market alone is worth approximately $28billion,” according to an April 2 2015 article in the Financial Times titled “The footsy index: how sneakers became very big business.” In South Africa, many premier sneaker and lifestyle stores like Boaston Society (Cape Town), Supremebeing (Cape Town and Joburg) and Shelflife (Cape Town) have opened. And recently, the release of Kanye West’s Yeezy Boosts (a collaboration with Adidas) had everyone talking. Despite the price of R3999, the Yeezy Boosts had people queuing outside Shelflife, 48 hours before its release in Africa on February 28 2015. This is the power of sneaker culture today.
But, why does it feel like women are still being treated as the lesser consumer in this huge market? To figure this out, we spoke to three influential figures in sneaker culture: Tayane Lee Arends, co-owner of Chicks with Sneakz; Dr Zulu and Nick Herbert, co-founders of Shelflife in 2006 (Nick now owns the store).
It’s a man’s world… but it’s also about supply and demand
“There’s higher demand for men’s sneakers, so they will have the advantage of having access to fresher sneakers than females,” says Tayane, whose love for sneakers started at 13, and who remembers her first expensive pair “a Nike Court white and teal”.
Dr. Zulu agrees, but adds that the demand is ever growing from women, but that major brands are taking time to realise this. “Big companies usually analyse their sales and trend charts in chunks, say over the course of a season, or over year… so it may take a bit of time to adjust to demands.”
Nick, owner of about 180 pairs of sneakers, disagrees. Like Tayane and Dr Zulu he’s been into sneakers since he was a child, but says there’s no preference of men over women.
“I think certain packs are designed specifically for men, and some packs specifically for women, each brand knows this and caters to this. We have avid female sneaker followers, collecting like crazy, following global trends daily and are more into it than a lot of men. I think around maybe three years ago it was different in product offering but now it’s definitely equal,” he says. Yet, when I asked him why Shelflife seems unbalanced in its offer to women compared to men, he did not answer satisfactorily. “Well, that’s Shelflife’s website,” he said. Currently the men’s section has six pages of various sizes, colourways and brands, whereas the women’s section has two, the second not even being a full page.
Nick says they get offered sneakers and they buy into as much as possible, “Depending on what’s good currently and what we foresee in the future being good.”
“Shrink it and pink it”
Any woman remotely interested in sneakers will tell you that there’s an issue regarding women’s sizes (particularly smaller sizes) and colourways (the combination of colours which sneakers come in).
Tayane says both men and women struggle with size, common sizes sell out faster as they do for any shoe. “I really wanted to get the Air Jordan 4 Toro Bravo. I didn’t have the money to buy it or get it on lay-bye. When I did, it was two weeks too late. My size was sold out.”
But what’s the excuse for colourways? “Females are tired of pink and cute sneakers. We like other colourways too,” says Tayane. It’s what Forbes’ Matt Powell called the “shrink it and pink it” strategy in his 2014 article Sneakernomics: Marketing Sneakers to Women. “Historically, most athletic brands have used the strategy of “shrink it and pink it” to develop women’s product. They simply would take a man’s shoe, make it smaller and trim it in a colour that ‘she’ll love!'” Matt writes.
It feels like a change is coming
Tayane says the industry can be sexist. She shares an incident she and her partner experienced at a sneaker exchange in Woodstock, Cape Town. “We weren’t taken seriously by two guys. They literally laughed at us, and we were just inquiring about making an order. We were potential clients but because we were females we weren’t seen as serious, I guess”.
But female sneakerheads have had enough, and some are making their frustrations heard, and some suppliers are responding to the growth of the female sneaker market. Emily Hodgson and Emilie Riis, decided to channel their annoyances with limited sneaker sizes into a campaign named “Please Just Do It”, aimed at Nike. In 2013 they launched a fake online store named Purple Unicorn Planet where they showcase various men’s Nike sneakers, and give the illusion they’re for sale. But, as soon as you click on one of them it comes up as unavailable. Their aim: to force Nike to cater for women’s sizes.
In the UK, the first women-only sneaker store opened in March. Pam Pam in London sells over 10 brands of women’s sneakers, including Adidas and Reebok. In an interview with men’s online streetwear magazine and store Hypebeast, owners Bethany Heggart and Rio Holland, who previously owned a menswear store called Number Six, said, “Girls were always coming in (to Number Six) and asking for shoes in their size and there really wasn’t anything with such a premium offer (for women) in the UK.” This gap in the market led to the launch of Pam Pam.
Maybe it’s because we’re not as many as the men, but there is a market for women worth investing in. At the moment, I have my eye on the Adidas ZX 700 White, which I saw on Instagram last week. I’ve been scouting it out, and hope when it becomes available here, the struggle of finding it in the correct size and colourway will not be completely futile as in previous times.
Images by Andiswa Mkosi