For years, the sneakerhead market was a boys’ club. Everything centered on men’s tastes and men’s sizes–testosterone all but oozed from sneakerhead blogs like Highsnobiety, Hypebeast, and Complex. Women, myself included, were often left out when it came to finding exclusive editions in their sizes. But with the women’s sneaker market growing 5% in the last year, athletic brands are paying attention. Just look at Nike, which unveiled a female-focused retail concept called Unlaced during Paris Fashion Week.
Unlaced will debut to the public March 27 as the primary online destination for Nike sneakers for women. Shop-in-shop locations will appear this summer. The concept takes the sneakerhead formula—new styles, increased product offering, customization—and aims it squarely at women. “The idea of providing access to [a woman’s] favorite Nike sneakers and the best of Nike is something that we’re really passionate about,” says Julie Igarashi, the vice president and creative director for NikeWomen.
There’s a shrewd strategy at work. Sales of athletic footwear generated $19.6 billion in sales in 2017, growing 2% over the previous year, according to the market research company NPD Group. The women’s market overshadowed men’s with sales growing by 5% from 2016. “So far sneaker culture has always been about the guys but with the women’s sneaker market growing and actually outpacing the men’s that’s changing,” says Clare Varga, active director at trend forecasting agency WGSN. “Social media has played a key part in this and now female sneakerheads like Aleali May [an influencer who is the second woman to collaborate with the Jordan brand] and Jess Gavigan [an influencer and founder of online retailer Small Feet Big Kicks] are really establishing themselves as influences. There’s also online groups like the International Girl Crew–whom Nike has worked with–who are creating sneaker communities to empower girls and female designers.”
Matt Powell, the vice president and senior industry advisor -sports at NPD, echoes that women have long been neglected in the athletic footwear and apparel market, but that’s starting to change with startups like Shoes of Prey and Allbirds. “I have described the women’s footwear and apparel market and activewear as our greatest failure and our greatest opportunity, so I’m glad to see brands are now finally beginning to address this market more aggressively,” he says. “There are female sneakerheads out there, and they’ve been forced to buy boys’ shoes for the most part.”
Nike hopes its sneakerhead play will help the company grow its women’s business from $6.6 billion to $11 billion by 2020. Other product initiatives in the women’s business include more plus-size options, the Nike FE/NOM Flyknit Sports Bra, and the Nike Pro Hijab, which won the Fast Company Innovation by Design Award for General Excellence in 2017. “It’s really about removing barriers that prohibit people from accessing and participating in sport, because we know the power of sport in people’s lives, and we’ve done research on the impact of sport in women’s lives, and we know that women with a sport in their backgrounds are successful as they go through life,” says Igarashi.
The Unlaced preview in Paris started with a look into Nike’s archive through highlights of women’s sneakers from the past 40 years, beginning with the shoe that started it all–the Nike Senorita Cortez, the female version of the Nike Cortez, a minimal white sneaker with an orange swoosh, which was released two years after the male version in 1974. The archive also includes the Nike Airmax 97 LX Swarovski, which dusts the curves in the original Airmax 97 in a coating of sparkly Swarovski crystals, and the Nikecourt Flare BHM Serena Williams that pays homage to Black History Month through black and white marbling that symbolizes harmony and a metallic gold swoosh. Both of these shoes debuted in 2017.
The preview ended with a showroom meant to evoke the feel of an Unlaced retail destination: a circular space lined with shelves of shoes, with a large spinning seat in the middle–prime Instastory material. Dozens of shoes in myriad colorways were organized into groups by trend, from dad shoes, to chunky-soled kicks to pink confections. There were performance designs, like the new Nike React, a light, springy running shoe that debuted last month. There were Jordans, notably the OFF–WHITE x Nike Air Jordan 1, a collaboration with Off-White fashion designer Virgil Abloh, who put on his brand’s signature marks, like a plastic tag on the iconic sneaker, which was just released in women’s sizing. And there were lifestyle models, too; with the 1 Reimagined, a team of female designers invent new renditions of the Nike Air Force 1 and the Air Jordan 1. It’s a virtual sneaker buffet.
According to Varga, Nike is merely playing catch-up with Unlaced as brands like Amazon-owned Zappos have entered the female-focused market with its The Ones editorial section. The brand’s competitors are also on the pulse of this trend; Adidas is focusing on women’s initiatives, like a sneaker collaboration with female artists who designed bespoke sneakers representing each U.S. state that benefitted Women Win, an organization that provides opportunities for empowerment to girls in Pakistan through sport, and a new colorway of its EQT series specifically for International Women’s Day 2018. Just last week, British department store Selfridges unveiled a women’s sneaker space featuring 700 styles from brands like Gucci, Nike, Stella McCartney, and Vans.
“Nike are innovators and have always done a great job on diversity in its women’s products,” Varga says. “But until the launch of its Fe/Nom bra last year, it hadn’t really put all its might and resources behind a women-specific technology. Nike isn’t the first sports brand to launch… female-focus sneaker stores but they are exceptionally good a bringing things to the masses and making them mainstream.”
As she puts it: “The future of sneakers IS female.”