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Kickin’ Facts | Gen Z consumers think a lot of sneakers on shelves today are straight up ugly

The sneaker industry needs to step its game up in order to impress millions of Gen Z consumers who don’t like how a lot of sneakers are made for them. Take notes, sneaker companies.

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“Kickin’ Facts” is REVOLT’s sneaker column, written by sneaker expert Jazerai Allen-Lord, where she dives into the culture and discusses all things kicks with a special emphasis on Black people who are in the scene, but who the now very-gentrified sneaker industry often overlooks. Come here for the real from an absolute sneakerhead who truly is of the culture.

The sneaker industry is a Boys Club that often resembles a cult-like fraternity that caters to the wants and whims of its most elite. More often than not, women are left out of the conversation, though we control $20 trillion in worldwide spending, 85% of consumer purchases, and over 50% of those purchases are “traditional male products.”

Though female sneakerheads have been on the scene for decades (80s baby checking in), 2018 was a pivotal year in the industry. ThredUp reported a 38% increase in “heel purges,” while NPD Group’s Retail Tracking Service noted that high heels sales were down by 11%. Simultaneously, women’s sneaker sales were up 37%. Like many brands that year, Nike responded to this shift with Unlaced, an initiative that was part of its 2018 plan to grow its women’s business from $6.6 billion to $11 billion by 2020.

Since then, an influx of women-focused campaigns, collabs, and products has hit the streets, but the women on the ground - the women from the culture - still feel invisible. And I’m not talking about the women with Off-White rugs and all-White walls, full of YEEZY and Air Jordan 1s. They are being served. I’m talking about the next generation of Black women in sneaker culture, who grew up watching April Walker and Misa Hylton, and now want to see themselves in the culture their immediate ancestors created.

As someone who has now elevated in the community to “auntie status,” I wanted to check in with the girls of Gen Z to see how they felt about the current climate for Black women. I spoke to several Black stylists, journalists, and sneaker collectors about the products currently on the shelf, the ads on their feeds, and what they would like to see change.

At the top of the list for each and every one of them was authentic representation. For Gen Z, this is paramount. Studies show that this is a generation defined on their search for the truth, and that search is what drives their purchases. They can see through celebrities, they don’t fall for influence, and genuinely want to know if you’re about what you say you are. After asking the group what they would want to see differently, one thing rang true across the board. From the design tables to the advertisements, Black women are ready for new heroes.

“I would love it if the brands and retailers showcased real and authentic women who are in the sneaker game. Women who are making a difference. Women who are paving new ways for other women to do what they love — incorporate their genuine love for shoes. There are so many ways to contribute to the culture other than posting your outfits or sneakers of the day. I’m tired of the brands showing love to women who own shoes just to post sneakers on IG because it’s the hot thing to do now. The women in this game can weave out the real from the fake real quick. The brands should be aware of that. This culture runs deep; they need to do their research.” - Janelle Shuttlesworth, Sneaker YouTuber

When looking at the model selection and influencer partners, we can’t deny the headway. There has been an uptick in diverse faces used in brand advertisements. But, when it comes to celebrating the fullness of our existence and acknowledging the depth of our Black experience, the brands and media are still missing the boat.

“People are just buying their way into our culture these days, and it’s namely white women. Some of them have stolen their entire online persona from Black women, and then ultimately, they end up with brand deals and sponsorships, and amplified by the media as “the face of women sneakerheads.”- Jasmine Allen, Sneaker Blogger

Black women are unquestionably the archetype of beauty, body, and style in sneaker culture — and quite often beyond. Women like Left Eye, Misa Hylton, Aaliyah, Erykah Badu, April Walker, and Missy Elliott made it possible for women to have a presence in “urban,” a genre we now call “street.” And it was little Black girls like me, who wore mismatched socks with her Griffeys and cut her t-shirts into crop tops, who grew up wanting to express herself through fashion and design just like them.

But, when examining the product coming out of women’s lines and the people designing it, the disparity of Black voices remains. We highlighted the lack of Black people in sneaker design in our last Kickin’ Facts, a systemic issue that trickles down to every sector of the business including the women’s department. If there are no Black women at the design table, who is speaking for us?

“Compared to the men’s releases, women’s sneakers constantly have a tackier look. The material always looks much cheaper, there are too many colors - looking like a Starburst pack - and they really try to force the chunky sneaker look. Though that works for some, it doesn’t work for others. That’s why voices like Sheryl Swoopes, Vashtie Kola, and Aleali May are essential. When Black women are collaborating with brands, women’s sneakers are always better.” - Elizabeth Yamasaki, Sneaker Reseller

The next generation of Black women wants to see women who look like them not just in the ads, but also in the office. And actually designing the product.

“I believe that the streetwear/sneaker market has become oversaturated with white men. I believe every industry needs to be diverse to thrive. However, this specific industry has really made it hard for a person of color to thrive. To be completely honest, there are not that many mainstream brands with Black women at the helm, and when you segregate it to just street, we are almost non-existent.” - Nandi Howard, Essence Associate Fashion Editor

“I want to see more styles and designs from Black female artists and designers because these companies are not doing a great job. I want to see creativity in the future when it comes to women’s sneakers because most of the time when I go out to shop, they all look the same. The same bright pinks because designers think that women only like pink. That is not the case. Give Black women creative control and more respect to the communities that street style really came from.” - YungAshtray, Sneaker Collector

I won’t bore you with the loads of case studies that suggest that pink is an offensive way to market to women. Instead, I’ll share this quote from Linda Landers, CEO of Girlpower Marketing:

“Sometimes painting a product pink simply tells a woman that a brand hasn’t really given any thought to her and her needs at all.”

This is how women in sneakers feel when instead of bred (colorway of the OG Jordans: black and red), they give us pink. Instead of earth tones, we get neon. Instead of clean and classic, we get animal skin and pony hair. And if you want to be really edgy, throw some extra zippers on that daddy, too.

“I notice that they use a lot of hair-like materials for women in sneakers. At least three sneakers throughout the year will feature this, but it makes the sneakers bulky and heavy. I’m tired of them adding too much to the sneaker. Also, the ‘shrink it and pink it’ model. They add pinks and yellows to the same silhouettes, over and over again, and push it as ‘feminine,’ thus making it a shoe for women.” - Jasmine Allen, Sneaker Blogger

“No more bright colorways, like, that neon type. If done bad - which it usually is for women - it just ends up looking tacky. I also don’t like how they always make women’s Jordan 1s with a zip-up. That gets me so tight! Not all women want that. We just want a normal lace.” - Treyana Brown, Stylist

The color pink has perpetually been a cultural marker for “feminine” energy, making its stamp on a young girl’s life as early as her gender reveal. But, Gen Z leans gender-neutral and refuses to accept stereotypes and gender norms. A reported 35% personally know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns, and 59% believe that forms with a gender field should include options other than “man” or “woman.”

This data, coupled with the trend that women in sneaker culture tend to shop men’s first suggests that the overload of pink and “feminized” women’s releases miss the mark when it comes to speaking to a generation with a spending power of $143 billion.

I asked the vibrant Black women from Gen Z what they wanted to see on the shelf instead because solutions are equally, if not more, critical than complaints. I pray the sneaker brands pay attention and thank REVOLT for this free IP.

“I feel that most sneaker drops come in pastels and neons. I’d like to see a larger emphasis on darker color schemes and grungier concepts like the vintage ‘used’ look in the women’s market.” - Taylor Burrell, Stylist

“I’m not a YEEZY fan, but the one thing they’ve really done right is inclusive sizing and non-gendered colors. Their colors aren’t specific to a certain gender, so essentially, anyone can wear them without thinking, ‘Oh, that’s a women’s shoe’ or vice versa. I feel like that’s what most of the women who are genuinely into sneakers want.” - Janelle Shuttlesworth, Sneaker YouTuber

“I want to see more performance-driven sneakers based on women athletes. For example, tennis (the sport) shoes which are designed based on the game and movement of women athletes. I also want to see the use of traditionally masculine colors on women’s releases: darker shades of browns, greens, and oranges.” - Jasmine Allen, Sneaker Blogger

“Whatever the men get, we should get, too, along with fitting seasonal colors. I noticed that women’s colorways don’t always match the time of year. This is subtle, but also an issue. I want to see more materials being used. We should branch into Flyknits. More materials that are eco-friendly.” - Elizabeth Yamasaki, Sneaker Reseller

“I’d like to see more primary colors: reds, blues, and more earth tones. And when they use these colors, maybe use some nice leather or suede. It doesn’t need to be satin to be feminine. I’d also like to see the brands working with more people from the LGBTQ community on collabs.” - Sabrina Mabbett, Manager, Sneex Boutique

The next generation of Black women in sneakers wants to see themselves in the products. They want to redefine what the word “feminine” suggests and strip traditional gender stereotypes from the conversation. They want better materials and more recognition of their diversity of thought. They want a seat at the table they helped build. And they demand equality.

Now.

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