Footwear

How Women Are Disrupting Sneaker Customization

Meet the designers who are chopping up the sneaker industry and putting it back together — their own way.

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How Women Are Disrupting Sneaker Customization

Meet the designers who are chopping up the sneaker industry and putting it back together — their own way.

The world of sneakers is changing as the industry traverses an important historical transition: becoming more representative and inclusive of women. We’re talking about more than just wider size runs – although those are nice, too. Whether it’s grassroots community-founded Instagram initiatives like Sneakers by Women or the new wave of global creative directors like Yoon Ahn for Nike Women, in so many facets women are succeeding at levelling the playing field, or in other words, making a male-dominated sneaker industry so yesterday.

With methods of self-expression like creativity and fashion experiencing somewhat of a renaissance post-pandemic, it’s safe to say that the sneaker customization niche remains booming. Like the rest of the industry, sneaker customs have been a largely male-led space. But it’s time to acknowledge that we’re in a new era, one that allows women to define it on their own terms. That’s not to say that female creatives have never tapped into sneaker customization – just look at Nicole McLaughlin and Ava Nope, but we’re proud that women are, now, doubling down. With viral creatives like Caterina Mongillo of Meta Girl Studio and All Amin of Haram taking over our feeds and experiencing official brand commissions, women are chopping up sneaker customization and putting it back together — their own way.

Let’s take a look at how we got here.

Refreshing Traditional Concepts

As a result of the male-dominated nature of the sneaker industry, sneaker customization subsequently experienced this lack of equilibrium, too. But that’s changing right before our eyes. This year, customizers like Caterina Mongillo garnered the limelight, laying claim to some of the most viral sneaker customs of the year. While there’s many particulars that give Meta Girl Studio’s work an edge above others, it’s the fact that she’s not bound by the traditional concept of sneaker customizing.

Across the board, customizers no longer look to the predictable Air Jordan 1 Low or Air Force 1 for projects. In recent years, some of the most popular customs we’ve come across have, in fact, been New Balance 991s or even Asics Gel Kayano 14s. Looking to Mongillo’s portfolio, she’s cracked the code to driving this approach, crafting a feminine take on the adidas Gazelle Indoor, the ultra viral New Balance 1906 ‘Bow and Lace’ and turning the Onitsuka Tiger Mexico 66 into knee high boots. For Mongillo, it’s about tapping into the zeitgeist on her own terms. “In the past I found myself prioritizing what other people might like or what they might think of me and that ended up compromising the final outcome.” She added, “Creativity is practice and while I’m not done finding my ultimate style, consistently creating and putting out my work has helped me to get closer.”

 

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Celebrating Hyper-Femininity

So, female sneaker heads are designing their own take on customization, but what are the terms? For Mongillo it’s been crucial to actively celebrate hyperfemininity. The ‘pink it and shrink it’ mentality – a perception that a women’s sneaker has to look like a stereotypical women’s drop – has long riddled womens sneakers. Yes, Nike have been working hard to release many sneakers in women’s size runs (like the Travis Scott x Air Jordan 1 Low “Reverse Olive”), but as Mongillo says, it’s about creating agency. “One intentional aspect of my work now is to advocate for feminine aesthetics in sneakers. I’ve heard too many people in the industry, even women, throwing shade on pink shoes and other hyper feminine elements. So, it’s important for me to redefine sneaker customization by proving hyper feminine features can look cool and relevant. We should celebrate femininity, not hide it.”

Making It Official

It definitely feels like sneaker collaborations have reached a point of saturation, but that doesn’t mean an official brand collab is no longer an ultimate mark of recognition, particularly for self-made labels and creatives. In a lot of cases, it’s a form of validation and can propel the collaborator to the next level by introducing them to wider audiences. For the select few sneaker customizers that have experienced both acclaim and hype this year, collaborations have been a way to solidify their work. One of Meta Girl Studio’s most popular projects was a brand commission featuring the Vans Knu Skool. Looking to the early ’00s where the worlds of hip hop and skate fashion collided, she tapped into her own personal memory bank to create her re-up, emphasizing the Knu Skool’s puffy proportions and, of course, adding the right amount of bling. But this wasn’t a case of playing into trends – she tells us, when it comes to customization, “[Trends] are a reflection of a generation’s current state of mind and operational frequency. So, in fashion we use trends to speak with each other in the same ‘language’ at a given time. But I just obsess about one novel thing usually and experiment with it.”

Power in Numbers

The modern era of social media has seen an unprecedented shift in accessibility for women who are into sneakers. Given the changes that sneakers in general have seen today, like the death of the line-up and the forum, many have come to find their tribe online. So, don’t underestimate the power of the community page. The rise of female-led sneaker platforms – think Sneakers by Women and Sheaker – has been one of the biggest subcultural movements in recent years. Whether you’re a new enthusiast, an avid collector or a budding creative, social media has made it possible to bring together like minded people from around the world, not only advocating for women in sneakers, but also carving out a place to exist and to be represented. By women, for women has never been more real.

The Rise of the Female Creative Director

From the sell out success of the Sandy Liang x Salomon to Yoon Ahn’s appointment as global creative director of Nike Women’s, 2023 has been a masterclass in women showing the world they know a thing or two about curating not just one sell-out sneaker, but multiple.

And it doesn’t stop there. One of the women leading the fashion and sneaker crossover is none other than Danish designer Cecilie Bahnsen, who first linked up with Asics in 2022. Bahsen’s eponymous Copenhagen-based brand is renowned for its delicate and thoughtful technique to creating couture, which has been authentically translated to its sneaker collabs.

To kickstart the Asics partnership, Bahnsen curated a collection of sustainably adorned Asics silhouettes including the Gel-1130 and the Gel-Nimbus 9 (all bearing her signature flower motifs), as part of the label’s Spring/Summer 2023 show at Paris Fashion Week. To create the designs, Bahnsen’s team worked with the atelier’s remnant fabrics and beads, a move which championed the art of both upcycling and customization.

 

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Since then Bahnsen’s eponymous label have dropped three double-header collaborations with Asics including a mary-jane take on the Gt-2160. Not only have both collabs flown off shelves within minutes, they still fetch exorbitant resell prices on the aftermarket. A successful collaboration like this is a product of an inherent understanding of clientele needs and timing and, aptly, a symbol of the rise of women in sneakers.

It’s this type of success that Mongillo says has had a “halo impact” on the rest of the industry. “Brands choosing more and more to collaborate with women has validated their role as creative leaders. All these elements coming together have definitely had a profound flow-on effect across the rest of the sneaker industry and its subcultures. Women are definitely owning the sneaker customization space right now. And it’s only just the beginning.”

This article was written by Amber De Luca-Tao, a sneaker journalist dedicated to celebrating the women of sneaker culture. 

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