Chicks and Their Kicks
by Michelle Keenan
It is a Saturday night at Oxford Art Factory in Darlinghurst, a party playground of the young and the socially restless. I am waiting outside for my friend Meli while she queues for the bathroom- a line consisting mostly of glamazon-heeled pretty young things.
A guy starts to circle me. He is wearing Nike Jordans, a Chicago Bulls singlet over a T-shirt, and his shaven head is covered by a cap. His eyes light up as he announces, “It’s the Atmos Air Max 1, 2007. Oh it’s the Atmos 2007!”
He is referring to my choice of footwear: sneakers, also known as kicks. Nike Air Max 1 Premium (Elephant Pack) was released in 2007 by Tokyo-based sneaker store Atmos. The sneakers feature a distinct colourway of black, clear jade and white, with an elephant-like print. I bought mine second-hand off a sneaker collector in Melbourne for $150. A new pair is valued at $400.
We chat about sneakers before he goes off to find his mates. He calls out to me before heading back into the direction of the music. “Oh the Atmos. Keep ‘em fresh!”
I like sneakers. I like wearing them, reading about them, swapping them and collecting them. Some people call me a ‘sneakerhead’, a person that loves sneakers. I am also female, and most sneakerheads are male.
Lori Lobenstine, 40, is ‘the don’ of women’s issues in the sneaker world. Lobenstine is a basketball coach, youth worker and consultant. Based in Boston, she also founded Female Sneaker Fiend (FSF), a website dedicated to female sneakerheads, which has the largest online community of female sneaker lovers.
“I’ve always loved sneakers, from before I can remember…Sneakers have always been a part of how I expressed who I was,” Lobenstine recalled. “To this day, they still define my look. I don’t care a lot about my hair… but I sure think too much about my kicks! They just make me happy.”
Lobenstine started Female Sneaker Fiend as a way of getting all the female sneakerheads together.
“I think the internet has been huge in building sneaker culture. Before the web, so many of us, especially females, just thought we were doing our own thing. So many girls get on FSF and just can’t believe there are other girls who love kicks like them. That’s one reason why I started it: so we can build an international community of female sneakerheads. That’s been amazing.”
It was also a platform for getting female voices out in the public.
“I was so tired of books and articles about sneaker culture that somehow didn’t feature a single female (unless they were mostly naked!). So I figured if we had a voice, we wouldn’t be overlooked,” Lobenstine explained.
Lobenstine admits that there are still challenges in regards to sexism in the sneaker industry.
“Many companies are still cool with blatantly sexist ads or T-shirts, but more often it’s just a tragic difference in investment. Imagine if we knew the difference in what Nike or Adidas spends on their men’s kicks and advertising vs. women’s? Huge! Of course since women buy kicks (primarily boys’ and men’s) based on advertising and hype targeted to men, companies can get lazy,” Lobenstine said.
The demand for a stronger female market is obvious with the increasing number of female sneakerheads around the world, and Lobenstine believes that someone out there will tap into this growth industry.
“Some company is gonna get wise and recognise the possibility of the women’s market…Start imagining the possibilities of women as a serious market. I hope FSF can be a part of that.” To help set that in motion, Lori started a petition to sneaker companies to make their most exclusive kicks in smaller sizes. So far, it has over 1500 signatures.
“Hopefully that will lead to having companies making their hottest kicks in a broader size range, hiring more women, and investing more in understanding this growing market.” Lobenstine said. She is also optimistic that more changes will start happening in the scene. She's already called 2009 "the year of the women's wall", because of early peeks at the women's kicks coming out from a variety of brands.
Lin Ma, 23, is a journalism student who also works at SP1, a store in Sydney’s Galeries Victoria that sells limited edition sneakers. Ma acknowledges that the sneaker market seems to cater for bigger (or male) feet.
“I have small feet and I like some of the limited editions that we sell at SP. They’re obviously too big. They only make them in guy sizes for some reason. It’s OK if you’re a 7, but I am a 4 in guys, so about a 6 in girls… I have no hope, no chance!” Ma said.
Ma finds that it is not only an issue of access to smaller sizes, but the variety of what is available for women is insufficient.
“Some of the girls’ releases are just ugly. Sometimes they are just wrong. Besides there is definitely a market for smaller sizes, they should be available…Girls do wear sneakers.”
“The fact that there are hardly any shoes anyway, even though we want to buy shoes. There’s a lack of supply, there’s a lack of choices. It’s already challenging to find shoes, let alone shoes you actually want.” Ma explained.
“As far as the sneaker scene goes you have to have a good size fit so you can buy the best of the men’s or women’s releases otherwise, if you can only fit the women’s you get options of pink and white, purple, or just pink; like we don't understand what a good colourway is. Also the network for men is much stronger via the online communities so it can be easier for guys to pick up new releases than girls,” Erin Forsyth said.
Forsyth, 27, is an artist who has worked in both Australia and New Zealand. Forsyth is well known in the graffiti scene, and is currently doing a solo exhibition at the Liberty Stage gallery in New Zealand.
She occasionally depicts sneakers in her art work.
“I do see sneakers as representing not just a culture but a generation that I belong to and our approach and attitude to life.”
“I guess when I use sneakers in my art I am thinking about what and whom I am trying to represent, so the association I have between particular shoes and particular communities,” Forsyth said.
Forsyth also wears sneakers when doing street art.
“Shelltoes for painting trackside and Air Max for street stuff as they provide a quick getaway. I'm always comfortable in my Jordan ones though as a rule,” Forsyth said.
She used to sell sneakers in New Zealand.
“There is a great community in Aotearoa and the concept for my store Creep came from that…”
Forsyth also recalled funny moments from working at the store.
“Busted a guy shoplifting when he was out with his mum that was pretty funny…I slept behind the counter on a fold out bed for a while because there was no alarm…” Forsyth remembered.
In September, Melbourne’s Art Centre was the venue for Our Backyard, a hip hop event which included music from Muph N Plutonic and Beatphonik, as well as a Sneaker Freaker Magazine display, and an exclusive sneaker swap meet. The event was a solid day of rhymes, dance, and beat. The day also provided me with some nice new kicks. I bought a sweet pair of Nike Trainer Dunk Lows and a beautiful pair of Nike Claw Vandals.
The kicks are the design of New York street artist Claw Money, and feature a beautiful ostrich feather design on black material, and look really unique. I love them, and they are fairly difficult to find.
Speaking of women having an impact on sneakers, I also got a chance to catch up with Maria "Mafia" Limberis, 34. She is definitely just one of the boys and is rocking a pair of Jordans and a Supreme brand cap. She is also the only female who works at Sneaker Freaker Magazine, the global sneaker bible, based in Melbourne.
“I don’t see myself as the only female because I suppose I grew up with two older brothers, and I hung out with all boys when I was growing up in my childhood so I’m used to working around guys and hanging out with guys. And I don’t really see myself as the only girl,” Limberis explained.
“I get to go to work and do something that I love everyday. I actually get excited to go to work. I get to talk about sneakers all day and I get to talk to some amazing people. It’s quite inspiring.”
Limberis is extremely out going, and likes to laugh. She has developed strong relationships with the guys she works with.
“All the guys are like brothers to me, and they’re really friendly so there’s no kind of ‘It’s so hard working in a male-dominated industry’. There’s none of that. And I think that’s why I survived in it too because a lot of girls get intimidated and you know you have to be kind of strong and opinionated to keep working in it,” Limberis said.
She also sees the value in working with male sneakerheads.
“I see them more as mentors rather than I have to fight against them.”
For Limberis, sneakers are just a way of life.
“I’ve been collecting sneakers since I was 13. And it’s not like this is something new for me, it’s been my whole life. It’s like a natural progression of where I am now, it was meant to happen,” Limberis explained.
Yarelis "Relz" Cabrera is another female involved in the industry. Cabrera, 21, is from Miami, Florida, and started up a street culture blog called RandumbMiami. I met her through Sneaker Freaker, an online community of sneakerheads.
Cabrera started Randumbmiami with her friend Chef as a way of dealing with being a female in the world of street culture.
“Our inspiration basically comes from our daily lives and the struggles that we face being females in this culture…We also want to make sure we give back to this culture we love so much.” Cabrera said.
For Cabrera, sneakers form part of her identity.
“I don't go for the flash in the pan sneakers…The love that comes from knowing you're wearing a piece of art on your feet and that you are part of a culture like no other. One that blurs all the lines of ethnicity, gender, sexual preference and age.”
Like Lobenstine, Cabrera also enjoys being part of the online sneaker communities as she can share her interests and have friendships with others around the world.
“It's nice to have a place where you can talk about and share some of your experiences with people that have the same love for something as you. Sneakers aren't just accessories, but they're a part of a lifestyle. Girls who are sneaker enthusiasts usually share lots of other things in common,” Cabrera explained.
Leela Deretta is another female sneakerhead who I have formed a friendship with through the online sneaker communities of Female Sneaker Fiend and Sneaker Freaker. Deretta, 20, is an art student from Breda in the Netherlands. She is definitely someone that I think has ‘mad steez’.
“I've always been a bit of a tomboy, and I only wanted to wear sneakers. My parents didn't buy them for me, because they were too expensive and according to my mother, they would make my feet smell,” Deretta said. “I do remember they gave me one pair of Nike Air Max 90. I loved them to death and rocked them to death. After years and years of quarreling they gave me some Adidas Superstars. Again I rocked them way too hard…”
Deretta has a quirky dress sense, usually pairing leggings or cute outfits with her kicks.
“I only get myself the ones I really like, so they all fit with my personality. I just like to chill and lean back, have fun and hang out. No high heels for me,” Deretta said.
Deretta and I also share a common interest in the type of sneakers we like to wear.
”I'm totally in love with my Nike Air Max 1 Atmos (Elephant) and Nike Dunk High Bling, but of course I like them all,” Deretta said.
There is a glass ceiling in the sneaker world where some male sneakerheads continue to undermine female sneakerheads.
“I mean lots of dudes hate on or look down on girls who collect because they have this caveman mentality that they are better at everything,” Cabrera said.
”Guys will always think you don't know what you're talking about, and that you are just in it because of the hype. Most of all I hate it when guys say they like girls wearing high heels better, as if...” Deretta said.
“I think girls are readily accepted into the scene but equality between the sexes is an ongoing battle in general,” Forsyth observed. “It never hurts to have females rocking fresh kicks at a swap meet but they can often be scared off or bored by the sneaker geeking that happens and the inevitable ogling they receive from male collectors."
"It's one reason why I love hosting FSF events," adds Lobenstine, "because guys always come, which is great, but girls DOMINATE! It changes the whole vibe."
Back at Oxford Art Factory, guys buy me drinks, and call out to me: “Hey Atmos!” and “Nice kicks!”.
“If you are wearing sneakers everyday in your adult life instead of closed toe leather brogues it goes to show a commitment to a particular lifestyle,” Forsyth said.
For now, I am staying away from those glamazon-esque high heels, and rocking my kicks instead.
Editor's Note: This article was written by Mickey Keenan, an FSF journalism intern from Australia, now traveling and writing in Europe. If you would like to learn more about becoming a writer and/or intern for FSF, check out our get involved page.