The sneaker world hasn’t always been inviting to women, from limited sizing to lackluster design options and unfortunately, the Sneaker Head community is largely dominated by male collectors. A study conducted by StockX in 2014, found that 65 percent of men participate in the shoe retail market compared to 20 percent of women. Luckily there are visionaries like Sarah Sukumaran who are working hard to make the sneaker industry a more inclusive space for women and femmes.
Sukumaran, who previously worked at Nike as the Director of Product in Analytics, grew frustrated when she discovered that female consumers were spending way more money on sneakers than their male counterparts, but why weren’t they being reflected in the industry? The sentiment led Sukumaran down a winding path to eventually creating her own women and femme-focused sneaker line and lifestyle brand called Lilith NYC, representing the “underrepresented folks in the sneaker world.” Sukumaran is leading the charge to help women embrace their divine feminine energy and to show up exactly how they are and who they are. Lilith shoes are designed with functionality in mind and are rooted in optimum performance for women.
MADAMENOIRE spoke with the bustling sneaker designer about taking the leap of faith during the pandemic to build her brand from the ground up, how Vibram soles optimize Lilith’s bold sneaker silhouette and how she’s reclaiming sneaker culture.
MN: What was it about the women’s sneaker shopping experience that really didn’t sit well with you?
Sarah Sukumaran: I grew up kind of sneaker obsessed. I had a bit of a growth spurt to be honest where I couldn’t even shop the women’s styles. They weren’t fitting me and I wasn’t quite attracted to them. So my parents would take me to the local Footlocker, but I would be naturally just drawn to the men’s section and that just became the norm. I think for so many women and girls, typically if you don’t fit in the women’s section, you get pushed either to grade school sizing which is young boys, or men’s and that was just the norm growing up in the 90s, especially if you wanted a silhouette, like a Penny Hardaway silhouette or like the Uptempos or Foamposites—which are all basketball silhouettes. It was made for men.
Fast forward. It’s 2015. I’m at work and I have two screens up and I’m doing work on one screen and I’m shopping on the other. I still found that I was having to browse several sites to find a style or colorway and at that time, I was wearing a little bit more in New Balance. I said to myself, the shopping experience is broken, even from an E-commerce standpoint. My background is in E-commerce analytics and I was getting just increasingly frustrated. People, my friends, and family would hear me vent about it. I was like why is it that a grown woman is still having to shop in grade school sizing? The reason I found that problematic is that with grade school sizing, the shoes are usually a takedown of the adult version, right? So you’re going to get a stripped-down version, meaning cheaper materials are being used. You’re not getting the performance tooling, which is super key, especially because as women, we spend so much time on our feet. We’re not getting the comfort and performance that’s typically built into a men’s version.
I end up at Nike. We know from data, just public data, that women outspend men in sneaker sales. A huge share of our wallets goes toward sneakers. We’re outpacing men’s sneakers. We typically buy for the household. When I go onto a website, it’s catered to men but I’m buying for the household and buying for my kid and buying for my partner and myself. They make the entire shopping experience very male-centric. This situation was broken and nothing had changed from when I was eight years old. Walking into a Footlocker and going to the men’s section was still very much the case in 2022.
The sneaker resale game is a $2 billion business. Do you think women are missing out on opportunities in the space as well?
Yes! The reason they miss out on that is because the resale market is a beast of its own, right? The value is tied to even sizing, so, if you were a specific size and you go onto a resale platform, those sizes then garner a higher value of resale value. Let’s say, I bought the Conchords, but I had to buy them in grade school sizing. If I have a pair of grade school sizing and I put that up for resale, the value simply is not going to be as much, because the 9½ men’s is the most common size, but also because the shoe was just constructed better than the children’s version. You leave women out of the resale market when they don’t have access to the quality of a shoe that was made for a man, essentially. I feel like you kind of strip out women, even from the jump and they’re not able to participate in that. Even though Lilith doesn’t participate in resale, from a cultural standpoint, we leave women behind when you look at the shoe that she’s buying and attempting to resell.
You started Lilith during the pandemic. What a really challenging time to start a business. How was that process?
Yeah, it was interesting. I was at Nike. I quit. I gave notice in February, and my last day was March 2. Two weeks later, we all caught wind of the global pandemic. I would say in hindsight, it was a great time to build because everyone was indoors. You know, we’re all on Zoom. Everything had to kind of go virtual which wasn’t the greatest. Typically, you want to be on the factory floor working with the factory on your samples. You want to be able to touch swatch samples like leather samples. We didn’t get the opportunity to do that everything was done remotely. My designer was based in Colombia. She would sometimes come to New York, you know, once the situation got better, but everything was done over email and communication. So it slowed things down quite a bit.
We love that Lilith’s core mission is about representing the underrepresented. This message really seeps into the brand’s marketing, even the aesthetic of the sneaker. We noticed that all the models that you use on the site are of color, too. Was that intentional as well?
Yeah, I think, historically, even from a brand standpoint, one big thing we wanted to kind of invest in was the brand ethos, which was that brown folks, black folks, we drive sneaker culture, but we’re very rarely represented in the photography and the campaigns and the ads. I think even when you look at it, women are were basically the global majority, right? When you look at people of color, people always think of us and they use the word minority, but we are the global majority. I like to kind of spin that and say if that’s the case, why are we not being sold to accordingly? Because historically, the brand’s campaigns have always had models that don’t even participate in sneaker culture, but that’s the model that they’ll put on. I wanted to be very intentional about who we used. So for example, we had two shoots, we had the one in Queens, which had folks who were from Queens, some of whom are sneaker obsessed, and then we had a shoot in Sri Lanka, which kind of ties back to the storytelling of my roots. That was very, very much intentional.
Can you tell us a little bit about the story of Lilith? This is our first time hearing about this folklore. How does her powerful story connect to the brand’s ethos?
Lilith comes from, I would say Mesopotamian Babylonian Jewish folklore where she is Adam’s first wife. She gets written out of history because we often hear the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, but Lilith is actually that serpent, who gets represented as the temptation. She didn’t want to be submissive to Adam. She gets written out of history by male scholars, but she’s like the first feminist in our eyes and she’s very self-actualized in her story. The reason why we named the brand after her is you know, I’ve always operated as a woman in tech and as a woman in footwear, our stories are constantly getting attributed to men, they’re constantly getting erased. We don’t have a seat at the table. So, I felt like Lilith was just the perfect name to kind of bring back her storytelling through the lens of awareness.
Let’s talk about the design process behind the shoes! Lilith sneakers are made with Vibram soles as well, right? How do they make the sneaker unique?
Yeah, that’s correct. For so long, women have had performance tooling stripped out of their shoes. So when you show a Vibram sole to a guy, they completely recognize the yellow logo. The brand is often used in hiking boots or performance wear boots. But when you talk to women about Vibram, they haven’t heard of it. To me, that showcases that women haven’t enjoyed the level of performance that men have historically. The other piece of feedback I had gotten from talking to women for the past couple of years is that they wanted the comfort of a Berkshire and Asics in a lifestyle shoe. They wanted something a little more stylish, something tonal. That’s kind of why we continue to work with Vibram. It’s to introduce the performance. You have that level of comfort that feels like you’re walking on clouds, but it’s tonal where you know, it’s not garish, doesn’t have reflective materials. You can easily wear it with a dress or jeans to dinner.
Do you think Lilith is your way of reclaiming sneaker culture in a way? Over the last few years, there has been a debate that the sneaker industry and community have become gentrified.
Yeah, 100 percent! I think that was sort of the motivation behind even just you know, who we styled in the campaigns, right? Certainly, I think it’s it’s the unfortunate direction that sneaker culture has taken, but I think even more so, historically, when you take a look at legacy footwear brands, it’s been driven by male sport right? Like white athletes and even athletes of color and Black folks, but historically just rooted in male sport. Silhouettes have been created because of male sport. For 50 years, as long as those legacy brands have been around, women have not been at the center of creating silhouette styles, specifically for them. So I would say what truly has been truly mind-blowing is that we have conditioned women to be okay shopping in the men’s section versus actually creating products for them. That was at the forefront when building the brand.
What’s one piece of advice that you can give women that are not only looking to break into the sneaker industry but any industry for that matter?
I feel like this advice is always given but, the hardest part is taking the leap. I had this idea in 2015, but I did not act on it. Like I didn’t even take the small stuff. All I did was I bought the domain. I created the Instagram handle, but for five years, I did absolutely nothing, even more, I think was a little over five years, I didn’t do anything with it. I think I could have easily started something whether it was blogging, start posting photos of my sneaker collection back in 2015. But I didn’t do it. I just got caught up with you know, the world that I was in, the company I was with. I would say just take small steps. You don’t have to quit your job. I think that’s the other thing. People think that to start on a side hustle, you need to quit your full-time job but you know, you can easily find your passion. Just continue to work and create on the side. Some people think that you have to go all-in, especially if you take venture capital or something of that sort. Just take the leap, then work slowly to build it.