ICYMI, women’s sneakers are very important. Big brands like adidas and Nike are (finally) starting to take note that the market (and its customer base) is a growing industry, showing no signs of slowing down. Despite the expansion of readily available inclusive products and women-only exclusives in recent years, one glaring thing has been missing from the sneaker industry: a brand of women’s sneakers. But Sarah Sukumaran is about to change that with her new business, Lilith NYC.
âAll of the Lilith NYC handles were created in October 2015 – that’s actually when I first came up with the idea,â she told NYLON on Zoom. The connotations of Lilith, known in tradition as the “demon she,” who was the rebellious wife of Adam before Eve, have not been lost on Sukumaran, who incorporates the symbolism of the “divine feminine” into the brand identity of Lilith. âAt the time, I thought it was going to be an e-commerce site,â she adds.
The daughter of Tamil refugees, Sukumaran was born and raised in Elmhurst, Queens. Understandably, having grown up in the 90s in New York City, his affinity with sneaker culture was not a conscious choice, but an intrinsic and uncompromising part of his life. However, it was never part of his career plan. âI have no experience in shoe development. My experience has been primarily data-driven in the area of ââe-commerce analytics, âshe admits. As a dedicated sneaker wearer, however, Sukumaran has (relatively) dealt with the same issues many female sneaker fans have when it comes to product availability and size. âI’ve been a sneakerhead my whole life, but I’ve always been frustrated with the shopping process for women. I have always found the experience to be very difficult when getting sneakers in my size or even getting the styles I wanted when it came to heavy heat drop.
Her frustrations were only heightened after he landed a job as product manager at Nike (âIt’s the dream job, right? Especially for a kid growing up in Queens!â She laughs.) Now , both a sneaker fan and an employee of the world’s biggest sneaker brand, the frustrations of women who love sneakers – both internally and externally – were more evident than ever to Sukumaran. âI followed a lot of women sneakerheads who kept complaining about the same issues over and over again,â she explains. âKnowing the data and the information, I could see that very little change was happening – or just not at the rate I would like to see,â she adds. So she decided to go headlong into the creation of Lilith NYC – a brand of sneakers for women, by women – without any previous experience in shoe design.
âThe thing I knew from the jump that I really wanted to emphasize and focus on was the brand. When you’re competing against the Nike and Adidas of the world, you just can’t have something falling out of the way, âsays Sukumaran. As a result, Lilith is a unique yet totally authentic representation of who she is as a person; it’s not just another cookie-cutter DTC brand. Sarah’s lead designer (coincidentally named Sara Jaramillo) dove into the founder’s childhood and personal approach to develop the first sneaker: Caudal Lure, a low top sneaker made from leather, suede and neoprene from superior quality. The first silhouette falls in Lilith’s signature shade, Concrete Jungle Green – a nod to both New York grain and her roots in Nainativu, a Sri Lankan island with lush tropics.
Through market research, Sukumaran found that what most women wanted in their sneakers was comfort and performance level technology without having to compromise on aesthetics. That meant saying goodbye to the ‘pink and shrinking’ approach that many versions of women-focused sneakers have historically followed and replacing it with a versatile, edgy silhouette with premium uppers and a high Vibram sole. quality. âI wanted to communicate that style, gender, women’s sexuality, everything is on a spectrum,â says Sukumaran. “Traditionally [sneaker] brands are very masculine and tell women a lot about being tomboys. I wanted to anybody to pick up that shoe and feel a closeness and affinity with it.
Storytelling is at the heart of the Lilith brand identity, and between the quirky design of the sneaker’s silhouette and personal details (like the fact that the original sockliner was an ironic homage to immigrants in the Queens to wear socks with sandals), it’s clear that Lilith’s values ââare the same as Sukumaran’s. As the self-proclaimed “political friend” of the group, the brand’s slogans “Shoes On, Eyes Open” and “Tread in Truth” refer to the realization that Sukumaran wants to ensure that it remains an integral part and vocal of Lilith. . âGeneration Z is really leading the way there,â she relays. âWhat I like about this specific generation is that they basically dictate how brands present themselves and that changes the way [brands] talk on social networks. It’s a complete 180 compared to what we’ve seen in previous years and I think we need to keep that pressure on.
Clearly, Lilith is a brand that does not shy away from activism, representation and blurs the lines between what is considered feminine and masculine. Plus, it doesn’t bend to the traditional âunderstandingâ of the consumer sneaker industry and what they want. You might be thinking, “Did it really take until 2021 for there to be a women-led sneaker brand?” And as infuriating as it may be to admit it, yes. For Sukumaran, the reasons why sneaker brands have continued to ignore the female consumer completely revolve around three elements. âThe thing to remember is that a lot of these other shoe companies started around the male athlete. He was the hero you designed for,â she explains. âWe probably haven’t heard from him. language around a very specific woman’s line before at least five to six years. “
âSecond, a lot of these companies acted as middlemen because they were in the wholesale business. Traditionally, they have not sold directly to we so they have no idea what our lives are, what our desires as consumers are, what our desires are, âexplains Sukumaran. âThey don’t have this data, it is passed on to intermediaries like Foot Locker or FootAction. Any place that actually sells direct to the consumer probably knows more about the consumer than Nike, for example. “
Its final point is the one that hits the hardest, and it’s a pervasive problem that’s impossible not to notice in almost any industry. âAt the end of the day, there are a lot of white men running these companies who still hold decision-making positions. Often they stay in these positions for 20 to 30 years. It’s not an exaggeration, it’s a minimum, âsays Sukumaran. âUntil they happen, there are no seats at the table for women to sit in these roles. Nor are they actively creating new roles for women to take up space at the table. Inclusiveness and representation is an issue that isn’t just limited to the sneaker industry, but it plays a huge role in how female sneaker consumers are viewed by brands.
This inequality leaves plenty of opportunities for rising brands like Lilith NYC, who truly understand the concerns and desires of communities that are continually underserved by big brands, to directly deliver what these consumers need. âThey just don’t see us as a target consumer, we are not the face of advertisements,â Sukumaran shares, speaking of both women, the BIPOC community and residents of Queens. âA lot of the people who have supported the industry come from here, but these consumers are just being overlooked in terms of purchasing power. I’m only reversing the dynamic and the paradigm about who people think shoe shoppers are, and who drives this buying behavior.
As Sukumaran has already noted, for a brand like hers, every decision is political. It’s about more than just developing a brand of sneakers specifically for women. It is also about legitimizing them as consumers, entrepreneurs, leaders, etc. When you can’t wait over 30 years to maybe get a seat at the table, you have no choice but to bring your own or risk being left out of the conversation altogether. âWhat I really wanted to do was provide a space for black and brunette women to come forward without apologizing,â says Sukumaran. “We know our consumers, we we know and we know what we want to see in a brand.