NEW YORK, United States — Long before it was a global industry, streetwear was a subculture, and the women in it composed their stylistic signatures from a blend of thrift, workwear, military, skate and sportswear with dashes of reggae, punk and hip-hop. I was part of this scene in the 1990s, and for me, that sartorial mix meant Dickies, a Canal Jeans M65 jacket, a Fuct T-shirt, deadstock Adidas Gazelles, a silver letter belt from the Slauson swapmeet in Los Angeles, a Kangol bucket hat and some gold “door knocker” earrings. Early female trailblazers like Neneh Cherry, Chloë Sevigny, Aaliyah, Rosie Perez and Luscious Jackson rocked streetwear before anyone called it that.
Women have played an important role in streetwear since the beginning, but as the style ballooned into a commercial juggernaut, its mystique became easier to sell to the young men who dominated the culture. Bringing a product to market is a lot easier when there is a guarantee that it will achieve a global sell-through.
In my experience working in the culture from both the agency creative and brand side, the industry has unintentionally pushed women out by creating barriers to entry. Investment capital, retail stores, e-commerce platforms and social media communication have been controlled by men for the last two decades. When I speak to streetwear founders about hiring and promoting women within their organisations, some don’t even realise it’s an issue — for privately held brands that don’t answer to stockholders, it’s almost an afterthought. Even for publicly-traded sneaker companies like Nike, Adidas, Puma and Converse, this is changing slowly.
Women are a big business opportunity, and it’s a great time to be a player in the game. To properly seize this opening, brands need to tune into women’s shopping habits, elevate female role models in their storytelling, adapt the male-skewed concept-to-consumer (CTC) model and place an emphasis on hiring and promoting women. We are starting to move to the board room table, fuelled by pressure from the media, the women’s movement and the potential to capitalise on the multi-billion dollar opportunity the female consumer represents. Moving forward, we will see more industry consolidation and collaboration, as well as an increasing reliance on female athletes, design innovators and cultural influencers to elevate brands hoping to tap into this lucrative market.
This shift is also a warning to brands: if they don’t commit to growing and serving their female audiences, they’re going to be left behind.
The decision-makers at big sportswear brands are not women and this needs to shift faster than it currently is.
The history of women in streetwear is rich. During the early ’90s, women in the culture gravitated to designer Patricia Field’s store downtown, which dominated the New York club scene. Where else could you go downtown to buy a “Chanel” baseball hat, platform sneakers and leggings to pair with a big Dougie gold chain? Like Dapper Dan uptown, Field combined sport and luxury in a way that was sexy, affordable and fun for a street-savvy consumer.
During that era, female streetwear fans also favoured Nobu Kitamura’s brand Hysteric Glamour. Founded in 1984, the Japanese label reached cult status with those in the know. (Gwen Stefani referenced the brand in her song “Harajuku Girls,” before she copied it with her line Harajuku Lovers.) Other notable female-friendly streetwear brands included stylist Daisy von Furth, musician Kim Gordon’s X-Girl and Sofia Coppola’s Milk Fed — both offering a more fitted, feminine version of the X-Large 90s skate look.
The list of female leaders in streetwear goes on: Pauline Takahashi built the LA boutique Funkeessentials and later headed up the women’s design team at Stussy, Leah McSweeney created Married to the Mob, Carri Munden launched Cassette Playa in London and the rarely acknowledged Mary Ann Fusco founded Union NYC with James Jebbia before he went on to create Supreme. Sarah Andelman’s Paris-based boutique Colette, which closed in 2017, stands out as the most influential female-run store of the last decade and created a template for the curated luxury-streetwear mix you see at Dover Street Market, Maxfield, Ssense and GR8.
Despite the work of these businesswomen and creatives, streetwear’s multicultural global appeal has always been more race — than gender — inclusive. Sneaker size availability, storytelling and retail experiences for women didn’t exist in streetwear until very recently. Brands need to be more attentive about hiring and promoting women within their organisations. Within “drop culture,” or the limited-edition luxury streetwear space, being the only woman at the table has often been my experience, and female executives at heritage streetwear brands remain few and far between.
“The decision-makers at big sportswear brands are not women and this needs to shift faster than it currently is. I was one of a small group of female directors in the industry leading a multi-million dollar men’s footwear business,” says Rachel Muscat, who now works for Pharrell Williams’s brand I Am Other and previously was category Director for collaborations at adidas, teaming up with creative partners like Palace, Williams and Kanye West for Yeezy.
At the same time, streetwear brands would be unwise to ignore the power of female consumers. According to Rachel Pashley, global board director for trend powerhouse J Walter Thompson Intelligence: "Brands have a vested interest in recognising women — there’s a financial imperative. Ultimately, it will be the economic opportunity presented by women that will be the final arbiter in terms of achieving equality.”
Brands have a vested interest in recognising women — there’s a financial imperative.
Women represent formidable spending power. In a 2009 Harvard Business Review article titled “The Female Economy,” Michael J Silverstein and Kate Sayre wrote, “Globally, women control about $20 trillion in annual consumer spending, and that figure could climb as high as $28 trillion in the next five years. Their $13 trillion in total yearly earnings could reach $18 trillion in the same period. In aggregate, women represent a growth market bigger than China and India combined.” A 2017 Nielsen report found that African-American buying power will reach $1.5 trillion by 2021, with much of that growth driven by women. According to a second Nielsen report, “Latinas spend 43% more on athletic shoes over $500 than non-Hispanic white women.” Long-time early adopters of streetwear, these women serve as a powerful demographic.
Seizing this opportunity involves a shift in mindset. Brands can succeed by leaning into the idea of unisex collections, a move that maximises sales by speaking to both male and female shoppers. In the sneaker world, new silhouettes traditionally came to market as men’s products; after women started buying them, brands re-launched these styles in smaller sizes and different colour ways for a female audience. As trends have grown less gendered and more fluid, men are becoming equally unafraid to buy women’s collections. In 2018, Nike launched the M2K sneaker for women, and male consumers started adopting them. When the Nike x Ambush collaboration came out — targeted at a female audience — male influencers bought the faux fur bomber jacket, which blew up on social media and resonated with sartorially minded rappers like Skepta.
As a creative, Ambush co-founder Yoon Ahn believes in “ideas and products before gender” when approaching her collections. “We live in the digital age where it’s much easier to communicate and have a conversation with the audience. If you are outputting creations that speak and connect with ‘now,’ it will reach everyone," Ahn says.
“I’m still surprised the business of footwear is separated between the male and female managers when that actually caps the business. If you open that up to a unisex proposition for certain footwear models, you could generate so much more in sales,” says Muscat. “The unisex conversation is important in streetwear, as women’s product isn’t traditionally feminine.”
Female consumers don’t necessarily want separate collections, nor do they wish to shop exclusively at women’s-only stores. They just want to go into Undefeated or Kith and find products in their size.
The unisex conversation is important in streetwear, as women’s product isn’t traditionally feminine.
At the same time, streetwear giants are evolving and offering better products and shopping experiences specifically for women. During Paris Fashion Week in February 2018, Nike opened an upscale women’s sneaker boutique as part of its push to grow its $6.6 billion women’s business to $11 billion by 2020. Bathing Ape delivered a strong women’s collection in Spring/Summer 2019 that didn’t feel like a so-called “shrink it and pink it” play. And female designers are generating a good deal of hype. Established players are eager to collaborate with nascent brands helmed by women — of which there are very few — especially ones steeped in 90s street, skate and hip hop culture, like Cynthia Lu’s Cactus Plant Flea Market, Christelle Kocher’s Koche and Erin Magee’s Mademe.
There is a significant opportunity to market product around and through the lens of female athletes, musicians and influencers. Adidas kicked off its women’s initiative in 2013 through the lens of sport tribes with its “All In for My Girls” campaign, and it increased its business exponentially. Today the brand collaborates with popstar Dua Lipa and entrepreneur and model Karlie Kloss. Fenty x Puma by Rihanna did so well it made Puma culturally relevant again after it had fallen out of favour. Nike is focused on elevating female athletes into style icons via brand messaging, earned media and clothing collaborations, like LVMH designer Virgil Abloh and Serena Williams’s “Queen” collection in 2018. With the FIFA Women’s World Cup coming up in France this June, female designers and athletes will have a chance to shine.
As influencers continue to dominate campaigns and drive sales, big brands can produce limited-edition capsule collections with female influencers to target more specific communities or regions, partnering with key retailers like Footlocker or JD Sports to create even more energy. Hype collaborations do elevate brands, but are not guaranteed to drive desire or sales, though, and there is no perfect collaborator. Melding two or three visions is challenging, there are agendas and the younger and less globally established your partner, the more complexities there are in building a successful drop and managing the process, marketing resources and commercial expectations.
There are a few proven stars, however. Brands like Sacai, Marine Serre and Ambush have already shown that they can sell through a global hype collaboration (a limited edition collection that’s meant to boost buzz and sell through). Female influencers like 17-year-old musician Billie Eilish are pushing the culture forward by mixing streetwear into their pop star images. Female crews like New York’s Skate Kitchen and the Bronx’s Brujas are pushing for inclusivity and empowerment, creating their own take on skate and street culture. Influencers like Vashtie Kola, Slick Woods, Emily Oberg, Elle Who, Aleali May and Beija Velez are redefining what women’s streetwear style looks like in 2019.
Through their digital channels and spheres of influence, these women can communicate style and point of view to their communities, which is what makes them so attractive to brands. Leveraging that power into commerce is the key to driving future equality and increasing the female footprint in streetwear culture.
Reggie Casagrande is a streetwear feminist and integrated brand marketing expert working in the culture to bring large scale global fashion and sneaker collaborations to market.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.