It goes without saying that women have made significant contributions to the footwear industry, designing iconic shoes and influencing the culture in many ways. We think of collaborations between sneaker brands and celebrities like Rihanna and Beyonce and stylists like Vashtie Kola and Aleali May as the conduits to the rise of women in sneakers. But these high-profile releases aren't the complete story of the impact women have had in sneakers over the last two-plus decades.
These are some of the biggest achievements made by women in sneakers.
We’ll begin by identifying one of the most influential designers in footwear, Tiffany Beers. Beers, a former Senior Innovator at Nike, is responsible for creating the motorized technology inside of Nike’s first-ever self-lacing shoe, the HyperAdapt 1.0. What’s more, she is also credited with making a self-lacing Nike Mag a reality in 2016. Despite the fact that the Mag possessed self-lacing capabilities in “Back to the Future Pt. 2,” the shoe didn’t actually retain the robot-like, futuristic technology in any of the 1,500 pairs that were auctioned to support the Michael J. Fox Foundation in 2011. The subsequent 2016 Nike Mag did. Beers made that happen.
Along with their comfort, many New Balance shoes are known for the signature large “N” branding on the uppers. Notice we said “many,” as in, not all. In ‘96, Stephanie Howard bucked tradition by designing the 850 without the “N” logo as the model’s focal point. That radical shift in design was lauded by the brand’s CEO, Jim Davis. In interviews, Davis recalls being so impressed with Howard’s fearlessness when presenting the branding change that he couldn’t possibly do anything but approve of the modified style. And after the overwhelmingly positive response to the New Balance 850’s return in 2020, it’s obvious that Howard’s intuition was the right call.
Jordan Brand has spent years positioning the Air Jordan 1 Mid as a worthy alternative to the more historic, hard-to-get Jordan 1 High. The Jordan 1 Mid is most certainly a great shoe, but it definitely took someone with Melody Ehsani’s clout to change the Jordan 1 Mid’s perception in the sneaker community. In late 2019, the luxury jewelry designer and Jordan Brand released a Jordan 1 Mid like we'd never seen before. It was part of the “Fearless” collection, which included special colorways and redesigns of Jordans by influential creatives around the world. The bold design featured two gold watch faces on the bottom of the laces and a mismatched colorway perfect for the no-rules-era of streetwear. And Ehsani’s attachment to the Jordan 1 Mid is almost certainly the cause for the once neglected model's explosion in popularity.
Imagine wearing all of your favorite clothes at once. Your softest T-shirt and cardigan sweater, that perfectly oversized sweatshirt—but all at the same time. Whether these pieces go together or not is irrelevant. The idea is that getting dressed is actually fun, because you’re wearing the clothes in your closet you love most. That’s the design philosophy behind sacai, a high fashion brand founded by Chitose Abe in 1999. The label began as a passion project for Abe, born from an idea that stemmed from her adherence to wearing mostly polo shirts, V-neck sweaters, and tees. Sacai blends fabrics, ideas, and when collaborating with Nike, nostalgic performance running shoes from the ‘70s. The LDWaffle, which combines elements of the LDV and Waffle Racer, is futuristic yet familiar. And it’s the shoe that got us to think about hybridization as a concept in sneakers.
We still don’t know much about Cactus Plant Flea Market. Given Cynthia Lu’s reclusive nature, it’s likely we won’t be getting much insight into her design motivations and musings anytime soon. Instead of tell-all interviews, Lu opts to let whimsical smiley faces, bold branding, and hype inducing collaborations with Nike, like the Air VaporMax 2019, paint a picture.
Beyonce’s debut Ivy Park x adidas collaboration, which included a range of elevated athletic gear and reworked adidas footwear styles like the Nite Jogger and Ultra Boost, nearly broke the internet when it was released in January 2020. In the following months, Ivy Park x adidas came to idealize the new WFH uniform for men and women alike. Like her music, the beauty in Beyonce’s Ivy Park x adidas line is its inclusivity.
Few athletes are making strides in social activism like LeBron James. In recent years, James has opened an elementary school in his home state of Ohio for at-risk children, and his list of philanthropic efforts is unrivaled. In 2018, Nike and “King James” tapped Harlem’s Fashion Row, a collective that works to promote and uplift women of color in the fashion industry, to design a special, reworked edition of the Nike LeBron 16. First releasing in a cream colorway, the design later dropped again in 2019 in this vibrant “Bright Citron” look.
Pow pendants, the facetious chains worn by every hip-hop and streetwear personality in the 2000s and 2010s, are part of a trend fueled by nostalgia during that era in street culture. Ambush, the luxury jewelry brand headed by Yoon Ahn and her husband Verbal that designed said chains, will also be remembered for releasing buzzy, ahead-of-their-time footwear collaborations, like 2019’s Nike Air Max 180 Hi. Appearing in two colorways of black and white, the high-top’s resemblance to Gary Payton’s former Nike Zoom Flight “The Glove” is actually greater than the shoe it's based on, the Air Max 180. And that says all that you need to know about Ambush’s creative tact. This same resourcefulness predicates the look of Ambush’s other concept idea: The Nike Dunk High. From chains to shoes, Ambush has its pulse on culture.