Nike launches 'Unlaced,' a sneaker destination for women

Estevan Oriol

Aleali May and family friend Verniya wearing Nike Air Jordan 1s.

Of all the kicks that Aleali May has had, it was a pair of red-and-black Nike Air Jordan 12s that jump-started her sneakerhead journey.

"My uncle G always bought me Jordans growing up, but you know, I didn't understand what it was then," says May, a 25-year-old stylist and blogger. "I received a pair of Flu Games, and for some reason, I just loved playing in the dirt with them and then getting them cleaned and then going back [out to play]."

Like many collectors, the Los Angeles native's love of exclusive sneakers intensified with time. Eventually, she amassed an eclectic blend of special-edition Jordans, Adidas Yeezy Boosts, BAPE (A Bathing Ape) sneakers, high-fashion footwear and more. May's collection is often shared on her Instagram account, which has more than 243,000 followers. Her popularity on social media and overall passion for kicks led her to a collaboration with the Jordan Brand.

May is just one of many women holding her own as a leading sneaker enthusiast, which has traditionally been a male-dominated space.

When people think of sneakerhead culture, they think of "hypebeasts," or men who go to great lengths to covet the newest kicks. The term brings to mind men lining up on busy streets around the country (and world) outside of trendy boutiques and stores awaiting footwear releases. But women sneakerheads, crowned "hypebaes," are just as committed, and major brands are taking notice of their presence and buying power. That includes Nike.

The leading sportswear company recently announced Unlaced, a digital and retail concept sneaker store just for women. On Tuesday, the online component will launch. Physical installments of Nike Unlaced will be built into the company's retail outlets around the globe starting this summer, including New York, London, Paris and Shanghai locations. It will feature some of the most talked about drops in expanded colorways and sizes, including the Nike Flyleather Classic Cortez, Nike Epic React Flyknits and the Virgil Abloh x Nike "Ten Icons Reconstructed" collection.

Unlaced will also feature a slew of curated collaborations with stylists and creatives, like street-style star Julia Sarr-Jamois, from around the world. After Nike did something of a dry run with an Unlaced event during Paris Fashion Week in February, it's clear the excitement and expectations for the site, and future physical locations are high for the company.

"Unlaced opens up access to Nike's best sneakers and style, regardless of footwear size, while serving her entire lifestyle with unlimited performance options, industry-leading innovation and iconic collaborations," says Rachael Feldman, NA communications manager for Running, Olympics & Nike Women, in a company statement.

Courtesy of Nike

The interior of Nike's Unlaced concept space in Paris.

All of which is groundbreaking for women collectors, who previously found that many special-edition styles were released in men's and boy's sizing only. Though excited about Unlaced, many women sneakerheads ask, "What took so long?" 

"Girls have always paid as much attention to their footwear as boys did and found ways to interpret boys or men's sizing to fit their needs," says Mellany Sanchez, 26, a stylist for rapper Drake and visual editor for Vogue Magazine. "Women find ways to shape their style, their sport, and even their careers around footwear, so it's much more than a trend."

Through social media, women collectors, traders and admirers of sneakers from all backgrounds were finally able to step into the spotlight.

"There have been women sneakerheads forever and a day, but now you have these platforms like Instagram where you can pinpoint data and see women wearing these shoes and products and say, 'Hey, I need to tap into this market,'" says 28-year-old sneakerhead Ticara Davis. "Now you're able to see these women, and they don't all want pink sneakers," adds Davis, an editor for women's sneaker lifestyle site, Chicks N Kicks.

And other women decided that there is more to women's sneaker styles than adding a splash of pink.

Courtesy of Ticara Davis

Ticara Davis in 2017 custom Nike Air Force 1 Low sneakers.

Vashtie Kola was the first woman to design a pair of women's shoes for the Jordan Brand and has since collaborated with the likes of Pony and Puma to revamp their sneaker selections. Designer Melody Ehsani's work with Reebok brought new energy to the brand. And Nike will continue to seek representation of women in the design room, particularly for the collaborations happening for Unlaced. All of these efforts have changed the way people look at and approach sneakers for women.

"It's cool to see somebody revamp something that's always been a staple for men and reimagine it for women in all of these different types of ways," Davis adds. 

There is also hope that the success of launches like Unlaced will drive more opportunities for women behind the scenes and for becoming the face of specific footwear lines. That includes helping women athletes obtain their own signature shoes, just like their NBA counterparts. For WNBA champion and Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore, and the woman behind the Air Jordan 10 GS Maya Moores, it would be a game-changer. She recalls being able to obtain Sheryl Swoopes's Nike Air Swoopes, initially released in 1996, as a child and the impact they had on her.

"I remember how excited I was to rock them as a young girl. I was starting to fall in love with the game [of basketball] and the WNBA," Moore says. "I now see how much it meant to be able to wear the shoe of a player I could grow up to be like one day. No better feeling as a female hooper."

While she can't speak on why these opportunities haven't picked up significantly over the years, Moore believes they will in the future. 

"I'm confident that this is the moment for that to change," Moore says. "There is incredible energy around the power of women and women in sport, and brands are smart to capitalize on that."

Victoria Uwumarogie is a New York-based writer with an affinity for all things health, fitness and sports. She's senior editor of MadameNoire.com.

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