Are Athletic Brands Doing Enough to Cultivate Female Sneaker Designers?

Never one to miss a zeitgeist moment, Nike this week unveiled a special collection of reimagined Nike Air Force 1 and Air Jordan 1 sneakers, called “The 1 Reimagined.”

The series features a number of firsts for the brand:

  • The tallest stack height ever on an AF1: 12 millimeters
  • The first AF1 mule silhouette
  • A back-to-front AF1 construction with corset lacing

But what is most notable about the collection is who created it. For the project, Nike tapped 14 female designers from its 1,000-member design department to put a fresh spin on the sneaker icons.

Leading the group was senior footwear creative director Georgina James, who was joined by nine shoe designers and four color and material experts. The collective spent two weeks developing and executing new visions for two of the most revisited sneakers in the Nike arsenal. The end result is a set of 10 styles that — despite their all-white colorways — are striking creative experiments.

Whether they will be commercial successes is to yet to be seen, but that’s almost beside the point. The endeavor itself is to be championed — and it’s one that industry experts say is much-needed.

The athletic sneaker market has long faced criticism from retailers and customers for its lack of focus on the women’s market. And while in the last few years they have made huge strides with female-focused product and marketing (think Puma’s partnership with Rihanna and Reebok’s diverse group of ambassadors), more can be done.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 13: Rihanna hosts a pep rally to celebrate the launch of the AW17 FENTY PUMA by Rihanna collection at Bloomingdales on 59th Street on October 13, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for FENTY PUMA by Rihanna)
Rihanna celebrates the launch of the AW17 Fenty Puma by Rihanna collection
CREDIT: Rex Shutterstock

“The sneaker business continues to be a male-dominated industry, where women’s product is often a warmed-over version of men’s styles,” said Matt Powell, senior industry adviser for sports at The NPD Group Inc. “Brands must make a true commitment to the women’s category.”

He noted that there are definite financial benefits to making this commitment. “Women buy the greater amount of dress and casual footwear. Athletic brands are leaving business on the table,” said Powell.

One the clearest solutions to improving the quality of product is to put women in charge of the design. However, D’Wayne Edwards, founder of the Pensole Design Academy, which trains talent for firms like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, said there remains a lack of diversity among many teams.

“[Brands] all know they should increase opportunities for female designers and developers, but because there are very few women in power to make those decisions, nothing continues to happen,” said Edwards.

He suggests that change should begin at the top. “[Companies should] empower and develop the few women who are working for brands to become decision-makers,” he said, adding that these leaders can then help ensure that other women in the organization are considered for new opportunities or promotions.

Edwards also advised athletic brands to do a better job at encouraging personal growth within their design talent. “They can increase awareness among young women of the opportunities in our industry through scholarships to colleges and specific programs that are for women only,” he said.

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