Though they are regularly worn by any and all genders, highly covetable streetwear sneakers are branded, stylized and shaped for men. “If you look at the history of most athletic brands, they’re rooted in male sports, male athletes. All the footwear silhouettes are built for them,” says Sarah Sukumaran, the founder of the Queens-based sneaker company Lilith NYC. “The Sheryl Swoopes basketball shoe is the only shoe from the ’90s for a WNBA player,” she continues. In fact, in the nearly 25 years since the WNBA’s inception, only nine players have garnered signature shoes, compared to the NBA which saw 22 signature sneakers in 2021 alone.
I always say: women are asked to compromise
This gender disparity isn’t just a matter of representation, it also has consequences on women’s footwear options, from a more limited range of shoe sizes due to shopping in the men’s section to the quality of the sneakers. As Sukumaran explains, “Shoes for women are just made poorly. They strip out the performance tooling—which is actually out of cost but they strip it out for women—and they use cheaper materials, synthetics, because they don’t think women are paying attention to more than aesthetics. I always say: women are asked to compromise.”
As a longtime sneakerhead herself, Sukumaran constantly combed the internet to find sneakers in her size, frustrated by the meager options for women consumers. It wasn’t until she was recruited by Nike as the Director of Product in Analytics that she realized how much the streetwear industry needed to be overhauled. “Coming from e-commerce analytics, I know the data. Women outspend men in footwear sales, period,” emphasizes Sukumaran. “From there, I realized if I want to see change in the women’s footwear space, I need to do it myself, and that’s when I decided actual footwear has to change. We need to start designing silhouettes for women as opposed to just repurposing a man’s silhouette.” So in November 2021, Sukumaran launched Lilith to provide women and femmes with sneakers designed specifically for them.
The ethos of the brand is embodied in the name of the company itself, which Sukumaran had picked out in 2015, long before operations began. Taken from Jewish and Mesopotamian folklore, Lilith (not Eve) is Adam’s first wife. “She gets written out of history by male scholars because she’s considered to be the first feminist. She didn’t want to be submissive to Adam,” Sukumaran explains. “And then through history, she’s demonized and made out to be a baby-snatcher. It’s an interesting story that I felt being a woman in tech, being a woman in footwear, was so apt.” By naming the brand after Lilith, Sukumaran channels her confident, subversive nature to create something for those who are overlooked in streetwear culture.
Currently, the collection comprises a custom, low-top silhouette Caudal Lure, a design that pays homage to where Sukumaran grew up. “My love for sneakers really came from growing up in Queens,” she tells us. “Queens culture is sneaker culture before the term ‘sneaker culture’ even existed.” A gritty sense of the neighborhood, ’90s nostalgia, handball courts and Nike Air Max 95s manifested into the urban, thick-soled and functionally forward aesthetic of the Caudal Lure.
As the most diverse borough in all of New York City and home to countless immigrant families who are no strangers to a long commute, Queens also became a fitting influence for Sukumaran who was determined not to compromise performance for style. Motivated to make sneakers that could support those constantly hustling or running back and forth for the train, the founder partnered with Vibram, an Italian tooling company based in Milan and revered for their quality outdoor hiking boots. Vibram’s proprietary lightweight, high-abrasion EVA outsole lends a cloud-like quality to the sneakers. This comfort (bolstered by premium pebbled leather, suede and neoprene) helps to enhance endurance and mobility.
When paired with Lilith’s custom colorways—the green-hued Concrete Jungle and burnt orange Amberlou Brick—performance meets unique tones. Like the silhouette, these colors are also inspired by Queens. The green color, Sukumaran explains, “is the juxtaposition of the grittiness of Queens and tropical modernism, which is a type of architectural style that came out of Sri Lanka that was actually pioneered by a woman architect [Minnette de Silva] who doesn’t get credit for it.” The name elegantly captures the lush vibrance of both places.
As for Amberlou Brick, the portmanteau moniker combines the color of bricks commonly found in Queens with the name of the architect who regularly used them, Louis Allmendinger. “Allmendinger was a German architect who used a specific clay from Staten Island. So if you’re in Ridgewood or Maspeth, you’ll see this like kind of amber-colored brick. He focused on low-income housing at the time as a response to tenement housing, so that was another point of influence,” continues Sukumaran.
Rather than adhering to a stereotypical tomboy aesthetic or one that’s overtly sexual as feminine representation tends to be in the culture, Lilith’s footwear offers a realistic, utilitarian but elevated options that are backed by personal style and demographic research. “A lot of feedback I was getting from women was like, ‘I want sneakers that I can go to dinner in that don’t look like a Brooks or an ASICs’ because those are super-comfortable, but women are not showing up to dinner in them,” says the founder. “I want the comfort of a shoe that still looks trendy so you can navigate from office to evening drinks with the girls.”
Urban yet earthy, elegant yet utilitarian, Lilith’s sneakers address the exclusion of women and femmes from the hypebeast space. They are, as Sukumaran tells us, “flipping the paradigm of what sneaker culture has been” and they do so with class, confidence and style.
Hero image courtesy of Jonathan Wijayaratne & Ryan Wijayaratne/Lilith NYC