While there is still progress to be made in the women’s sneaker industry when it comes to sizing, representation, and leadership, broadly speaking, the industry as a whole is doing a much better job at serving women than it was a decade ago. There are more hyped releases dropping in full size runs, more women’s focused collabs, models, and colorways being release, and more attention being paid to showcasing and celebrating the work of women in all areas of the field.
As one of the industry’s most influential brands, Nike yields a lot of power and responsibility in this regard and often falls under the spotlight when these conversations arise. While the sporting giant has long been attuned to women’s struggles as athletes – as early as 1980 they ran an advert headlined “We don’t think women should be stuck with a man’s basketball shoe” – recently, Nike seems to be reinvigorating its efforts across the board and its latest initiative is testament to that.
Leveraging the momentum of its newest Air Max silhouette – the Pre Day – Nike is celebrating the diversity of women that love sneakers by showcasing four women sneaker fans from around the world who are breaking boundaries within their respective fields. Scroll on down to read how model and @black_flashback_story founder Henriqueta Mendes, stylist and creative Coco Mell, illustrator Aurélia Durand, and artist Kicki Yang Zhang are carving out a more diverse and inclusive space through their work, and what equality in the sneaker industry looks like to them.
Why were you drawn to makeup?
I think there is something beautiful about the temporariness of makeup. In general when I draw or paint I enjoy the process more than the end result. When I finish a canvas it’s just hanging somewhere in my home or I gift it to friends, I occasionally like to look at it but I’m sad that the process is over. With make-up, I can create paintings, too, but in the evening I wash my face and can start the process again the next day on the same canvas which is my face, and that’s exciting to me.
“I think there is something beautiful about the temporariness of makeup.”
Kicki Yang Zhang
How can we break down the stereotypically “feminine” associations tied to makeup and beauty?
It’s a deeply rooted problem with everything bound to heteronormative gender stereotypes, and I don’t have all the answers. But personally, I think on the one hand the hetero man needs to be open for it, and we as a society should encourage them instead of calling them “girly” and “gay” for wearing make-up. I see the comments on social media that are just not cool. Also recently I saw an advertisement for “war paint” for men, which was basically just a concealer, sold for over $200. It’s just a company trying to profit off the male ego. Don’t let them. Just get a regular concealer (for the tenth of that price) and know it’s OK.
Who do you hope to inspire with your Instagram and Youtube pages?
I think naturally mostly young girls. I realized a lot of Asian girls follow me since we are not represented that often in western media, so social media is the place to go to get inspiration. But I don’t exclude anyone. Anyone who’s seeking to find themselves, their style, their way of practicing art is welcome on my page.
“I realized a lot of Asian girls follow me since we are not represented that often in western media, so social media is the place to go to get inspiration.”
Kicki Yang Zhang
How do you think beauty brands can better serve Asian women?
I think in general more variety of foundations is a good start. For me personally, a lot of foundations are too pink-ish in their undertone. Also include more Asian women in beauty ads. The eye shape of Asian women is so different and the makeups shown don’t work for me. I think the way Fenty beauty is doing it is pretty good.
As a sneaker fan, how would you like to see female representation in the sneaker industry evolve in the coming years?
In my heart, I wish for equality, so in my personal ideal future world all sneakers are released in all sizes and we don’t differentiate between male and female sneakers anymore. Everything else will come naturally.
What do you want to communicate with your illustrations?
I represent Afro-descendants as joyful, proud, and empowered — a united community whose destinies are intertwined. These colorful personalities present the unified voice of a global community whose hopes, dreams, and desires envision an inclusive future for all.
“I represent Afro-descendants as joyful, proud, and empowered — a united community whose destinies are intertwined.”
What normally serves as a muse for your art?
I listen to music all day long; it gives me energy and inspires me to create.
What are the greatest challenges you’ve faced so far?
Being an entrepreneur is quite tricky; besides making art, I also have to take responsibility for my small one-person company. Taking care of annual tax, emails, phone calls, and all sorts of things. I do everything on my own so it can be challenging.
What can the art world do to be more inclusive of women of color?
The art world could do a lot more. When we bring on different voices, we show the real world we live in: nuanced, colored, and diverse. There is so much to do, but maybe one of the starts is acknowledging that there is a lack of representation and a willingness to change to give people a chance to show their talent.
“The art world could do a lot more. When we bring on different voices, we show the real world we live in: nuanced, colored, and diverse.”
What drew you to styling?
For me it was the immediate feeling of being able to push the boundaries of social norms and conformity that have always been bigger than just ‘girls wear pink; boys wear blue’ and doing so in a way that was completely self-expressive and boundless to any individual at any given time – with clothes and sneakers being used as the medium. I always found so much power in wearing your entire mood outwardly with no explanation necessary.
In your opinion, what role does representation play in achieving equality?
It’s a major key! It acts as one of the fundamental foundations that are needed to actively try and attempt to action true equality. Because we as humans engage and relate the best when we can see, hear and feel that someone shares even the minutest similarities to us before we invest anything. The moment representation isn’t present I struggle to see how anything can have the longevity to beneficially improve.
“The moment representation isn’t present I struggle to see how anything can have the longevity to beneficially improve.”
How would you describe the state of the sneaker industry in regard to equality?
Firstly, when I think of what equality encompasses, I have to acknowledge the fact there are so many overarching subheadings that fall under the ever-growing meaning. But from what I’ve seen the industry has continued to grow at an expeditious rate, drop after drop, in the last 12 months. And there’s also been some monumental moments where visibility and representation from brands for example have been spot-on but that’s not to say that there’s been ‘enough’ good work done in this area of significance when things still continue to play out on a disproportionately, unconscious bias playing field.
Additionally, I feel that the industry can very much be a sense of who you know vs what you know because more times than not those career-defining relationships built can act as your golden, fast-track ticket. And, at times as a minority, this may act as an essential ally to have in your network who may be able to get you into those heavily gatekept rooms to add depths to these paramount, community-shaping conversations.
What would you like to see brands do to better champion women and especially Black women?
A great first step towards this is to hire us, plain and simple! This pertains to BIWOC in particular and doing so in a genuine, non-performative fashion, which isn’t just to meet a quota but more importantly because we’re clearly the best candidate for the job. Once this is in full effect, brands don’t stop there! Allow us once in these roles to continue developing and progressing up the ranks so we, like our counterparts, can hold these higher-paid, leadership roles which hopefully, as a result, will help forge long-term change within these brands’ lineage.
“Hire us, plain and simple! This pertains to BIWOC in particular and doing so in a genuine, non-performative fashion.”
Why did you start black_flashback_story?
I started the @Black_flashback_story to share African history and the stories of people in the Black community who are making a positive impact but are often forgotten. I hope this will help to educate the current and future generation. I believe that one needs to know their culture in order to find their identity that will lead to self-love.
The page isn’t only for Black people, but for all other races that are willing to learn about different cultures and embrace diversity without wanting to change someone, and also to eliminate certain stereotypes. We can’t ignore diversity and inclusion when working in a diverse industry and sharing my and others’ experiences can bring awareness to the fashion industry and help to eliminate the problem.
I also put together stories of ordinary people who are thriving and want to share their experiences, the difficulties that they have encountered in their pursuit of success, and their suggestions to youngsters. The page has positive reviews so I know it helps lots of people and has an impact on their lives – giving them new ideas and inspiration, and knowledge of unknown inspiring Black people. But I still have a lot of work to do.
“I started the @Black_flashback_story to share African history and the stories of people in the Black community who are making a positive impact but are often forgotten or not mentioned”
What are the greatest challenges you’ve faced so far?
The greatest challenge I face is sharing @black_flashback_story on Instagram instead of publishing it as an online magazine, which is my plan but I had to postpone it due to the costs and also to test the waters. For this reason, I always have to condense the post content to avoid overloading the readers with too much information so they don’t lose interest.
Another challenge is getting accurate information and finding trusted sources before posting, I don’t want to mislead anyone as the purpose is to educate and share information, and this process is time-consuming as I do all the research and the editing by myself. Don’t take me wrong, I love challenges but sometimes I wish I could have a partner to help me in this journey.
In your experience as a model, what are the main obstacles preventing equality in the fashion industry?
There are still a lot of obstacles that you wouldn’t expect to encounter in the 21st century (mostly with human evolution and the accessibility of information). There is still a lack of knowledge on how to care for and style African hair, or the correct make-up to use… Therefore, they prefer Black models to be bold or just wear a wig or hair extensions. One would have thought that stylists, photographers, designers, makeup artists, and hairdressers would’ve learned how to deal with any type of skin, hair, the correct lighting for different shades, and so on as part of their studies.
There were many occasions I’ve been asked to bring my own makeup or get my hair styled before the event as they did not want to handle my hair on the day, and I’ve also had my hair damaged for excessive heat. For these reasons, sometimes I hesitate to take some modeling jobs because it’s too much hassle.
“There is still a lack of knowledge on how to care for and style African hair, or the correct make-up to use.”
As a sneaker fan, what does inclusivity look like to you in the sneaker industry?
As a sneaker fan, the thing I like the most is that there are no rules. There is no right or wrong way to wear sneakers. Inclusivity for me is having a unisex range so I don’t have to worry about liking something in the men’s section and not being able to find my size.