While the demand for sneakers has grown dramatically over the years, catering to women in the sneaker space has been a slow and steady process. Sure, there’s been more releases exclusive to the female sneaker shopper than ever before, but there’s more that could be done. Though enthusiasts in the game are pushing for inclusivity, sneaker retail businesses play a critical role in filling the gap between customers’ demands and the brands themselves.
Luckily, there’s a small but mighty group of women-owned sneaker shops that are paving the way for a better future within sneaker culture. Not only are they fostering connections and creating opportunities that may have likely never existed before, but they’re also building community and investing in a customer base that will only get bigger in the years to come.
Back in May, Nike hosted a panel at its Los Angeles headquarters as part of its Future 50 For Her event that discussed sneaker culture for her with the business owners and experts who know her best. “These women are change agents, they are catalysts. They’re making waves in the sneaker space,” said moderator Karie Conner, VP/GM of North America Kids’ Business. “They are doing everything possible to be driving forces within the communities.” Read on for more.
Sally Aguirre of Sallys Shoes (El Monte, CA)
An OG in the sneaker industry with family roots in selling shoes, Sally Aguirre opened her shop in 1988 at the age of 27 years old. “A business down the street that was owned by males saw I was opening up a shoe store and they would come to me and say, ‘Oh no, you’re not going to get a sneaker account; you’re not going to get a Nike account,” she recalls. “But they’re not there any longer and I’m still here.”
Her favorite sneakers: Air Jordan 11 Retro and Nike Air Max 90
What excites her most about sneaker culture: “What excites me the most is the not knowing, the mystery. What are they going to design next? To me, that's intriguing — something different, materials, texture, styles. It's the unknown.”
For aspiring sneaker business owners: “I had one customer come in the other day and she said, ‘Hey Sally, how can I open a business? I have X amount of dollars.’ And I said, ‘Make sure you have your financial stability to go back on if you fall and make sure that you that passion for it.’ It's about believing in yourself and going forward. We can do it. That's how we have these beautiful ladies up here.”
Abby Albino of Makeway (Toronto, Canada)
In 2020, Abby Albino turned her love of sneakers and the NBA into a business by opening up Makeway, Canada’s first and only sneaker boutique for (and completely run and funded by) women. “Being able to work in basketball and getting to have sneakers be part of my life, both professionally from a career standpoint and also just passionately, too, has been awesome,” she says.
Her favorite sneakers: Nike Penny and P-6000
What excites her most about sneaker culture: “The sneaker industry is a multi-billion dollar industry and it's been that way with not many women at the seat. Going forward, the more women who can impact the culture, then the opportunities are endless. We always say that Makeway is the first, but it's absolutely not the last women-only sneaker boutique in Canada. So we're super excited about just the thought of building the Canadian sneaker industry for women.”
For aspiring sneaker business owners: “The first thing we did prior to even opening our doors was build insight groups on the pain points of being a female in the sneaker industry as a consumer. We literally went down the list and just like, ‘We’re going to fix that. We can fix that.’ Showing something new and fresh and innovative in the retail space has been really helpful in building the community and listening is definitely number one.
I also think making sure that women walk into our space and see themselves in all of our products is super important. We love to share our floor space with our big vendors like Nike, but then also provide opportunities to local women, specifically BIPOC, as well. When we bring a new vendor, we want to make sure that our women can actually see themselves in those products.”
Beth Birkett of Union and Bephie’s Beauty Supply (Los Angeles, CA)
After getting involved in the sneaker and streetwear scene in the ‘90s as the co-owner of Union Los Angeles, Beth Birkett branched out on her own with Bephie’s Beauty Supply in 2020. “How can we empower ourselves by creating a diverse marketplace?” asks Birkett. “I really hope to inspire other women, especially Black and brown women, to get into the creative world and create, whether it's shoes or clothes or anything. It's really important and it really helps move, not just the culture, but the world forward.”
Her favorite sneakers: Nike Huarache and Union’s collaboration with Cortez, which is set to drop later in 2022
What excites her most about sneaker culture: “What excites me most is seeing who the new leaders are going to be. It's been really hard for everyone the last couple years, financially; it's been a struggle for people to even work and hold their jobs down. It's the same for owning a business — it's a lot of pressure, it's a lot of stress. But I'm excited for the future. Once we get over this hump, I'm excited to see what's next.”
For aspiring sneaker business owners: “It's good to have mentorship. It's like, when you are going through financial problems or even just problems that only women can relate to, being able to call someone up like you Jennifer, or Abby or Sally, and be like, hey, I'm experiencing this, can you give some advice or just being able to vent even. Your community's really important.”
Jennifer Ford of Premium Goods (Houston, TX)
After living in New York, Jennifer Ford opened Premium Goods in Houston in 2004 — a store that she felt was long overdue in such a major city in Texas. “The access that people had to sneakers in New York I felt was totally needed in Houston,” says Ford. “Over the years I've seen a lot, but most recently, the female consumer that's coming to the store is motivated, inspired, and excited.”
Her favorite sneaker: Air Jordan 4
What excites her most about sneaker culture: “I'm excited about what it's morphing into. Sneakers are currency now. A pair of sneakers can get you into clubs; you can trade it for other products. People who didn't necessarily know where they fit in, in corporate America, have found careers and businesses and a place in this world through sneakers and design. It’s just opening doors for lots of things we never knew could exist before.”
For aspiring sneaker business owners: “This journey has not been easy for us. We're not walking into banks getting loans that easy to keep our businesses going. So the way we stay alive is through our community. It's important for us to be able to give back to them, and them give back to us. It is critical to support female businesses because we are the leaders for the future. If young women and female entrepreneurs don't see people like us, they don't believe that they can do the same thing.”
Julie Hogg of Wish ATL (Atlanta, GA)
Julie Hogg followed in the retail business footsteps of her mother, a buyer for Davidson’s before it became Macy’s, by becoming the partner and CEO of Wish ATL. “I was always around shoes and clothes, but my love for sneakers started in sports,” says Hogg. “I also started my career in sports with the Atlanta Hawks, so I got to live the storytelling firsthand and I think that's morphed my journey into what I do for Wish.”
Her favorite sneakers: Air Jordan 1 and Nike Blazer
What excites her most about sneaker culture: “What's really exciting to me is the innovation and creativity that's coming out, not only from sneaker design, but all the way to the store release method. We have to combat technology and then there's new ways that you want to get it into the hands of the community that you serve. Not only are we seeing fresh newness come from the design part, but we're also seeing fresh understanding of how to get it out.”
On how to support small sneaker businesses: “Partnering with a brand like Nike is so special to us. They've seen us evolve and grow with the trials and tribulations a business takes on, but they've been a partner within that whole growth. So it's advisors, mentorships, questions, just navigating the landscape of this business together has been really great.”
Disclosure: Nike provided travel and accommodations to attend and cover Nike Future 50 For Her.