The Best Female-Owned Footwear Brands: Lilith NYC
The sneaker industry has long been plagued with sizing disparity issues, particularly when it comes to women’s sizing. But in 2022, visionary women like Sarah Sukumaran are working towards making that a thing of the past, redefining the meaning of a women’s silhouette by designing her own.
With a career background in e-commerce analytics, Sukumaran would eventually be tapped by Nike in 2018 as their head of product for a newly acquired company. Through it all, she knew the struggle of being able to pin down a sneaker size, silhouette or style on the internet. Initially she had the idea to start her own aggregation platform, but she soon realised that it was much deeper than that. So she launched ,Lilith NYC, an inclusive women's footwear brand drawing inspiration from the embracing of the divine feminine energy. Sneaker Freaker spoke to the Lilith NYC founder on the importance of women’s specific silhouettes, her journey into launching the brand and more.
Why is it important to you and your brand that women’s specific silhouettes are created as opposed to men’s shoes being created in women’s sizing?
To be honest, I believe it’s time. When we look at the industry as a whole, the covetable silhouettes were all inspired or driven by male athletes and sport. From start to finish, women aren’t included in that narrative and women have historically been okay with just converting sizes. But in 2022, women still struggle to cop styles in their sizes. There’s room to build silhouettes inspired by a women’s lifestyle that isn’t necessarily built around sport. Women aren’t a monolith and I think it’s important to remember that even when it comes to the actual silhouette.
Having already been working in the footwear space prior to creating Lilith NYC, at what point did you decide it was time to launch your own brand that championed women?
I knew in 2015 I wanted to do something in the women’s footwear space. Most of my career was spent in tech, specifically e-commerce analytics. I would spend a good portion of my day looking at brand/marketplace sites and knew that the shopping experience across the board was deeply broken. I personally would waste endless hours, just to find a size, style or colorway that I wanted. Naturally, my first thought was “let’s create an aggregation site that pulls all women’s styles.” I bought the domain and created all the social handles but didn’t do anything beyond post a few photos of me in my New Balances on Instagram.
I tabled that dream because the startup I was with happened to be in the middle of the acquisition and I didn’t think I could bring the idea to life (financially) then. I moved on to work at SAP for another 3 years, still working on our merchandising analytics platform. In 2018, Nike reached out that they were looking for a Head of Product for a newly acquired, predictive analytics company. I stayed for about 2 years before getting that urge to go out on my own. I knew the shopping experience was still broken. Women sneakerheads by then were even more vocal about being left out of the game with lack of sizing and styles. At the same time, I felt the industry as a whole wasn’t moving fast enough to address the gap. So that’s when I made the (crazy) decision to quit and to start a brand from the ground up.
What is the best part about being able to create your own footwear for women?
Hands down, my favourite things are having conversations with women on what they’d love to see and hearing feedback on our current styles. Women consumers are incredibly astute and perceptive when it comes to details. So, being able to take those conversations and create a physical product is just wild. For example, we added cushioning in the ankle area, which isn’t quite noticeable, but that design element was included because so many women complain about having to “break in their kicks” or getting blisters. So far, no issues have been reported there! It’s the little things.
Since launching, were there any hurdles that stood in your way?
Definitely launching in the middle of the pandemic. Everything was stop and go. The global supply chain challenges are very real, even today, and I know it will take a few more years before we have any sense of “normalcy” there. Air freight costs are sky high right now - just thinking of that makes me want to cry. So being able to adjust accordingly has definitely been a hurdle because there’s always some issue lurking around the corner.
Queens is so rich with sneaker culture and history and Lilith NYC is shaking it up so positively with its ethos. Was this something you had always envisioned doing when you were growing up?
Not at all. Building a sneaker company was never on my radar. I never viewed myself as a creative. I had always been interested in the sciences or math and ended up with a business degree. I was actually pursuing a career in tech and when I look back, I probably should have gotten a computer science degree.
So up until Nike, my plan was to stay on that path, perhaps launch a tech startup of my own. But when I decided to build Lilith NYC, I naturally wanted to share more about my roots in Queens because I fell in love with kicks as a kid just hanging out, watching the guys play basketball and handball. Queens being inherently global, I wanted to build a brand that was inclusive from the start and showcased the faces of folks who make up and drive sneaker culture.
Tell me about your silhouette Caudal Lure, what was the design inspiration when you were creating this model? Did it come from your personal experience of what you like in a sneaker?
So many things inspired the silhouette, but overall, the design was really driven by women consumer’s feedback. To start, I knew I wanted to do a low top (okay this part was selfish, I’m 5’3 and wanted a low top) and wanted to ensure we utilised premium materials and had inclusive sizing. Before launching the brand, I spent so much time speaking with women about what their ideal sneaker would look and feel like. So many folks communicated that they wanted to have a sneaker style that could transition for their day job to evening drinks with friends. Something premium and elevated yet still sporty and fun. A common theme was also general comfort. Many complained about narrow toe boxes. That’s where Vibram’s partnership was key. Women, whether you’re a busy mom or running from work to a spin class, spend so much time on their feet. So I quickly knew we had to invest in performance even if it was a lifestyle sneaker.
The term Caudal Lure is actually a form of mimicry used by snakes to lure prey and we loved how similar it was to how sneakerheads flex and attract folks with their kicks. The outsole Vibram tooling also resembles a snake tail so we really ran with the snake and divine feminine theme there!
Lilith also has a partnership with Vibram. Why was this incorporation into your footwear important for you?
I speak about this a lot but for so long women have been asked to compromise when it comes to footwear. We often have to choose between comfort/performance and aesthetics. The Vibram partnership is key because it allows us to introduce a high level of performance, typically enjoyed by male consumers, to women. Vibram soles are often seen on performance-wear footwear like hiking boots and male consumers are quite familiar with the brand. I was excited at the prospect of getting women consumers familiar with the brand via Lilith. Also, many women today shop in the kid’s section. Kids are constantly churning out of their footwear as their feet grow, so it makes sense that brands don’t invest in performance tooling. But if so many women are wearing those grade school-sizing sneakers, it’s an absolute disservice to them. We need to provide performance tooling/outsoles irrespective of what size a woman wears and that’s why it was important for us to use the Vibram soles. Our debut style uses their Plump tooling made of high abrasion EVA which gives you the feeling of walking on clouds. No joke – we get this feedback constantly from our clients in their 20s-60s.
What advice do you have for the next generation of female designers?
From a design perspective, I think embracing the feminine is key, which may clash with what we’ve historically seen design-wise for footwear. We built our brand through the lens of the divine feminine because for so long, it felt like everything was built around hyper-masculinity and that forced women to show up in a certain way.
Also, for women to continue taking up space and pushing their ideas forward. From a workplace perspective, finding folks who are going to champion your ideas and get them executed. Apply for that role you might think is too senior. Just apply.
In your time in the footwear industry, what changes have you seen implemented that have given women a more equal seat at the table – either from a consumer or designer standpoint?
I definitely see it with respect to all the brand collaborations with women designers, which is great. Women creative directors are being appointed at brands, which is also amazing. We’ve seen that Jordan brand has been releasing more and more women’s styles, which is a plus! So, I’m seeing great strides on the consumer side.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I do think we have a ways to go to make structural changes in the industry within the larger brands. We still need to see more women, especially Black women and POC leading in decision-making roles, which means explicitly creating new roles vs waiting for men to churn out of their senior roles.
Looking ahead, what can we expect to see from Lilith NYC in the near future?
Hopefully, more colourways and styles. We’ve been getting a lot of requests to try on the kicks in a physical setting, so thinking about pop-ups beyond NYC and a physical presence to build community.
For more in-depth interviews and features like this, check out <Platform>, an inclusive space created by Sneaker Freaker. Aiming to nurture and empower the creative leaders of today and tomorrow, we're championing the women who are breaking barriers and are helping to shape the sneaker and streetwear industry. To see more ,from Lilith NYC, visit their website here.