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When Leah McSweeney introduced Married to the Mob in 2004, she was 22, dating Rob Cristofaro, the cofounder of streetwear line Alife and navigating a fashion sector lacking female voices.

“When I started, it wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to come up with a girl’s streetwear brand,’” said McSweeney. “It was more like, ‘I’m going to make my own stuff and it’s going to be a reflection of my experience being in this culture and community that’s predominantly run by men.’”

Since its inception, McSweeney’s line, and her vocal personality, have been an oasis in the male-dominated streetwear industry. McSweeney creates her own “b—hisms” like “Men Are the New Women” and “Make Feminism Great Again” which she splays across Married to the Mob merchandise. Early on, she remixed Supreme’s classic box logo, which is a riff on Barbara Kruger’s work, by creating a “Supreme B—-” graphic. Initially, Supreme founder James Jebbia sold that T-shirt out of his Union NYC store before suing McSweeney for $10 million in 2013. They eventually settled out of court.

McSweeney’s brash brand, which is sold at retailers including Zumiez and Karmaloop, has drawn in collaborators such as Nike, Kaws and Fila, and helped open the door for other female-focused lines. But the women’s streetwear category hasn’t proliferated in the same way men’s brands have.

“I don’t even know who else is out there,” said McSweeney, who struggled to think of streetwear lines dedicated exclusively to women other than HLZBLZ and Dimepiece. “It’s not easy. The biggest problem with having a female streetwear brand is we don’t have as many customers as men’s streetwear brands.”

“The category has devolved,” said Greg Selkoe, who founded Karmaloop and used to operate Miss KL, a women’s business within Karmaloop that did $40 million in sales at one point. “There’s not much of a women’s streetwear market. That means two things: Either there isn’t interest in it for the time being or there is going to be a new surge in the category. It’s hard to tell what’s going to happen but there’s definitely room for growth.”

Men’s wear brands are realizing that, and as ath-leisure and sneakers become staples in women’s closets, companies including Kith, The Hundreds, Dope, Aimé Leon Dore, Stampd and Maiden Noir are beginning to move into the category, which could present an opportunity to increase business.

There’s a lesson to be learned from large activewear players, which have focused their attention on women in recent years — and won substantial payoffs. In its second quarter, Puma reported a 16 percent increase in sales and cited a solid women’s business,with the Platform creeper, the classic suede silhouette; the Basket Heart with ribbon shoe laces, and the Ignite Limitless training styles performing well. Earlier this year, Bjørn Gulden, Puma’s chief executive officer, credited the influence of Rihanna and other female Puma ambassadors, including Kylie Jenner and Cara Delevingne, who have helped deliver what he says are “astronomical sell-through numbers.”

“Women’s is a clear pathway for growth,” said James Whitner, owner of the Whitaker Group, which operates a chain of streetwear and sneaker specialty stores throughout the U.S., including Social Status, Prosper, A Ma Maniére and APB. “Women don’t want to be as dressed up on an everyday basis. She wants to wear men’s wear but a feminine version of it. The market is starting to meet in the middle.”

Bobby Kim, who cofounded The Hundreds in 2003, noticed this shift and rather than creating a women’s line under the brand, which Kim said he had done in the past purely for monetary gain, last November he launched Jennifer, a separate women’s collection. Kim doesn’t call Jennifer, which was the most popular name in the early Eighties, a streetwear collection since it isn’t rooted in street culture, but he did want to provide women who wear streetwear with more options.

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Jennifer is a basics line that’s neither politically charged nor overtly feminist, but it targets the conscious female consumer. Kim promoted the launch of the brand via an in-depth conversation with Lena Dunham about misogyny in streetwear, which was posted on Jennifer’s blog and Refinery 29. He’s also made product names more female-friendly. For example, his assortment includes a girlfriend hoodie, a response to the often-used description “boyfriend jeans,” and daughter hats, an answer to the popular “dad hat.” The line ranges from $40 to $140.

“I want women to go support women’s streetwear. That was one of the impetuses for Jennifer,” Kim said. “I see all these girls supporting men’s streetwear brands and a lot of them don’t care about women. They just use them for a graphic on a T-shirt, and I’m guilty of that myself.”

Ronnie Fieg, the founder of Kith, also introduced a women’s ath-leisure collection in 2015 and earlier this year brought on Emily Oberg, a former Complex staffer with a tomboy style that resonates on Instagram, to be creative director and help build up the business. Oberg said she doesn’t design pieces, but she’s responsible for leading the design team creatively and helping them home in on the Kith girl.

But Married to the Mob’s McSweeney isn’t entirely sold on the shift within the market.

“It’s totally inauthentic,” she said. “Now you care about girls being called sluts? I think the men’s brands are getting desperate because they’ve plateaued so they are latching on to anything they can. But it’s much harder to sell to us than they think.”

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This isn’t the first time men’s streetwear and skate brands have attempted to capture the women’s market. According to Mike Ternosky, Obey’s creative director and head of men’s design, the brand decided to start the women’s business in 2002 because many of the women’s skate labels that were established in the Nineties — such as Kim Gordon’s X-Girl, which recently partnered with MadeMe — were no longer operating by the early Aughts.

“We saw a void,” said Ternosky. “No one was speaking to this girl anymore and we thought there was an opportunity to connect with these customers.”

In the past, the success of women’s skate and streetwear brands required multiple retail channels that understood how to merchandise women’s collections. But because these platforms didn’t exist at the time, the brands couldn’t thrive, according to Ternosky.

Whitner agreed.

“I’ve been in the business for a while and this is uncharted territory,” said Whitner. “Everyone is putting a ton of resources into women, but there hasn’t been a retail segment truly focused on women’s.”

Whitner is attempting to fix that by adding second locations of his Social Status format in Atlanta and Houston, which will both focus on the women’s category. Fieg has done the same by opening a women’s Kith store on Bleecker Street in New York across from the men’s store and dedicating more space to the category in his Miami shop, which opened last December.

There are also a handful of new stores and e-commerce sites emerging that are targeting women who wear streetwear, including Wildfang, a Portland-based retailer; Dolls Kill, an online women’s retailer that just opened its first store in San Francisco, and Pam Pam, a women’s sneaker and apparel store in London.

“Having had experience working for men’s wear independents, we noted the high volume of women wanting what was offered to men but in small sizes,” said Pam Pam’s cofounder Rio Holland. “So the reason for the separate space is that women are deserving of it. We have learned how important and special it is for women to have a beautifully curated space that welcomes all ages and style types.”

Also fanning demand is Instagram, which has raised the visibility of women with a penchant for streetwear, such as Adrianne Ho, Vashtie Kola, Aleali May and Oberg. Nike has targeted this ecosystem by partnering with the International Girl Crew, a group of creative, sneaker-wearing friends with strong Instagram followings and impressive careers including Paloma Elsesser, Grace Ladoja, Phoebe Lovatt, Sharmadean Reid, Camille Garmendia and Madeline Poole. To celebrate the launch, the activewear giant hosted a pop-up that also included women-focused panels.

“For a lot of girls, I think streetwear is a new idea and wearing men’s is something foreign to them,” said Oberg. “They need someone to set an example and show them how to wear something and then they will be more comfortable to do that on their own.”

Despite these changes, the category still faces multiple challenges.

“Women won’t line up for hours to buy a hoodie. We don’t shop that way,” said Oberg. “When it comes to streetwear, we are more loyal to the brands that we are familiar with and that we’ve been buying for years. And just because there is a logo on something we won’t automatically want it right away.”

Women’s streetwear brands also have to contend with fast-fashion retailers, which appeal to customers due to price and variety but are also known for copying graphics created by smaller brands. Forever 21 last year used the same font design and logo placement from Oberg’s streetwear line Sporty and Rich, and also employed the slogan “Smart & Pretty.”

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“I have to compete with Forever 21, which is selling a $7 graphic T-shirt,” said McSweeney. “A girl wants to spend her money on shoes, bags, makeup and face washes. Are they going to buy a $35 MOB tee with a slogan?”

Selkoe believes customers will buy into women’s streetwear brands before they buy a copy if, like Married to the Mob, the company has cultivated a following that believes in its message. That may explain why Kim introduced a separate line with female-centric messaging and marketing, and Fieg brought on Oberg to help create and push the women’s product.

“If you are original and you have personality, buyers won’t buy a knockoff because they want the real thing,” said Selkoe. “When you create that following then you can overcome that stuff.”

It’s true that women’s-only streetwear firms at a mass to contemporary price point aren’t popping up exponentially. But the luxury sector is seeing a lot of activity around women’s brands that flirt with streetwear tropes, including Unravel, Ashley Williams and Alyx, along with men’s streetwear brands that are introducing women’s, such as Heron Preston and A Cold Wall. Because these brands are targeting a high-end fashion customer rather than a streetwear consumer, they’ve been quickly embraced by luxury stores with a well-established distribution network that want to capitalize on the trend.

“We have a big growth in women’s streetwear brands,” said Marina Larroude, Barneys New York’s fashion director. “We also continue to search for new ones to add to our mix as well. Our customers can’t get enough of it. I don’t see the trend dying out anytime soon.”

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Ben Taverniti, who was previously the creative director at Hudson Jeans, founded Unravel — the brand is best known for its lace-up leather pants — and works with his fiance Joyce Bonelli, the makeup artist closely associated with the Kardashians, who co-designs the line.

“We are not a skatewear company. We don’t sell to the skatewear guy or girl,” said Taverniti. “We are bringing that high-end customer the street. We are creating something that doesn’t exist because you can’t pinpoint where it belongs. It’s on the designer floor, it has a streetwear vibe and a jean vibe. It’s really a mix and juxtaposition of all of these worlds that create a new genre of a brand.”

Other firms are deciding to size down as opposed to creating a new assortment. For his fifth Fear of God collection that was released earlier this year, Jerry Lorenzo produced smaller sizes to accommodate women, telling CR Fashion Book, “I like the way men’s clothing falls on women and to maintain this idea of going into your boyfriend’s closet and not having a choice when it comes to size or fit. For me to play with women’s shapes would be dishonest, as that’s not what I’m good at. More importantly, it goes against what the brand is, which is universal.”

WeSC has moved in a similar direction by shutting down its women’s line, which Joseph Janus, the company’s chief executive officer, said made up 10 percent of its business although women’s shoppers accounted for 30 percent of its sales. Instead, the brand has made its entire assortment genderless.

“I really believe the mistake streetwear brands make is to try to take their look and vibe and interpret it for a woman, when really the woman is attracted to wearing it the way it existed in the first place,” said Janus. “In my opinion, the way to go is genderless. There should be no barrier between your men’s and women’s collection.”

More from WWD:

WeSC to Produce Gender-Neutral Collection

Dolls Kill Launches Streetwear Line Poster Grl

The Hundreds’ Bobby Kim Dips Toe in Women’s Market

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