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A Breath of Fresh Air: Lilith NYC’s Founder on What Drives Her Brand

Lilith NYC is a new women’s sneaker brand that is aiming to shake up the industry with its fresh take on design, storytelling, and brand building.
Founded in 2020 by Sarah Sukumaran, Lilith has been an idea since at least 2015 and was born out of a frustration too many female sneakerheads will know all too well: not being able to find specific styles or colorways in their sizes.
Sukumaran, who has a unique tech-focused background, having spent over a decade working for various startups in the New York scene before landing at Nike in 2018, is a sneaker enthusiast who took things into her own hands to create sneakers by women for women (and anyone else who wants to buy them).
Through her work, which mainly consisted of analyzing e-commerce data, she learned a lot about how women spend. Coupled with her own struggles trying to find sneakers that fit and were cool, that experience has laid the foundations for a brand that was five years in the making.
Working closely with ex-YEEZY designer Sara Jaramillo, Sukumaran has taken the first step towards filling a gap in the market that big sportswear brands can’t — or just won’t — fill themselves. Sukumaran sat down with Highsnobiety to share her thoughts on the current sneaker landscape, what Lilith is all about, and what the future may hold.

When I started this brand development process in 2020, I was very adamant about it being rich in storytelling. I wanted to talk about Queens. Because I always say, “Queens is sneaker culture.” Back then, that term didn’t exist. We just wore really cool sneakers. Whether you were a guy or a girl, you showed up on the handball court, you showed up on the basketball court, and you were wearing fresh kicks.
I wanted to include the fact that my background was a Tamil woman. My parents were refugees. How do I bring in that lushness and juxtapose it with the grittiness of Queens architecture? Something I love, Tropical Modernism, is a huge aspect of the brand. Tropical Modernism is a form of architecture that was actually pioneered by a woman architect. So many women get erased. She was a woman architect who really showcased the blurring of lines between the outdoors and indoors.
Looking at our mood board, we asked ourselves how to bring it to life and be okay with not everyone recognizing the images on our tissue paper or on our backgrounds. But we wanted people to ask questions about the brand. I feel like so many times people just tell you what the brand is and that’s it. Nothing is left up for interpretation. And I wanted it to be a bit complex.

It was super important for me to have a boxing experience be a little differentiated, because so often you get this cardboard box with sneakers, it’s bent out of shape. So much of the storytelling is lost. And I wanted the unboxing to be a continuation of what people saw, whether it was through the Instagram touchpoint, email touchpoint, or the website touchpoint.
Because growing up, I didn’t know the story of the Air Max Plus. When you hear the story today about how he was inspired by the tropical palm trees, why didn’t I know that when I was an eight-year-old wearing the shoes? I just would have loved to have known that fact.

So Lilith was actually, Adam’s first wife. It’s not Eve. And she’s been written out of history by male scholars. She didn’t want to be submissive to Adam. So she really is the first feminist. Her story resonates across regions and times.
I’ve been a woman in tech, I’ve been a woman in footwear, our stories are constantly erased. It’s always a fight to get a seat at the table. Lilith has been reimagined as a feminist icon. People are using her name as the protagonist of novels. On that Sabrina show that was on Netflix, there’s a character as well. So we’re seeing this reemergence of Lilith as an icon for women to look up to.

I would say I probably started getting into sneakers when I was around eight years old. So, that was ’95. That’s when the Nike Air Max Plus was coming out, 95s were out. I was into Uptempos. At that time, I was strictly shopping in the men’s section. You’d go to Footaction or Foot Locker, I would talk to the employees to try to figure out how to get my size. That was the norm then.
Now, there are definitely conversations about gender-inclusive sizing, and the same colorways being dropped. But as much as we’re seeing change, one of my biggest issues has always been not seeing enough women on the design team. How do we design footwear for women? Because, historically, we’ve always used male silhouettes. When Aleali May drops her shoes (and I love her shoes, I have them), they’re still using a Jordan 1 silhouette, which was something designed for men.

I would love to see new silhouettes being dropped that are specifically designed by women in a way. And it doesn’t have to be something that is super high femme or anything like that. It’s about giving women the autonomy to design something and starting from scratch versus repurposing what’s been used for decades now. The conversation is becoming a little more mainstream. It’s more like the everyday woman wants a pair of shoes that has been designed for her, has been marketed to her.

Exactly. The intersection I’m trying to focus on is moving beyond male silhouettes. It’s having women designers on the team. It’s learning to sell and market to women in a way that’s not so hyper-focused on sports. There are women in sports, but I don’t think that necessarily has to always be the center of attention and focus.
You can see that through the photography, even, through the way we’re running our campaigns. It’s exploring it through the lens of what I call divine feminine and saying, “It is okay to be feminine. Whether you want to be masculine or not, that’s fine too.” But being okay with showing up in that space, in that manner, because historically it hasn’t been the case.

Historically, women have been told to shop a take-down version of that Jordan 1. It usually uses synthetic material. It uses cheaper leather. It strips out the performance tooling. For so long, women don’t even know what comfortable shoes are, because we’ve been forced to put our feet into these really narrow toe box shoes that were designed for men.

When I sat down with our footwear designer, Sara Jaramillo, I focused on three things: inclusive sizing, a low-top silhouette, and premium materials. I wanted it to have the suede. I wanted it to have the neoprene and the pebbled leather, because I feel like whenever I shop a shoe or get the women’s version of a shoe, it’s a distilled version. With the Vibram outsole and midsole, that was primarily to introduce and to give women a sense of what performance tooling is like in a lifestyle shoe.
We went through this process of looking at silhouettes that I loved growing up that were low tops. We focused a lot on the Air Max lines. And then we created just like, potato heads from there. And then Sara landed on this final silhouette.

We definitely have a ton more colorways mocked up using the same tooling. There’s also a second tooling that I’m trying to experiment with, with Sara. So we’d love for that to release this year. But this year is really focused on scale.

It would be interesting to see someone be like, “No, I don’t want the Nikes. I want the Lilith.” You’ve got to become the dominant one that consumers want to cop, and that comes with time. So, we’ll see.

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