Sophie Osella decided that women in the streetwear industry needed their own space on Reddit after she posted a photo of herself to the Supreme subreddit r/SupremeClothing.
“I immediately got a lot of comments from guys calling me fat, a dyke,” she said. “That was the last time I posted a photo of myself on Reddit. Women are flamed — criticized — for being unattractive, or for being too attractive, or for being a girl at all. It’s just ridiculous.”
Osella, who works full-time as a digital content producer at FSC Interactive in New Orleans, said she started the subreddit r/womensstreetwear last July as a place for women to upload photos of their outfits, ask for feedback and advice, and swap tips. Since streetwear is a point of passion for those on the inside and a point of confusion for those outside it, the industry has harbored a strong online community of like-minded people. Osella wanted women to participate without having to wade through the sexist vitriol littering other threads.
The hateful speech isn’t confined to Reddit, a platform known to empower internet trolls, whose demographic skews heavily male. On Instagram, women are subjected to criticism, often regarded as attention-seeking provocateurs or poseurs.
“It’s immediately assumed that women who are interested in the culture and the brands are only doing it because it’s cool, and there’s such a disdain for that,” said Osella. “Guys, though, get the benefit of the doubt.”
Streetwear, from both a cultural and industry standpoint, has a women problem.
“There’s an inherent language used in streetwear because women haven’t been represented fairly or equally,” said Bobby Kim, founder of the L.A. streetwear company The Hundreds, who recently launched a women’s line, Jennifer. “It is such a boys’ club. When women are portrayed, they’re either a half-naked girl on a blog or the cool girlfriend — that’s women in streetwear.”
“Who are the women in streetwear?”
Leah McSweeney, the founder of Married to the Mob, considered the first streetwear brand for women, started her company in 2004, at 22, after seeing the guys in her circle of friends reach success by designing men’s T-shirts. McSweeney wanted to take the idea that streetwear was a men’s industry and flip it.
Not long after launching her brand, she discovered online threads where men would congregate to bash her.
“They were saying, ‘This girl is trash, she should get raped, she’s only here because of who she’s sleeping with,’” she said. McSweeney was dating Alife founder Rob Cristofano at the time. “I got that all the time. [Rob] was an influence, but the ideas were mine. Who doesn’t get help?”
Streetwear’s hyper-masculinity can be traced back to the roots of the culture. While streetwear is now entering the mainstream, led by the burgeoning popularity of brands like Supreme and high-end fashion’s infatuation with it, it started as a space for guys who took their clothing and appearances seriously, while bucking the norm of men’s fashion.
“It goes back to the problem that a lot of people see in the gaming and cosplay communities: niche communities of people who maybe don’t have their interests identified by broader culture,” said Stephanie Smith-Strickland, an editor at streetwear site Highsnobiety (and the site’s only female editor based in New York). “It’s a place with a lot of posturing. And, once people claim a space as masculine, it’s a lot harder for women to have a voice.”
When a culture or community consists of men speaking to and engaging with other men, women quickly become marginalized.
A post on Kooks, Inc., an account that calls out streetwear poseurs and try-hards, and the comments
“In nature, when there are too many men, they get a distorted idea of what and who women are, and they make up their own fantasy and perverted reality of what a woman is,” said Kim. “That’s not cool. But that’s what happened over the years.”
In the gaming industry, that mindset eventually led to Gamergate. In streetwear, it’s resulted in a stark lack of representation of women.
“Who are the women in streetwear? I don’t know. There’s not that many. I don’t think that the guys mean to be sexist, it’s just in them. They grew up around guys, and a girl was there to fuck, mostly. You can’t be taken seriously,” said McSweeney. “I don’t want to bash men here, because I’ve been treated very well — but I don’t know if that’s because they’re scared of me or want to sleep with me.”
“It’s a boys’ club, but hey, I’m here.”
Women working in the streetwear industry have to have a certain resolve. Smith-Strickland said that entering the streetwear boys’ club requires “finding a loophole.” McSweeney said she has “more balls than 99 percent of the guys in streetwear.”
Kim Caban, a project coordinator at Staple Design and assistant to founder Jeff Staple, said it calls for a tougher skin, longer hours and harder work.
“Streetwear, which is male-dominated, started with basically a bunch of knuckleheads,” said Caban. “These knuckleheads have grown up in the industry, and their brands are now corporations. Working with them, women in the industry are undermined.”
Caban, who has one female colleague at the company, said that often, male designers won’t respond to her emails or consider her decisions final, even when it means stalling projects, until Staple gives his sign-off. She remembered being questioned about her experience and education during meetings in front of the rest of the team. To be taken seriously, she said it’s a constant battle between wanting to assert herself and not wanting to come off as overbearing. She’s also avoided wearing tank tops, high heels or too much makeup, to avoid appearing like she’s looking “for any type of that kind of attention.”
“I always have to make sure I’m getting my point across: I’m here, I’m valid, I count, I matter,” she said. “You have to have tough skin. You have to be able to take the sly comments as they come. It’s a boys’ club, but hey, I’m here.”
Carving out a space for women
Women’s apparel in streetwear has struggled to take off. McSweeney’s brand, Married to the Mob, and Hellz Bellz, a women’s brand founded by Lanie Alabanza-Barcena in 2005, paved the way for women-specific clothing in streetwear, but it’s a market that must grapple with stiff competition in women’s fashion, as well as the men’s streetwear.
“Women just like men’s brands better,” said McSweeney. “They’re the brands that are more popular, more mainstream. These people, in general, want to wear the cool logo.”
When women are constantly borrowing from the boys, though, it doesn’t give them anything to call their own. That’s why The Hundreds founder Kim launched his Jennifer line. Other street and surf retailers like Kith, Vans and Stussy have launched separate women’s apparel lines, but there’s a delicate line between creating a diverse offering of apparel that includes women in the customer demographic, and pandering.
“Oftentimes, the stuff is too cutesy, and that’s not what women want — they actually want the more masculine silhouettes,” said Linda Nguyen, a contract designer for Stussy and the founder of Love+Made, a women-led event and design company.
Nguyen said that at Stussy, women’s apparel doesn’t get as much budget or attention because the market isn’t as big, but she acknowledged that might be because brands aren’t addressing women properly. Genderless or androgynous clothing is on the rise in streetwear, but that mostly always results in shapeless clothing that looks a lot like menswear.
Osella said that she wishes women didn’t need their own streetwear safe space on Reddit, but now that it exists, it can be shaped into anything women want it to be.
“Women have been torn apart for how they look, overly sexualized, mansplained,” she said. “It’s so important to have a place where women can be positive and reinforce each other, and remind each other they’re not alone and they matter in this industry.”