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Photo: Christina Paik

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The Surprising Freedom of Being a Woman in the World of Men's Streetwear

‘I was always more Biggie than bougie’

Streetwear, the catchall term for essentially all clothing inspired by skateboarding, surfing, and hip-hop, is no longer a small segment of the population's best-kept secret. It's broken through in a big way: taking over runways and infecting trend-chasing high-fashion designers, while consumers trade in their pants for joggers and their oxfords and heels for Nikes and Adidas. And while the men's streetwear industry often seems like as much a boy's club as a premiere for the latest Entourage movie, there's a handful of women killing it in the streetwear game. According to them, it's a great time to be a woman working in men's streetwear.

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When we reached out to some of streetwear's most successful women, we expected to hear that they felt unwelcome in the male-dominated world. We were pleasantly surprised by most of the stories these women had to tell; there was a feeling that they traded in the buttoned-up fashion industry for an environment as comfortable as the ultra-casual clothing it produces.

christina paik

Photo: Christina Paik

"The mood [at Harper's Bazaar] is very much like The Devil Wears Prada," Elaine YJ Lee, a former editor at Highsnobiety and Selectism, sister sites that cover the all-encompassing world of streetwear. Lee recently decided to freelance full time, but interned at the famed glossy once upon a time, and says: "They look you up and down and they know if you're wearing something cheap. Their treatment really changes, even if you're an intern."

"No bullshit," "chill," and "down-to-earth" are repeated throughout conversations we have with women working in the streetwear industry. "Whenever I go to an event for editors it is mostly guys, but I don't really feel like I'm being dominated, it's just more chill," Lee says. "Guys are easy to get along with." Sandrine Charles, who works PR company Exposure, echoes that sentiment: "I like working in a male-dominated industry; I get along great with guys," she says. Photographer Christina Paik, who shoots for streetwear brands like Kith and Off-White, loves shooting dudes. "They aren't afraid of getting their 'bad side,'" she says.

For most of these women, streetwear wasn't necessarily the end goal. They serendipitously found themselves in the industry and then, like all good love stories, became infatuated and started borrowing all of its clothes. "I actually majored in finance at NYU," Lee tells us. She found herself crossing every potential career in fashion off her list during her college career. "I started out with PR, like anybody, did merchandising, sales, wholesale." She even shadowed buyers at Saks Fifth Avenue for the retailer's summer program. After graduating, she saw a listing to apply to Highsnobiety and Selectism and, like any soon-to-be-graduate would, she applied.

Christina Paik1

Photo: Christina Paik

Exposure, where Charles works as an account director, handles brands as massive as Coke and Nike. She personally manages hugely important streetwear brands like Kith, Robert Geller, and Noah, the brand founded by former Supreme creative director Brendon Babenzien. In addition, she controls the personal brands for these companies's creative directors, like Kith's Ronnie Fieg (who boasts over 355k followers on Instagram) and Noah's Babenzian (who's been profiled in the New York Times). Streetwear struck a chord with her after working on a Coca-Cola campaign for Nigo, the designer who created streetwear mainstay Bape and Billionaire Boys Club with rapper Pharrell. "I love this, I love this story, I love the fashion," she realized, explaining, "That was the first real hit for me, and I was like, this is it, this is all I want to do."

Christina Paik, who also shoots for the $50 million success story Stussy, only got involved in the industry after streetwear brands reached out to her. Paik exhibited her own style in a personal portraiture project, and brands took notice: "I was only posting teasers on social media, but Nike, Stussy, and A Bathing Ape had reached out asking to collaborate. I was still living in Paris when Virgil Abloh [Kanye West's creative director] asked to shoot his debut collection for Off-White."

Sarah Bronilla was only 20 years old when she got sucked into the world of streetwear. Bronilla interned with Vice in her hometown of Montreal, way back when the now-massive media company still went by Voice; when the publication was so small it was funded through a Canadian welfare program. Bronilla had such a knack for the industry that when Vice decided to launch in the US, they sent Bronilla along with the publication's three owners, Shane Smith, Suroosh Alvi, Gavin McInnes. "They didn't know about fashion, they didn't know about streetwear, they didn't know about that business," Bronilla explains. "So they wanted someone with the expertise and somebody who was passionate about it, and I already had the contacts."

christina paik2

Photo: Christina Paik

Bronilla found it was easy to make contacts in the menswear world starting out in the early 2000s; the world was much smaller and more interconnected. Trade shows were a prime source for her connections, she says, explaining, "we would walk the show and it would just be like, 'boom.' I was good friends with the guys from Puma and Adidas." The intimacy was heightened by smaller, close-knit show spaces, and, of course, parties. "There weren't five million types of trade shows; it was all under one roof," she recalls. "The parties were amazing. Everyone was going out and having fun — it was actually good networking," she says. Today, she finds the disparate trade shows too isolated from one another.

Working in the streetwear industry has been mostly a positive for these women, but there are still unfortunate occurrences of double standards and discrimination. "‘Never use your sexuality to get ahead,'" was the advice Bronilla received from infamous Vice founder Shane Smith. "I've always has that in mind since the day I started." Bronilla also finds herself ignored. "There's times where I'll be standing in a circle talking to someone, and a head of marketing come up to the circle and only introduces himself to the men." And sometimes wishing earlier in her career, "Fuck, I wish I was a six foot white man."

Charles finds success by being assertive in the industry. "You have to let people know what you need, why you need it, and how you're going to get what you need to get done completely,"  she says.

However, for the most part, most of these women believed that working in the industry holds many positives, not least of which is their wardrobes, which have evolved in a more comfortable direction. "I was one of those girls that always wore heels," Lee says. "Working here, I wear sneakers and sneakers only... Once you get used to the comfort of sneakers you can't wear heels again, or even wedges and flats." Charles also adds that her personal style has evolved since joining the industry. "I've always been more of a prissy girl, and as I grow up and I evolve my style not only changes, but is nearer to my personality," she explains. "Traditionally I'd always have to be in a dress for corporate-y events, balls, or events with my family."

Christina Paik3

Photo: Christina Paik

Women helping to tell the story of men's streetwear — from design to marketing — is a much-needed adjustment for an industry gaining acceptance outside its comfort zone. The trend now dominates runways and outlets beyond the usual suspects. "Women's outlets are now covering menswear, and how to incorporate menswear pieces into their style, because girls are constantly stealing their boyfriends' sweaters and sweatpants just to go around the corner," Charles says. And the situation is showing no signs of slowing down. Kith has began NYC domination with a new store location and cereal bar in Brooklyn, cult skater brand Palace is taking their already-everywhere tri-logo to Los Angeles, Noah has a physical location in Manhattan, and menswear finally has its own dedicated New York Fashion Week.

Paik dismisses the ideas that women getting into men's streetwear is just a trend, especially the trend of a "woman wearing [her] boyfriend's clothes." She explains, "Fuck that, my guy friends borrow more of my pieces if anything." Paik's attitude epitomizes women's growing love for streetwear. Although we're still at the point where of all the apparel companies in the Fortune 500, zero have a woman as CEO, streetwear is providing a more inviting outlet for women. And the numbers will likely, and hopefully, be balanced out by women who share Paik's unadulterated love for streetwear. "I was always more Biggie than bougie," she says. "I liked Rocawear before I liked Riccardo, but I found a way to love both."

Additional reporting by Nicola Fumo

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