As a Catholic school student who wore the same mandated uniform everyday, the only way Sarah Sukumaran could show off her personality was when she changed into sneakers to play basketball. Sukumaran, who hails from Elmhurst, Queens, grew up in a place where sneaker culture runs deep. After school, Sukumaran and her friends would play basketball, which gave her a chance to survey others’ sneaker preferences. She liked the shoes her male friends wore the most: Foamposites and Uptempos. But when she was a child, those were considered “guy sneakers,” so she stuck to Air Max Plus and Air Max 95, which she still collects today.
“When I grew up that’s what [sneaker culture] was. You just shopped for cool stuff and you wore it and it was tied to your personality,” Sukumaran says.
For her, sneaker culture has always been about buying and collecting the shoes you love, but realized that there was a stark contrast between sneakers available for men and women. Many popular shoes only came in larger men’s sizes — the smallest a men’s 7, which is a women’s 9. Leaving women to shop in the kid’s section for shoes, but the quality was poor. Women’s sneakers often had a worse outsole or lacked an airbag. Men’s sneakers were often made with high-quality material like a suede or pebbled leather while women’s were made with synthetic material.
“Women’s products were a cheaper version that was being shelled out to us, and women [already] pay more money for every product that we own,” she says. “They are charging us more, the materials are worse: classic story.”
Fed up, Sukumaran began playing with the idea of launching her own brand, and in 2015 she created Instagram and Tumblr accounts under the name Lilith NYC. She used the accounts to post her sneakers, but didn’t launch an official brand. A few years later, she became the director of product for Nike, where she confirmed all the observations she had made about the inferior quality of women’s sneakers.
“I felt like there was so much to be done all together apart from just [creating more] footwear,” she says. “Like, how do we do better storytelling towards women? That’s when I decided I needed to start a brand, not just aggregate existing products.”
Not knowing there was a pandemic right around the corner, Sukumaran left Nike in March 2020 and began working on launching Lilith NYC, which officially debuted online in November 2021. Lilith NYC, which features sneakers thoughtfully designed for a woman’s lifestyle.
“Women have been asked to compromise for so long, and [because of Lilith NYC], this is one of the first times they are feeling truly comfortable in a shoe that was made for them,” she says.
Lilith NYC is all about embracing one’s divine feminine energy and recognizing the agency of women to show up as they wish — with comfortable sneakers of course. Which is why Sukumaran chose to name the brand after Lilith, who according to Jewish and Mesopotamian folklore, was Adam’s first wife, before Eve. It’s said she chose not to be submissive to man, and therefore was written out of history by scholars and labeled as a temptress and evil spirit. Lilith lived her own truth and story, and that’s what Sukumaran wants women to do when wearing her shoes.
“Our mission is to have people feel seen and you see that reflected everywhere in our photography, in our storytelling — you see women from Queens, women from Sri Lanka,” she says. “Anytime I engaged in the footwear world, I never felt included. I really wanted this brand to have future generations feel included, whether it’s in the community work we do or seeing themselves in the ad. It’s my love letter to Queens and how Queens shaped me.”
By wearing the Caudal Lure, currently Lilith NYC’s only sneaker, anyone can feel seen because anyone can wear it — sizes range from a women’s 5 to a 14.5. The sneaker also has a wider toe box. Oftentimes sneakers designed for women tend to be narrow and uncomfortable. Unlike many of the women’s sneakers she used to buy, the Caudal Lures are made with a vibram sole, which can be more costly, but are extremely comfortable. It’s the kind of sole that won’t wear off after many uses, it’s lightweight and feels as though you’re walking on clouds, Sukumaran says.
“People always ask, what’s your customer age range? I tell them I have 20-something-year-olds buying from us, but just recently I had a 74-year-old-woman in Canada purchase a shoe. She was so excited about it and was complimenting how comfortable they were,” she says. “The range is insane and there is so much potential here.”
Sukumaran represents Queens through the two versions of the shoe: one is concrete-jungle green and the other amberlou brick (with more colors coming soon). Concrete-jungle green is an homage to Sukumaran’s identity as the daughter of Indian parents and her birthplace of Queens. It’s inspired by the canopied rooftops in Kerala, India, and the bright-green bodega awnings in Queens. The amberlou brick is a combination of the word amber, the color of the bricks used by the architect Louis Allmendinger for homes in Queens and his name.
“I wanted [the brand] to be complex. I want you to question the symbolism. I want you to ask questions,” Sukumaran says.