Attendee and ESOL student Lorena Valero created a Frida Kahlo-themed sneaker. Credit: Ambar Castillo

On a Thursday evening in May, the corner room at the East Elmhurst Community Library was filled with Pumas and Nikes — blank canvases, or partly painted ones. Their designers: Latinas who took adult English classes for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) at the library, as well as their daughters and nieces, Black female artists, library staff, and youths who regularly attend STACKS, a program for homework help and arts and crafts. 

When Epicenter NYC entered the room, it was quiet, with more than a dozen pairs of brows creased with focus while painting and glitter-gluing. Later, some of the sneaker designers chattered while poking around the supplies table, searching for the right beads or decal accessories. Others dried their freshly painted kicks with a heat gun near the window. 

“It’s such a male-dominated world in sneaker culture, so it’s really [about] bridging that gap for women,” said Lauren Rawles, who was running the workshop as part of her sneaker collective, Sneaker Girls Club.  “Since I’ve been in education probably my whole career so far, it was really important to have the community piece.”

A girls’ club at the library

While Rawles is open to serving people of any identity, her focus is on Black and Latina girls and women, who she says don’t have enough opportunities.

“It’s both relaxing and stressful — you’re creating, but you might also mess up [with the paints], and there’s no undoing it,” said Erika Castro, an ESOL student at the sneaker customization workshop. She had been hovering over her new Pumas with a paintbrush for the past hour, inspired by a scene of the sky and the serenity she says it gives her.   

Rawles founded Sneaker Girls Club to bridge the gap for girls and women in a male-dominated sneaker world. Credit: Lauren Rawles

Castro said activities like this are much-needed outlets for recent immigrants and mothers whose language learning requires patience. She motioned to fellow adult ESOL classmates working on their own shoes. 

On the other side of the table, two fifth-graders experimented with sneaker accessories. One grimaced when asked if she was going to use beads in her design, and shook her head at her fellow STACKS member’s pink beaded outline of a rainbow. But she later grabbed a string of blue beads from the supplies boxes.  

The rainbow shoe designer said she was there to work on her technique. She and her friend, who both participate in STACKS, are arts-and-crafts veterans, she said. 

The founder’s journey 

When Rawles started Sneaker Girls Club, she was a sneaker veteran but a newbie at gathering girls and women to design them. 

It all began in 2019, as a passion project at Bushwick’s MESA charter high school, where she was the director of operations. While her work was largely on the back end of school needs, Rawles built strong relationships with some of the girls through an advisory group she led. They chatted with her on the lunch line about their dramas, or played basketball together with Rawles. 

Rawles paints shoelaces as part of her sneaker customization workshop. Credit: Ambar Castillo

Rawles wore sneakers on Fridays, which caught the attention of some of the student sneaker enthusiasts. 

“The kids were like, ‘oh, you have those, miss?’” Rawles said, chuckling. She decided to create a club called SGC. The goal was for girls to collectively design their own sneakers. The group was only able to meet five times before the pandemic hit. Once those girls graduated, restarting the club with younger students proved challenging.

“So I was like, ‘you know, this is also my passion — let me just run with this in a different way,” Rawles said. She started building the brand and digging deep on her goals. In August 2022, she officially launched SGC as a business. 

“My biggest thing is highlighting women sneaker designers and women that are in sneakers,” she said, citing favorites like Melody Ehsani and the new Jordans Teyana Taylor recently dropped. “I feel like, in the past, they just haven’t been highlighted as much.… It’s really cool to be able to be that person also to inform others and let them know, ‘these are women’s sneakers and you should support them.’”

AB Wilson’s new sneaker design was inspired by a Bronx mural artist. Credit: Ambar Castillo

She wanted people outside deep sneaker culture to know their names. She also wanted girls and women to know that they could be the next names in sneaker design.

Making cool sneakers accessible

Pre-pandemic, Rawles had plans to take the girls to a customization workshop at Nike. But she learned how pricey these workshops were — even when you bring your own shoes and materials.

Rawles saw a need to create a more affordable and inclusive version. It was a need she knew intimately: In Rawles’ trendy high school in Los Angeles, having the latest sneakers was a big deal.

“I was like, ‘oh, I gotta keep up with these girls that have these Jordans every week or have these Rocawear sweatsuits or these different things that my dad’s not gonna buy me,’” she said, laughing. “My dad was like, ‘yeah, I’m not buying $100 sneakers — and it’s actually funny, because now they’re like $200.”

Rawles helps dry freshly painted shoelaces and sneakers at the East Elmhurst Community Library. Credit: Ambar Castillo

Rawles made it work with her Air Force 1’s and other affordable shoes. But she made sure to look cute and clean. Confidence was key, she said.

“Ultimate confidence — as an adult, I just had to learn it’s not about the material things,” Rawles said. “It’s literally about how you show up and how you present yourself. I think that’s why the workshops are really important to me — because the kids aren’t focused about what they saw, what’s the latest drop or something. They’re just really designing whatever’s inspiring them, whatever means something to them.” 

Rawles hopes to someday also do this in her own women-only sneaker store. Unsurprisingly, there are few of those, and even fewer among women of color, she says. 

When she began SGC’s sneaker design workshops, Rawles would buy the sneakers herself, just the few her budget would allow. The goal was to secure partnerships with schools to sustain and expand the club. Starting with the library partnership, which made the workshops free, was a good stepping stone.

Sneaker customization workshop. Credit: Ambar Castillo

Towards the end of the workshop at East Elmhurst Community Library, even its manager was getting in on the sneaker artistry. She had coated her new sneakers in so much glitter that her old shoes were unwittingly twinkling with gold. 

Meanwhile, Castro finished painting her sky-blue sneakers. She shed her well-worn gray New Balance sneakers and modeled her new creation.

On the midsoles she had painted a word in black: “Love.” 

Sneaker Girls Club

Learn more about Sneaker Girls Club here.

Shop the Sneaker Girls Club brand here

Visit them on Instagram here.

Email SGC at info@sneakergirlsclub.com.

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