Lilith NYC founder Sarah Sukumaran in Elmhurst, Queens
Not many people know the story of the biblical figure Lilith, Adam’s first wife. In ancient literature, she’s presented as a violent threat to traditional marriage and motherhood. Yet in contemporary retellings, Lilith is seen as a role model who asserted herself as Adam’s equal—less of a demon and more of a feminist symbol.
It’s that interpretation that folds into the ethos behind sneakers, founded by Sarah Sukumaran, who, in the sneaker world, has asserted herself as an equal among male-dominated brands. Launched in 2021, Lilith NYC is an online retailer, but shoppers can also arrange a local pickup in Queens. They hope to open a storefront in 2023.
In front of India Sari Palace in Jackson Heights, Queens
Born and raised in Elmhurst, Queens (today she lives in East Elmhurst), Sukumaran left her job as director of product analytics at Nike to launch her femme-focused sneaker company, which doesn’t adapt its design from a men’s shoe but rather is designed specifically for women. But as far back as her days in Catholic school, when boys would swap their penny loafers for sneakers at gym class, she’s been aware of the great footwear divide.
Basketball and streetwear dominated the culture in 1990s Queens; decades later, men’s sneakers continue to rule the landscape. Lilith NYC is changing that.
“Women were still shopping for sneakers in the children’s or men’s section,” Sukumaran says. “The industry was moving too slowly. I was frustrated by how everything was through the lens of male sports. The way companies merchandise, the way campaigns are done, always speak to male audiences. I wanted to start a brand from the ground up, where we focus on silhouettes designed for women.” Lilith is part of a recent mini-wave of women-owned athletic footwear companies. “Women outspend men in sneaker sales so it makes absolute sense that we're seeing (women-owned) brands pop up more and more with a hyperfocus on women and femme consumers. It’s a billion-dollar opportunity.”
And people are paying attention. “We receive messages from folks in every corner of the world on how they're excited to see the brand out in the wild and how the storytelling resonates with them. Really rich storytelling was key.”
The storytelling behind Lilith’s branding is as rich as Sukumaran’s own background.
The daughter of Tamil refugees, Sukumaran was born at Elmhurst Hospital, just a few blocks from where our interview and photoshoot took place. Her family, including her parents, two siblings and uncles, lived together in an apartment in the mid-’80s when she was a kid, eventually dispersing to other nearby areas of Elmhurst.
At Taste Good Malaysian Cuisine in Elmhurst
To Sukumaran, the area has developed but in many ways remains unchanged. “I wouldn't say it’s like Astoria or Long Island City, where people have been priced out. Asian folks that have grown up in Elmhurst are now buying condos here, which is amazing.
“I think the beauty of Elmhurst is that despite all the gentrification in other Queens neighborhoods, Elmhurst feels like the neighborhood I grew up in. It’s so diverse, and it’s thriving. Even despite Covid, even despite all of these economic downturns.”
Sukumaran’s family emigrated from the Sri Lankan island of Nainativu, off the northern coast. They fled during the Sri Lankan Civil War, which began in the 1980s, and eventually settled in Elmhurst.
Sukumaran visited Nainativu for the first time in 2011 with her mother. There they found the dilapidated, abandoned home her mother received in a dowry decades before. Knowing her parents longed for their former life in Nainativu—they often reminisced about the mango trees—Sukumaran took to renovating the house, making it her goal that her parents could retire there.
Though she had little experience in such work, she had a knack for it—having inherited her grandfather’s masonry abilities. “I fell in love with picking out tiles. I would take a boat to the mainland to pick out the tiles or the paint swatches and lighting fixtures. That really helped tap into the more creative side of my brain. That’s where I fell in love with architecture and started studying on my own.”
Her architectural sensibilities play a large role in the Lilith sneaker designs. Woven into the brand’s spirit is the story of forgotten Sri Lankan architect Minnette de Silva, whose innovations in style are often miscredited to Geoffrey Bawa—a male architect whose work followed hers.
“Tropical modernism was a type of architecture de Silva pioneered; it’s this notion of blurring the indoors and outdoors. And that’s really where you get the quintessential island architecture in Sri Lanka, India and even Indonesia. That’s her work. I wanted to showcase how women’s work often gets misattributed to men.”
Lilith sneakers are available in two colors: Concrete Jungle Green and “Amberlou” Brick. The former draws from the lushness of the tropics: the banana trees of Nainativu and the palm trees of Kerala, India, but also the green awnings outside bodegas in Queens—an urban embodiment of tropical modernism.
Amberlou Brick is a portmanteau of architect Louis Allmendinger and the amber-colored bricks often found in his work. Allmendinger constructed low-income housing in Queens, using a brick made of clay sourced from Staten Island. Two of Sukumaran’s childhood apartments featured this amber-colored brick, which the shoe’s second colorway is based on.
Wearing Amberlou brick Lilith sneakers, next to the buildings that inspired the colorway
The silhouette or shape of the sneaker is called the Caudal Lure, sharing its name with a type of mimicry snakes use to reel in their prey. But it has a deeper meaning to Sukumaran—one of the divine feminine, often symbolized by a snake, including on Nainativu, which translates to "island of the serpents," where the cobra is regarded as divine.
On 74th Street in Jackson Heights
Lilith honors women in another way: comfort, especially for NYC commuters. Sukumaran grew up taking the subway and buses and watched her parents commute to their jobs in health care up in Washington Heights. Later she observed women on Wall Street swapping their Asics and tube socks for a pair of heels at the office.
“Women have always carried an extra pair of shoes. We’re always schlepping bags. We’re uncomfortable because our office shoes are heels. Women are asked to compromise, to be in this constant state of discomfort. I thought, How do we introduce women to a level of performance that men for so long have enjoyed? That’s why we invested in that , which is a little more expensive, but it feels like you’re walking on clouds.”
An added touch is the black strap and neoprene sock liner on all of Lilith’s sneakers. This pays homage to Sukumaran’s family of refugees and the immigrant community of Queens, referencing the combination of socks with strappy sandals they often wore.
At Kabab King in Jackson Heights
During our photoshoot in Elmhurst and nearby Jackson Heights, Sukumaran switched between the green and amber Lilith sneakers. Her footwear might blend with the colors of Queens, but she herself stands out.
In front of India Sari Palace in Jackson Heights, Queens
Outside India Sari Palace on 74th Street, the shop owners peer out from the window and wave to her, while passersby stop to introduce themselves. A crowd forms in the street to watch as she trots toward the camera in bold colors. She looks like she's walking on clouds.