Down the sidewalks of Bushwick, Brooklyn, strut Henry Bae and Shaobo Han, the founders of Syro, an Instagram shop that makes heels for men.
While Bae and Han are no stranger to the attention that comes with wearing heels, the confidence they walk with precludes any notion they should be in anything else. After all, refusing femme oppression and liberating femme expression is their motto. It's why their very existence is resistance. And it's what lead them to cast predominantly queer people of color in all of the brand's messaging. From their Instagram to their e-shop, which boasts shoe styles named after the men who bullied them growing up — see: Dave, Bruce, Chad, Kevin, etc. — Syro's support for the minorities they draw inspiration from is tenfold.
At a time when the industry is anything but an expert on gender (sorry, but it's true), the paradigm of identity versus expression — and how our clothes fit into it — is more convoluted than ever. That's why it's best to let our clothing — and the people who wear them — do all the talking. In front of the camera, Syro's founders, along with their models Parker Kithill, Cody Jue, Anaury Pena, and Andy Lopez, light their femininity with fire as if they've never been told being a boy who wears heels isn't normal.
Why did you start Syro? And how did you land on the brand's mission?
Henry Bae: "My first job out of college was in the footwear industry. It dawned on me that 'men' with large feet like mine had very limited (read: nonexistent) choice in femme footwear. When the time came that we decided to create these shoes for ourselves, it was clear that our very existence would be our mission: femme expression and representation."
Recant a few experiences where wearing heels was both a positive thing and a negative thing.
HB: "The notion that my heels are a 'bold' fashion statement doesn't register until I leave the house and walk three blocks to my nearest train station to get to wherever I'm going. Along these three blocks, I will get attention. Some inquisitive stares. Some teenage boys laughing. Some teenage girls yaaassssing. I'm lucky to say my style has never landed me in physical danger, but the attention does strike me. I enjoy expressing myself with fashion, I enjoy my friends' comments — but attention from strangers always makes me uncomfortable."
Shaobo Han: "The more people stare at me, the more powerful I feel. Maybe I am delusional, but I confront danger head-on. Hoping to exert as much presence as possible; to show an obnoxious level of confidence (even if that confidence is false) that will deter possible altercation. Last week, some European tourists gawked at me while I was sitting on the train. Instead of hiding my heels, I extended them. And as the train approached my station, I got up, walked as fiercely as I could, twirled, and exited the train with my head held high. If you think you can make me feel uncomfortable, you're better off to think again. I never let someone else's narrow mind affect my sense of self."
Describe the learning process of wearing and walking in heels from your very first pair to now.
HB: "The first pair of heels I tried on were a joke. They were seven-inch heel-less glitter Mary-Janes, if that even makes sense; Lady Gaga-like psycho shit. I wore them for Portland Pride four years ago, and my feet were mutilated by the end. My Syro shoes that I wear on the daily now in New York are designed with my wide feet in mind. They're good for the club, but practical for the grocery store. My older gay friends warn that I will ruin my knees by 40. I wonder if they're right?"
SH: "It was definitely a learning curve. My first pair of Forever 21 black platforms were unbearable. I wore them for Pride when I was 21, and the heels were so painful that I switched to emergency flip-flops for the rest of the night. It's important to be smart about wearing heels. I have my go-to easy heels and then I have my stunting, cab-to-curb statement pieces."
How do you decide when to wear them, then? Is there any place you wouldn't wear them, due to safety reasons or dress codes?
HB: "It just depends on the outfit. Heels are heels. It's not so profound; we should simply have the option to don femme footwear if our clothes, the weather, our moods, or whatever, call for them. My mom thinks I'm crazy, but I've worn heels to gay bars, straight bars, courtrooms, grocery stores, venues, banks, restaurants, dumpling shacks — you name it. In my dreams, femme expression is just another normalized piece of this fun thing we call 'fashion.' Why so serious?"
What about Syro's boots do you think elevates the gender expression conversation? And how are they a pioneer in the heels-for-men space
SH: "Typically, heels for large feet are fetish, S&M, or drag-queen centered — which is perfectly fine — but Syro strives to normalize heels for any time or occasion. Day or night, private or public space. Syro provides queer boys and transwomen the option to wear femme footwear that adapts to their everyday lifestyles."
Paint the picture of the moment the confidence boost from a pair of Syro heels hits. Where are you, what else are you wearing, how does it feel in your heart, etc.
HB: "Click-clack, click-clack, click-clack. That beautiful, elegant sound. My walk, my movement through space — punctuated with femininity. The juxtaposition of this sound against my boyish presentation. It feels right. It feels correct."
SH: "When I wear heels, I feel power. My back is straight, my ankle is stretched, my head is high, and my hips sway."
Is your relationship to heels more important than any other clothing/accessory? If not, what role do they play in your life and in your closet?
HB: "Of course not. Heels are just another color in my crayon box of fashion and style. Growing up, I was equally forbidden from heels, as I was from jewelry, makeup, dresses, and wigs. Now, as a more self-actualized version of myself, I enjoy playing with all the colors of the rainbow. I have many D.I.Y. accessories, wigs, and makeup tricks that are just as invaluable to my femme expression as our Syro heels."
SH: "For me, being queer is an active choice — to reject patriarchal masculinity, to object whiteness, to challenge gender norms, and to celebrate femininity. Everything I consume from media to music, art, and also fashion, attributes to my queer expression. Heels play a very important role as a tool to express my queerness."
Any common reactions you get from people in public when you wear them?
HB: "Teenage girls like to make a big spectacle of my shoes when I walk by. They scream and shout, and I feel their support, however exaggerated or performative. Most men will stare, shamelessly, with a dull expression of disbelief. Some men (typically men of color) will tell me, simply, that they like my shoes. 'Love those shoes, man,' some guy said to me at a corner deli. It didn't feel sarcastic, and it didn't feel communal either. It felt like simple validation from a masculine guy for being femme, which I found encouraging — although unsolicited and unnecessary."
SH: "Call me delusional (all of my friends do), but all I see are eyes of envy; envy that I broke through the narrow definition of masculinity. I am lucky to live in New York City, where I get not only negative but also positive reactions."
What can society do to de-stigmatize and de-satirize the men wearing heels phenomenon?
SH: "It will have to start with our own community. There is (still) a lot of stigma within the gay community about heels. Not all gay spaces are safe for gender-nonconforming queers and transwomen. Everybody needs to do the leg work if we truly want to 'normalize' femininity."
HB: "This gender war is rooted in misogyny. Women can wear pants, and button-ups, and power suits; masculinity is for everyone. But femininity is conditional to being a woman — because how could a man in our society possibly benefit from being femme? The two are not equal. Toxic masculinity proves that men are also hurting, and suffering, from our harshly gendered society. Will gender and sexuality be understood as separate entities? Will straight men ever wear heels the way straight women wear trousers? Perhaps when femininity and masculinity are both understood and appreciated for their complimentary, non-mutually-exclusive merits."