SYRO in "them"

"How SYRO Melded Beauty and Violence to Create Their Iconic STILETTO Bag"

originally published in them on October 17, 2023

words by James Factora

Since SYRO’s founding in 2016, the cult fave footwear line has gained notoriety for offering chic size-inclusive heels, and for doing so long before “breaking the gender binary” was trendy. But Henry Bae and Shaobo Han, the co-founders of the brand, had been dreaming about SYRO’s first bag for years as well. Bae, SYRO’s creative director and designer, had a long-held campy dream about the accessory: Someone’s strutting into a fancy dinner, and places what appears to be a giant stiletto heel on the table. Then, after the initial shock and confusion subsides, the dinner guests realize that the shoe is actually a fully functioning bag.

Bae, whose pronouns are he/they, and Han finally started bringing that vision to life last fall, aiming to design a bag that didn’t just look like a shoe, but was also crafted using traditional shoe machinery. When they asked friends for feedback, though, they’d consistently hear that the design of the bag was violent and weapon-like. Then, in November, there was a devastating shooting at LGBTQ+ nightclub Club Q in Colorado Springs in which five people were killed and five others were injured. According to one report from Richard Fierro, a veteran who helped take down the shooter, a trans woman at the scene used her high heels to stomp on the shooter’s head.

The shooting, and that image in particular, was what enabled SYRO to “embrace the violent motif of it all,” as Bae, who spent many of his teenage years in Colorado, told me over a Zoom call from the brand’s studio in Bushwick.

“That horrifying picture really solidified it: We’re going to match the energy of that incident in our marketing and our design of this bag, and who this bag is for,” they added.

Photo by Logan Jackson for them

Photo by Logan Jackson for them

Photo by Oscar Ouk

On October 3, SYRO officially launched the STILETTO bag, which is now available for preorder. For now, the leather purse comes in three colorways: croc-embossed black, croc-embossed silver, and a smooth brown. That camp vision of Bae’s certainly comes across in the design: There is something a little absurd about the idea of slinging a size 43 shoe on your shoulder. Simultaneously, there is something distinctly menacing about the silver spike that protrudes from the bag: sharp, slender, resembling the Italian knife for which the heel is named.

SYRO intentionally sought to highlight the coexistence of beauty and violence with the STILETTO bag, as Han told me. “Whenever there’s a queer discourse, it’s either focusing on the tragedy, on the violence, or it’s kind of just only focusing on like, ‘Oh, look how fun and fabulous queer people are,’” they said. “So it’s really, for us, let’s focus on the duality because they both exist: the beauty and the pain.”

Han gestured at Jiwon Shin, the brand’s recently hired PR lead (and occasional shoot stylist), who sat between them and Bae in the studio, clad in a tie-dyed Proenza Schouler top, Rachel Comey pants, and — naturally — her first pair of SYRO heels. “She looks fab,” Han said, “but there are moments of harassment on the streets.”

“There’s moments of fear, there’s moments of uncertainty,” Shin added. “I think, especially with the political climate we’re at right now, this is something that we can speak out about. It’s not only during the months of Pride. This is our life, that when we walk out in the streets, we are the only ones that truly protect ourselves.” The bag, she said, is a testament to that.

Photo by Logan Jackson for them

Photo by Logan Jackson for them

Photo by Oscar Ouk

SYRO has always been an ode to femme power — when Bae and Han founded the brand in 2016, heels in larger sizes were nearly impossible to find outside of fetish shops at the time. And while there’s not not a hint of fetish in some of their bestsellers, like the sleek patent leather RANCHO platform, the shoes are certainly more wearable (and walkable) for everyday purposes as opposed to, say, a sky-high pair of Pleasers.

“The important thing for SYRO back then and still today was to encourage people to dress outside the gender binary on a daily basis,” Bae said. “We’re not just about a beautiful runway outfit, we’re not just about a stage costume. We’re not just about the red carpet. We’re trying to encourage dressing outside of the gender binary in your everyday life.”

The brand existed as a side project for the two until 2020, when they both quit their full-time jobs and decided to give SYRO their all. Now, in 2023, they’ve been able to expand their team, adding Shin and a studio manager Viveca Licata. And SYRO has been worn by celebrities including Lil Nas X, Sam Smith, RuPaul, and many others.

For Han, though, the real marker of success hasn’t come in the form of a red carpet — quite the opposite, in fact. “To me, I felt like we did something right when I discovered that people in very small towns in Kansas or Wisconsin are buying multiple pairs of shoes,” they said. “These queer folks who probably don’t have a lot of outlets to be expressive with their identity can rely on us for an object that affirms their queerness. That, to me, is amazing; that urge for queer people to find things to express themselves exists in the bedrooms of rural Missouri.”

Bae felt a similar gratitude for his own SYRO shoes on a recent trip to Korea. “I’ve been wearing SYRO boots every day for the past six years,” he said, “but something about being in Korea, I felt so grateful to have these shoes that I can wear on the street with a normal outfit and be able to really feel like myself.”

Photo by Oscar Ouk

Photo by Oscar Ouk

“I think queer people have different, small ways to affirm themselves,” Han chimed in, “whether it’s nail polish or some kind of hair. For me, it’s my mullet; for some people it’s high heels. Just these small things that make themselves feel like, ‘Oh, I am who I am.’”

Our call had opened with Bae and Shin showing off their fresh sets of nails (the former went with a coffin nail painted a shade of pale jade so subtle that it appeared white on camera; the latter went with black and red nails accented with chrome. Han, meanwhile, described their unadorned nails as “a tragedy.”) But growing up, all three were punished for their gender-nonconformity.

“Femininity was always inaccessible to me,” Bae said. “I was always oppressed and suppressed for all of my feminine traits. So for me, femme power is very adjacent to personal — I don’t want to say revenge, but it feels very fulfilling for me.”

Han added that, growing up in an Asian household specifically, “gender was a problem before sexuality was a problem.” (Bae agreed.)

“I think what you’re saying is femme power is a way of revenge, or feeling that we’re getting to relive and really be authentically who we are, and almost make up for all the times that we lost,” Han said.

Bae was also quick to emphasize that as much as SYRO is a queer brand, queerness is also intertwined with the fact that they are “so fucking goddamn Asian.” Both he and Shin are children of first-generation Korean immigrants, while Han was born in Chengdu, Sichuan, China and moved to New York when they were 11. To gloss over the ways in which race has affected their experiences of femininity would be to omit a crucial aspect of the brand’s mission.

Other than what he said about his own SYRO heels offering a bit of relief, Bae didn’t elaborate on his experiences in Korea. But he did mention that in July, South Korea’s biggest Pride parade in Seoul was denied a permit, with the venue instead being handed to a conservative Christian group.

“I’m Korean and I love Korean culture, but it comes at the cost of understanding that it’s just so conservative,” Bae said. “I definitely live under that weight every day.”

Of course, the fight against gender norms is also incredibly relevant here at home, especially when it comes to Asians reclaiming femininity. “Prior to feeling great about my gender identity, there was a long period of time where I felt like I’m failing at masculinity,” Han said, “especially in terms of America, where Asian masculinity is always being attacked.” Then they paused and revised: “Not attacked. Asian masculinity is not there. Asian men have always been emasculated and desexualized in America.”

As a teenager exposed to the hypermasculine white ideal of Abercrombie & Fitch ads, Han thought of their femininity as “a huge deficit” — and not just on a personal level, but in a way that made them feel as though they were making their people look bad. “For a while I was like, ‘Oh my God, am I just a stereotypical Asian person who is failing to live up to what America considered as masculine?’” they said. “And then through years of living and existing and really kind of exploring myself, it took a lot of work to unlearn that.”

“I think I still struggle with that,” Bae said. “Me being masculine, me being Asian… I definitely still struggle with that and that’s probably why I don’t like going home a lot.”

“That’s why you’re he/they,” Han teased.

As much as SYRO exists as a personal mission of reclamation and revenge, Han also emphasized that at the end of the day, “femme is sexy. It’s fun.” Like that dialectic of beauty and pain, femme, for SYRO, holds many truths at once.

Three photos of Alok wearing colorful clothes and Syro heels.

Obsessions: SYRO High-Heeled Shoes Are for Everyone

SYRO presents a beautiful, alternative representation of queer/trans femininity.

The particular truth of femme power as revenge is central to the brand’s forthcoming fall/winter collection, of which the STILETTO bag is a part. Notably, the Pride celebration Bae mentioned was moved to a different neighborhood in downtown Seoul where it was reportedly attended by 150,000 people — which certainly feels like a very queer sort of revenge. “There is absolutely still so much adversity and so much bullshit to fight through,” Bae said. “And I personally have so much anger about it.”

The designer described the forthcoming collection as “very aggressive,” dealing with themes of suppression — one heel has straps that look like chains, which alludes to “very much a narrative of being chained up.” It will also be the brand’s first heel that caters to smaller shoe sizes (their shoes start at size 41, or a U.S. men’s 8). There will be “five or six styles,” one of which will also be the brand’s first flat, and eleven colorways total, including more for the STILETTO bag. The collection will launch next November, and will ship in December.

“There’s spikes, there's metal hardware, there is audacious, bombastic, almost tacky, loud, colorful prints,” Bae said. “It’s just all supposed to be just very in your face, unapologetic punk. And I want people to wear these shoes when they go out, and just fuck up the whole goddamn world.”