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Of all the sneakers Nike has produced in its vast history, it's a pretty well known truth that the Air Force 1 is one of the brand's most iconic silhouettes. The staple sneaker, which was the first to implement Nike Air technology, was introduced in 1982 as a basketball shoe and has since both a must in most non-dribbling closets and a cultural juggernaut - "give meee two paiiiiir" - thanks Nelly.

The Nike Air Force 1 has since lost it's basketball exclusivity and has, instead, evolved into a shoe that resides with the culture (and no, we're not talking about the Bella Hadids and Kylie Jenners of the world). For the everyday girl from Brooklyn to Belfast, the shoe's versatility is really put to the test by those of us who run their respective cities with creative insight while taking their SNKRS L's just like the rest of us. To honor these leaders, Nike joined forces with Girlgazeto give photographers across North America the chance to tell the untold stories of heroes in different communities through their lens and how these local heroes embody the essence of the Air Force 1.

We had the amazing opportunity (thanks Nike!) to chat with two such women who are trailblazing a path of success from the ground up. Sara Merabet, Head Buyer at RSVP Gallery and Natallia Ryshtakova, Associate at Notre, are creating experiences at two of the largest sneaker boutiques in the country. Paving their own lane through resilience, determination, and a strong sense of self, these two "Unsung Heroes" are shaping sneakher culture in a space that has long been a strictly boys club. Check out our interview below and grab your pen. You’ll need to write these gems down.

MEET SARA MERABET AND NATALLIA RYSHTAKOVA.  SNEAKHER TRAILBLAZERS.  INDIVIDUALITY ADVOCATES. CREATIVE CURATORS.  AIR FORCE 1 HOT STEPPERS.  CHI-TOWN BOSS BABES.

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EVERY WOMEN HAS A STORY.

SARA: I'm originally from Boston, MA and moved to Chicago about 11 years ago. I was not working in retail at all, not even close. Getting into this lane was so new for me. With the power of social media, I was able to connect with the store manager at RSVP Gallery and he offer me a position as a sales associate. I took in everything I could and I wanted to learn the in's and out's. After moving into management, I was promoted to Buyer and have been with RSVP for five years now.

RSVP is a destination store, and it started off as a minimal store with items handpicked by the owners. People come from all over the world to visit RSVP. The neon lights catch your attention from down the street and it's like a museum with a really cool gift shop.

NATALLIA: In Russia I was first introduced to high fashion sneaker culture. I moved to Chicago about three years ago, and I had family already there. Moving to the US was a real way to get to know people honestly. RSVP Gallery was one of the first places I saw with the younger generation of creatives. Then I found Notre, and asked them if they were hiring. I was hired and that is when I really got into sneakers and fashion even more.

THREE WORDS: SOLIDIFY A SEAT

SARA: I would say I've created my own seat at the table by staying hungry. I'm very observant and love to learn. If I'm presented with a challenge, I want to know not only how to solve it but truly understand the process. Even from an operational standpoint at RSVP I was like 'Ok I don't know how to do this, let me learn'. The men that I work with have always been very helpful and given me the tools I needed. It was truly up to me to use those tools to my advantage. I stayed true to myself. It's my job and responsibility to educate myself because I deserve to be sitting here regardless of my age or sex.

NATALLIA: Working at Notre has shown me that sometimes it isn't about a man or a woman, but what value you bring to the table. I think that is the most helpful environment for young creatives. Notre is a very inviting atmosphere where I know I bring that value. Guys will bring their girlfriends in the store, and that is another way I'm able to show women that they belong within sneaker/streetwear culture.

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CREATING AN EXPERIENCE = THE CHEAT CODE

SARA: My very first experience in the store was for a Kid Cudi meet and greet. I walked into RSVP and felt so welcomed by the staff and there was no pressure to purchase anything. It was more like come in and look and get inspired. It came full circle for me from many years ago. That is the main message that we try to convey at RSVP - be inspired. Any way that we can give back to the city or people that come and visit. They will walk away with something, even if it's not a tangible product.

NATALLIA: Notre is helping to create a space for high fashion streetwear, which has also helped me be more confident wearing [streetwear] clothes. It's fun working at Notre because we focus on individuality versus anything else. One of Notre's goal is to become a platform for creatives where we share ideas and connect. It is a perfect spot for networking, not just shopping.

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PRESSURE MAKES DIAMONDS…

SARA: My age for one has been something that has thrown people off at times. I am 25 years old and don't come from a retail background. I do get quite a bit of 'How did you get the job' or 'How did you get here' - especially when I travel overseas. Sometimes I am the only woman in the room or the youngest in the room. The youth is making a presence, but there are people who have been in the game a long time. Instead of letting that intimidate me, I used it to fuel my drive to learn. They think I don't know, I'll show them that I do.

NATALLIA: While I am the only female in the physical store, I am able to interact with so many different people where as I may not have had that opportunity before. We are able to have other discussions. While there are a lot of different people, we all share ideas.

A TIMELESS PAIR OF SNEAKHERS.

SARA: The Nike Air Force 1 is a classic sneaker, and it is classic because it remains what it is for so long. It has been tried and tested with different models, styles, colorways, patterns, and at the core it's still the Air Force 1 - it's a great shoe. It's something I have been wearing since I was a kid. It's a sneaker that impacts artists, influencers, mothers, fathers - for every generation. That's one thing that keeps it so strong, the fact that it represents stability in this culture. It's important to have something like that because there are people that don't like to shy away from what they know. The Air Force 1 is a safe shoe for everyone. You'll never be looked at crazy for wearing an Air Force 1. I've dressed my shoes up and down.

NATALLIA: A lot of my friends have a history with the Air Force 1, and have been wearing the shoe since they were little kids. Many of them are connected to the shoe through sports like basketball. Growing up overseas, I didn't have the exact same experience. What started the interest in Air Force 1s for me was when people began mixing high fashion pieces with their Air Force 1 sneakers. Mixing a high end coat with a pair of really clean white Air Force 1s was really cool. For me it is more of a fashion shoe. I am even seeing how it is more iconic by becoming a canvas for artists.

SHOP NIKE AIR FORCE 1 SNEAKER STYLES BELOW

LEAVING A FOOTPRINT.

SARA: Being in Chicago during my most pivotal years has really given me access to what I want. Working at RSVP and connecting with people who are making so much noise in the sneaker industry is so inspiring. I want to make my mark by spreading the message that you don't have to be so hard on yourself. I had no idea what I was getting into when I took the job at RSVP. I didn't know if I was going to be successful. I took a very DIY approach, and overall that is the message - you can do it too. I've learned from so many different people and taken away from conversations with strangers on the street. You can break molds and fast forward right to what you want if you work hard, stay true to you, doing what you love, and have a level of compassion.

NATALLIA: My goal is to be a part of a community by helping people and connecting with others. Sneaker culture brings people together and I want to find more people that are just getting into it. It's important to help others that are also trying to find their way in this community. I love what Chicago is doing because it's a creative bubble.

TO ALL THE LADIES IN THE PLACE…

SARA: To women working in the a male-dominated space I would say remember who you are and what you are trying to accomplish. Be welcoming and open to trying new things, move around the world and explore different cultures. I really try to put myself out there and not box myself in. I started to feel that maybe I don't need to fit in, but I need to stand out as ME. This is a industry that never sleeps. Keep your eyes open, try to stay one step ahead, ask questions, and LEARN. Most importantly, don't forget who you are.

NATALLIA: There are really no limits to the possibilities in this community. This is a time of individuality, and you don't have to pretend to be someone else or copy anyone. You can find your place in society. There is a lot more equal opportunity without judging the next person. Make sure to be yourself, keep going, and be active. Being friendly is one of the most important rules. We have so many tools and it's important for us to all work together.

WHAT DOES ‘SNEAKHER CULTURE’ MEAN TO YOU?

SARA: SneakHER culture means providing women a platform that we weren't given before. We are on a playing field now. We can do just as much as we want with the resources we have now. There is so much innovation with women involved. For products, I don't think that everything has to be unisex, but I feel women should have the same options as men. Just to have a sneakHER culture is creating that platform for us by us. I feel like it's now or never. For women to be in positions of power is so monumental.

NATALLIA: Wear what you like! SneakHER Culture means bringing women together. It also opens doors and introduces others to different areas of the culture that may have been overlooked or not known about. You get familiar with sneaker style by going to places like Notre and connecting with others.


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