These Boots Were Made For Walking…Across the Binary: Meet Henry Bae of Syro Shoes

All photos by Shaobo Han. Used with permission.

I first met Henry when I interviewed to be his intern for a then flourishing footwear retailer. We immediately bonded over a shared obsession with aesthetics informed by mutual experiences of growing up ‘othered.’ That was when dialogue around the fluidity of gender was virtually nonexistent in the mainstream media, and informing my hetero colleagues about my queer identification would often be met with a head tilt of confusion. But it was through our obsession with aesthetics and style that we explored the nooks and crannies of our identities, both marked by gender fluidity and race. Now Henry occupies his time as the creative mastermind of SYRO shoes, his own shoe retailer (though fledgling yet, in its second season) that seeks to provide gender inclusivity to fashion commerce. We reunite to discuss historical queerness, community-as-survival, and the role of fashion in the gender revolution.

Henry Bae standing against a door wearing Syro Shoes

André: Let’s start with the beginning of the brand, and the name. Where does the name “Syro” come from?

Henry: Syro is derived from an ancient Greco Roman term that I can’t pronounce–it’s basically Anasyromenos. That was used to describe a pose that their statues would be sculpted in. These statues would be goddesses that were lifting up their skirts to reveal a penis. It was a popular form, a popular pose, and a symbol of power. I enjoyed the beauty of that, the synergy of the sexes, especially in today’s culture in which synergy and fluidity of sexuality and gender seem to be looked down upon and demonized. So I really appreciated the beauty of that in Syro. Coincidentally, S-Y-R-O are kind of my initials which I didn’t realized until much later. The project is very personal to me in its mission and what it stands for, and I can’t believe I’m in the position to be doing this.

A: I like that a lot, because in mainstream media and dialogue, there seems to be this idea that this kind of synthesis is new.

A model with face covered wearing a high-heeled syro shoes and fuzzy sweater

H: Oh my gosh, yeah.

A: That we just sprung out of nowhere, so finding out stories like this is kind of validating. That we have always been here, in one way or another.

H: Totally. Absolutely. It does seem new in our society, and when we look back in history, which is much more your forte, when we look back at how cultures used to celebrate things like sex, phallic symbols, it just causes you to wonder why our society is the way it is. In the context of today, it’s really fascinating to realize that this is nothing new, we are not new, but in the mainstream consciousness we are “new.”

A: You mentioned your mission, your goal. What is your mission with Syro.

H: The mission today with Syro is simply to celebrate and honor fluidity of gender. It’s not that serious, it’s just shoes and it’s just high heels. However I think to certain people, the availability of this means a lot, and therefore the mission and the goal is to honor the sincerity of people. That is my beautiful little fairy tale, but at the end of the day I keep in mind that this is a business, intending to survive and make money. Hopefully we will be making money by providing a service that hasn’t really existed yet.

A: You say it’s just shoes and it’s not that serious, and I agree with that. Ultimately it IS just shoes, you know, and it’s NOT that serious, but it’s so remarkable in our society that something like shoes could evoke hostile reactions from some, you know, Billy or Tom on the street.

H: Right, absolutely. That’s the weird thing. They’re just shoes; Lipstick is just color that you put on your face, but since I was a child I knew that was extremely forbidden for me, and very important just in the sense that I wasn’t allowed to have it. So now, as I’m older, it’s very fun to remove all the context and just be able to have fun with it. That comes with a lot of risk because depending on where I am, it might be a life threatening decision to go out with those ‘just’ shoes.

A: Just authentically being ourselves it is in an of itself a political act, or an act of rebellion.

H: It’s so confusing to me still, I am just being me, but by doing that it’s a shame that that incites such a negative response.

A: I’ve often been feeling like feminine men, queer men, femmes in general, we kind of are thrown into this ‘othered’ category where rules of society don’t really apply. People don’t know how to treat us, how to respect us, so sometimes it feels like a free-for-all for our bodies and our safety.

H: Totally, totally.

A: Let’s talk about New York. You specifically moved to NY to launch the brand, is that correct?

H: No I did not, I moved here to work in the fashion circuit. I found myself without a job. This opportunity popped up and conveniently I happened to be living in a hot spot for this kind of work.

A model shown from the waist down wearing black thigh high Syro shoes.

A: What can you tell me about living in New York and how the queer community there–I know you get really inspired by your environment and the people around you. Can you tell me a bit how being in New York fuels your creativity for the brand?

H: There are two things about life in New York: the first is the sense of liberation. I don’t think anybody in New York cares. I live in Bushwick, primarily a residential latino neighborhood sprinkled with yuppies, which is a whole other conversation. It seems that nobody cares what I look like, what i’m wearing. Everyone is so consumed with their own lives and everyone has seen it all before. I really enjoy living somewhere where I feel safe, at my most safe, to explore and express. The other thing about New York, the saturation of people who love clothes and style lends itself to very fascinating people watching. I’m constantly inspired by what people will wear on the train or walking down the street. New York has been the most fun observing people’s freedom. There isn’t much connection I have with the local queer scene, besides me and my small circle of close friends. Most of my connection exists online.

A: That last part is not surprising, knowing you as a somewhat introverted person. But you mentioned feeling more connected online. What does that mean?

H: It’s the strangest thing because online, I will ‘follow’ one person, which will lead me down a rabbit hole of explore page, recommendations, of all these kids who live not only in NY but Brooklyn, and not only Brooklyn but Bushwick, within a 1 or 2 mile radius of me. It’s bizarre to see that there is such a community of young queer kids that are in close vicinity to me, going out on the town, being places I am at everyday and I don’t see them! It’s just an odd thing to be aware of; The internet shows me i’m not alone and most of my customers are from NY, so I keep that in mind.  

A: Speaking of seeing people and how they dress, I’m really interested in visual sovereignty for those who are gendered outside the norm, owning our own appearance, and the liberation that that gives us. In a way, Syro gives us a way to liberate ourselves. But on the flipside, that is very much embedded  within commerce, capitalism, which I think can be very tricky and paradoxical. I’m interested to know what you think, what role does fashion commerce serve in dismantling gendered norms?

H: Fashion commerce specifically? [llaughs] I would actually say, sacrilegiously, that fashion commerce serves little to no role in dismantling gendered norms. Syro is a company that exists within fashion commerce for that purpose, and I’m sure there are other companies like Syro, but me personally, dismantling gender norms through fashion is something that… I don’t think there are many avenues to explore that these days within fashion commerce, through ‘new clothing.’ I think dismantling them, especially within the realities of 2017, comes from playing around with what already exists.

A: Street fashion vs. the fashion industry.

H: Right, and REfashioning these things. I don’t know if products can dismantle gendered norms. Fashion commerce is tricky, and I don’t think it’s actually very helpful in dismantling, or even in cultivating original expression of thought actually.

A: I agree with everything you said, yet here you are making shoes that seek to, what does your mission statement say on your site?

H: To liberate.

A: Exactly. And you know let’s talk about that Nat Geo gender revolution magazine cover. Your products are part of the face of the gender revolution!

H: Right? Totally. Those shoes were worn under a Hood by Air dress, a brand that exists within fashion commerce that dismantles gendered norms. So these brands exist, and that’s super cool, but I have to say that dismantling these norms through fashion is very personal, so if a brand exists that can sell within our budget, that fits, that’s great. But that’s a lot on the b side of what I do. There aren’t many players in this game.

A: You touched on something that I think is interesting and particular about the fashion industry. And when you have people like Shayne Oliver of HBA, a visionary, right, and Syro, making accessible avenues for people to pragmatically explore their beauty. The fashion industry doesn’t really care, right? It itself exists to make money. But you have humans with good intention, heart, talent, drive, behind the scenes, and it kind of becomes this warbled mess. Which came first? The fashion, or revolution that the fashion is perpetuating?

H: Fashion couldn’t exist without the revolution, the thought, the canon of ideas that result in specific stylistics, sartorial choices. I do know that this industry is very savvy at creating an identity then selling it to people that may not even know they want it. That does concern me. I do wonder if that’s just my personality that looks for the flaw in everything. [laughs]

A: Well you are a virgo after all.

H: [laughs]

A: I love fashion, as you know. We both do. I love it so much, but I worry that this gendered fashion revolution will sit on simply the aesthetic, which is empowering in its own right, but perhaps obscures the realities of certain people who don’t have access to resources. The reality is so different than what is presented in these high budget androgynous fashion campaigns in the mainstream.

H: I agree with you, there is a concern that if it circles around image and appearance it will obscure the realities of, say trans women of color.

A: Precisely. And speaking of queer people of color, sometimes I feel pressure from white queers to ignore my blackness in the name of queerness, as if I can just separate those two aspects of my identity. You yourself are gay, queer, and also Korean. I wonder how your race and queerness worked together to create your gender expression.

H: For me being Korean is just another drop in the bucket of the same thing. Being Korean, being queer and a former Christian are very similar in the fact that they suppress me, wanting to just fit in. So when I came out as gay, that provided me a fast track out of my Christian-ness, my conservative Korean-ness, and now I find myself confused. Quite simply confused. I find myself alone, I don’t really know who else to share these experiences with. How monumentally being Korean and queer have affected me. I imagine that’s how a lot of us feel in this community, confused and alone with these odd experiences. When we get lumped into one group, one face representing all of us, usually white, that is super unfortunate. It’s not the reality that a lot of us know, but I don’t have lots of personal experiences with queer people in general to know how I feel about putting my Korean-ness aside. In many spaces, being queer wasn’t my defining thing. It was just another thing that separated me from the ‘norm.’ My environment is usually very alone, and I share my queer and Korean-ness with myself.

A: That makes sense. It’s kind of sad to hear!

H: It is sad!

A: That’s why mindful community is so so important.

H: Absolutely.

A: For anyone in general, but especially for those disenfranchised, community becomes survival. Just having someone to relate to is an act of survival.

H: Definitely.

A: Next time you feel like that call me!

H: I will. I did text you!

A: [laughs] That’s right you did.

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