Why Did the Best Female Rock Climber in the World Team up with a Streetwear Brand?

Evolv and Ashima Shiraishi, one of the best female rock climbers in the world, teamed up with streetwear label Brain Dead to make a very special climbing shoe.

ashima brain dead zenist gear patrol lead full

Editor's Note: Evolv recently announced that preorders of its Ashima x Brain Dead Zenist climbing shoe neared 600 pairs and raised over $50,000 to be donated to DEI organizations focusing on climbing. The original story about how the limited-edition climbing shoe came to be follows.

Earlier this summer, a small streetwear brand called Brain Dead raised over half a million dollars for charities supporting the Black Lives Matter movement by selling two exclusive t-shirts. The first, a collaboration with contemporary R&B artist Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange, came together in less than 24 hours. Now the brand, led by Kyle Ng, is back on the fundraising path with a collab of a very different kind: a rock climbing shoe produced by the California-based climbing company Evolv.

The shoe is the Ashima x Brain Dead Zenist, a performance climbing shoe with a downturned toe profile constructed with a fine-tuned rigidity to deliver feedback and control on the wall. Its design features a colorful, unlined synthetic upper and a Trax rubber outsole and toe patch for steep and inverted climbing, outdoors are at indoor climbing gyms.

This isn’t the first time Ng has worked with an outdoor gear maker. Brain Dead teamed up with The North Face in late 2019, and it was through that work that Ng met Ashima Shiraishi, the 19-year old phenom who is considered one of the best female climbers in the world.

The two became friends, and soon after The North Face release started to dream up a shoe that would bridge the void between gear and fashion. “In climbing you just don’t see that many cool shoes, shoes with different colorways and different options, and we wanted to introduce that,” Shiraishi says. She brought the idea to Brian Chung, Evolv’s founder, who immediately gave it the green light.

Compared to the other producers of technical climbing gear that populate the industry, Evolv is a newcomer. Chung prides Evolv’s products as cutting edge while contrasting its aesthetic with traditional “Hot Wheels-colored climbing shoes.” Founded in Los Angeles, Evolv is smaller and more nimble as a result, which is why Shiraishi and Ng’s idea — which she admits “was kind of bizarre and far-fetched” — is actualizing just months after their meeting.

It’s also why the company is able to make the timely decision to use proceeds of the shoe to support organizations working to get marginalized groups into climbing, just like Ng did with his t-shirts. “You can’t just let this sit and not take this opportunity to do something good for the climbing community,” Shiraishi says.

Rock climbing has been steadily growing, particularly in recent years — the US is building new climbing gyms faster than traditional gyms and fitness clubs — but, like many outdoor sports, there are unavoidable barriers to entry such as proximity to outdoor areas and expensive gym memberships.

That’s a reality not lost on Shiraishi, who started climbing at age six in New York City’s Central Park, for free. The local climbing community supported her progress with free gym memberships, and Evolv brought her onto its team before she rounded out age 10. “I probably wouldn’t have continued climbing if they didn’t give me that hospitality,” she says.

To Evolv, inclusivity in climbing means “opening up opportunities for everyone with all different backgrounds, abilities and disabilities, and socio-economic situations to climbing by making it more accessible and also by helping those who need more support,” according to Chung. The company’s track record in that includes the creation of an adaptive foot and accompanying shoe for leg and foot amputees.

As for the Ashima x Brain Dead Zenist, Shiraishi, Ng and Evolv employed an outlook of “thinking globally and acting locally,” says Chung. Profits from sales of the shoe will support five organizations: YWWC (Young Women Who Crush), a New York-based program that empowers high school girls through climbing; Adaptive Climbing Group, a community for people with disabilities that creates inclusive opportunities in climbing; Brown Girls Climbing, a company dedicated to leadership development for girls of color through climbing and adventure; Long Beach Rising, an all-bouldering climbing gym that has programs that get disadvantaged youth into climbing; and an upcoming DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) film festival.

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