Henry Bae had just walked into the Bed-Stuy queer bar C’mon Everybody to see a drag show with friends when Bowen Yang flashed on TV, walking the Emmys red carpet in a dazzling pair of chrome high-heeled boots they designed with Shaobo Han, the other half of the shoe label SYRO.
“I was just mauled with all of my friends being like, ‘Girl, did you see? Hello!,’” Bae told The Daily Beast. “I really felt like we were present, collectively, with this Bushwick energy. The response from my friends has been particularly touching.”
Han, Bae’s business partner and “bestie,” was at home watching the E! coverage. It wasn’t an entire surprise to see Yang in the shoes—both Bae and Han describe the SNL star and Emmy winner as a “friend” they know through the “queer Asian nightlife” crowd in NYC. (Bae and Han use they/them pronouns.)
Yang’s stylist Ian Bradley let them know that Yang had a few outfits pulled. If he went with a “louder” outfit, he’d tone down the shoes. But ultimately Yang put on a black Zegna suit, which he zhuzh’d up with the chunky silver heels.
“I think the first thing I thought was, ‘Wow, queer Asians are supporting other queer Asians,’” Han said. “Not only did the shoes look fabulous on him, it kind of shows how with red carpets, the Emmys, and Hollywood, gender queerness is breaking in. We’re seeing it with so many other celebrities, and to see an Asian face from New York carry it off the way he did is incredible. There’s a whole generation of young Asian queer people looking at this moment like, ‘He did it, I could do it.’”
Both Bae and Han said they were neck-deep in congratulatory DMs and notes the morning after the Emmys and have seen a spike in interest since Yang name-dropped the label.
“We have so many people asking about the shoes today,” Bae said. “Unfortunately, those [silver] ones are sold out; we only have them available in black. We work on making accessible heels in an accessible size range at an accessible price for as many people as possible, so all of our heels are always made in black.”
Han added that “a lot” of the people writing in after the Emmys “are reaching out from small areas in the US.” The SYRO (pronounced “See-row,” like “zero” with an “S”) co-founders stress the importance of their chosen families and queer community in New York but recognize that’s not a resource for LGBT folks who don’t live in big cities.
“There are people in Oklahoma and Kansas who get to know that there are other people out there who are living an authentic life,” Han said. “To me, that’s the most beautiful thing to achieve—for queer people who don’t have a community to know that we are everywhere.”
Bae and Han met on Facebook; the pair became especially close after Bae moved to New York in 2015. The two run their brand out of their beloved Bushwick. Bae leads shoe design; Han spearheads operations.
“To make it short and sweet, Henry does all of the designing, and I look pretty in the shoes,” Han said.
Bae laughed this off, saying, “Everything is a collaboration, a conversation. I’m a super creative person, but I’m the type to stay up all night and disappear for a couple of days. What Shaobo brings to the table is growing the business.”
The design process is simple: both founders ask themselves what type of shoes they want in their closet. It’s an exercise in expressing desire but also function: it can be hard for queer people to find shoes in bigger sizes that fit their feet, so SYRO provides looks they might not be able to squeeze into otherwise.
“I’ll say, ‘I think I need a white boot,’” Bae said. “Or, I want something that feels very grunge, because I’m angry at the world now. Or, something that looks hardcore because the world’s falling apart and I need to make sure my heels can carry me through all the rubble. Or, I’ve never had the opportunity to have a kitten heel in my size and that’s so demure and feminine, I want that now.”
The idea behind Yang’s boots: “We wanted shoes that scream, ‘I’m here!’” Bae said. “Sometimes wearing a black pump to the grocery store is not enough. Sometimes you need those six-inch black pumps to be silver.”
Both Bae and Han grew up in Asian-American families that expected them to conform to a rigid gender expression. “I would sneak into my garage or my mom’s closet to try on shoes she had,” Bae said, which is an experience Han remembers well too.
“Wearing heels in my household, which was a Korean immigrant household, was definitely not something I dared to let anyone else see,” Bae added. “I just knew that I was breaking some rules. That kind of formative experience sticks with me every day I do this work. I can’t believe I’m allowed to explore heels in sizes that actually fit me. That’s not how it was for me growing up.”
Han liked Bae’s use of the phrase “breaking a rule” when it comes to male-presenting people in heels. “Seeing Bowen wear SYRO to the red carpet, that’s totally ‘breaking a rule,’” they said. “Not only for a queer person to do that, but for a queer Asian person to do that in public is huge.”
“As an Asian person, or Asian man, there’s a restriction on presenting feminine,” Bae said. They noted a recent headline they saw on NPR: “China Bans Effeminate Men From TV.” The state-run TV regulating group decided that “broadcasters must resolutely put an end to sissy men and other abnormal esthetics” in a crackdown on national “morality.”
“So it means a lot to see femininity represented in such a gender queer way,” Bae added.
The first time Bae proudly wore heels outside was when they were fresh out of college and at a Pride Parade in Portland, Oregon. “I found these humongous glitter heels that my large feet would fit into,” they remembered. “They were smashed and squashed but I felt amazing. That was the start of me searching for heels that fit my big foot in adult life.”
Both founders are active on Instagram and have a slew of internet fans with whom they’ve cultivated a sense of belonging. While they say queer representation is crucial on the red carpet, it only goes so far. Bae cited Michaela Coel’s powerful Emmy’s acceptance speech for best writing in I May Destroy You.
“She said something along the lines of, visibility is valued but it’s OK to disappear,” Bae said. “We’re so active on social media for our brand because we want to put out images of queer people existing and thriving. But you have to wonder—how does that seep into our actual lives? That’s a conversation we’re having of what does community actually mean, what does it mean to find people and commit to them.”
“It goes beyond ‘representation,’” Han added. “Community values are such a specific thing. It’s about such small stuff: checking in with your queer friends. Being gentle with them. The intangible things go a long way.”
SYRO has already made fans of Yang, Billy Porter, Tommy Dorfman, Christopher John Rodgers, Sam Smith, Troye Sivan, and Adam Lambert. “These are like icons of our time and in our community, it’s insane,” Bae said. “To collectively list their names is beyond me.”
RuPaul has a pair, too. He bought them in the most RuPaul way imaginable. “We missed his order during one drop, because we had so many,” Bae said. “So RuPaul wrote us an email that said, ‘Hey bitches, save me a pair. -Ru.’ Then I went back through orders and saw that RuPaul Andre Charles had purchased them already. So I screamed.”
The world’s most famous drag queen was also at the Emmys last night alongside Yang. “He saw Bowen Yang walk on that stage and I hope he said, ‘Hey girl, I have those shoes, too,’” Bae said.
So who to dress now? “I would love to see cis straight men wear our shoes,” Han said. “Maybe someone like Harry Styles who toes that line. Heels are an article of clothing that shouldn’t have gender and shouldn’t be limited to queerness.”