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Aleali May made history with her unisex Jordans. Now she’s going to Sneaker Con

Aleali May
Aleali May, a stylist, model and sneaker designer, is the first person to create a unisex Jordan Brand shoe.
(Allison Zaucha / For The Times)

Aleali May’s influence in the fashion world is widespread. The multihyphenate juggles being chased down by photographers at New York and Paris fashion weeks, styling artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Lil Yachty, hosting a web series for Complex magazine and breaking barriers as the first woman to design a unisex sneaker for Jordan Brand.

May’s latest business venture is designing the merchandise — which is all inspired by L.A. — for Sneaker Con, an international footwear convention where enthusiasts buy, sell and trade sought-after kicks. The convention will take place Dec. 7-8 at the Anaheim Convention Center.

As a model, stylist and sneaker designer, May is as much of a nonconformist in her personal style as she is in her career. Her edgy look can include a vintage Dior top, 1017 Alyx 9SM jeans, Air Force 1s and a men’s Dior bag, finished off with customized jewelry inspired by L.A.'s Slauson Super Mall.

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With nearly half a million followers on Instagram, the South L.A. native has become the go-to tastemaker for blending contrast styles of luxury and streetwear as well as feminine and masculine.

The 27-year-old has collaborated with brands such as EA Sports, Canon and Smashbox Cosmetics — a list that may, at first glance, appear to be unconnected, but if you know May, the shoe just fits.

Although she is commonly referred to as an influencer — a fairly new term that was arguably birthed from the popularity of Instagram — May said that was never her goal. At age 19 and new to Chicago, she used the blog site Tumblr to document her style and that of those around her while working at the then-new, now well-known RSVP Gallery.

“Even before, when I would get modeling jobs, it would never be like, ‘You’re an influencer,’” she said. “That word was not even created.”

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May prefers the title “creative.”

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Model Salem Mitchell, right, shares a snack with a friend during a Smashbox party in honor of Aleali May becoming the new face for the makeup brand’s Original Photo Finish Smooth & Blur Primer on April 17, 2019.
(Allison Zaucha / For The Times)

Like many of her followers, May’s social presence is what caught the attention of former Jordan Brand designer Frank Cooke in 2016. His division known as NRG collaborated with artists and athletes such as rapper Travis Scott and BMX star Nigel Sylvester to design exclusive sneakers. Cooke recalls seeing an Instagram photo of May wearing a vintage Jordan sweatsuit with a pair of 1985 Jordan 1s and thinking, “She’s got the swag.”

“When it came to Aleali, she stood out to me because she was fly in a way” that couldn’t be put into a category, Cooke said. “It was cool because her first shoe was unisex so everybody could relate. Sometimes in sneakers, women are put in a [silo], so we tried to break the barrier that this is not just a women’s shoe.”

After eight meetings at Nike’s Portland, Ore.-area headquarters, May signed her first shoe deal.

May’s 2017 debut was the Air Jordan 1 Satin Shadow, an ode to South L.A. that incorporated the corduroy slippers her father used to wear from the Slauson Super Mall and satin to represent the Raiders’ and L.A. Kings’ vintage Starter jackets. For the release party, May transformed the Undefeated store on La Brea Avenue into a replica of the Slauson Super Mall and handed out treats from Randy’s Donuts and meals from Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles.

Her second collaboration, the Air Jordan 1 Court Lux, was released a year later. She teamed up with WNBA star Maya Moore, who designed a Jordan 10 shoe. According to May, the kicks were released as Air Jordan’s first women’s pack.

LOS ANGELES, CA -- MARCH 14, 2018: Los Angeles designer Aleali May’s second women’s Air Jordan is th
Los Angeles designer Aleali May’s second women’s Air Jordan is the Court Lux Air Jordan 1 in collaboration with WNBA star Maya Moore.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
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Her latest — the Millennial Pink VI — was released on March 15 and sold out in less than five minutes on Nike’s Snkrs app. According to e-commerce website StockX, the shoes now are worth about 150% more than their original retail price of $190. Her other pairs are worth more on resale sites.

May credits Vashtie Kola, a beloved music video director, influencer and DJ, for setting the framework for women in streetwear. In an episode of May’s “Get It Together” web series — a weekly style show where May selects and interviews style influencers and designers, including ASAP Ferg, Jerry Lorenzo and Melody Ehsani — for Complex magazine, she interviewed Kola, who’s credited as the first woman to collaborate with Jordan Brand. She designed a lavender Jordan II. The two women wore each other’s shoes in the episode.

When Kola was coming up in the industry during the early 2000s, there was a well-known sentiment that many streetwear brands would simply “pink-and-shrink” products that were originally designed for men to make them more palatable to women. So when Kola’s shoe released in 2010, it was called historic, although she said she didn’t recognize it at the time.

LOS ANGELES, CA -- MARCH 14, 2018: Aleali May, a Los Angeles-based stylist, designer and model is re
Aleali May’s Millennial Pink Air Jordan XI.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“I feel like it gave young women like myself who were interested in things that were deemed a tomboy or masculine, a sort of beacon of hope,” said Kola, now 38. “It gave us this hope of, ‘Wow, there is something for us, and maybe the fact that brands haven’t noticed us in the past doesn’t mean that they are ignoring us. It could just mean that they really didn’t see the following that we have or the power we have.’”

Kola said she is pleased to see May continuing the work she and other women before her started more than a decade ago.

“When she popped up online, she was definitely someone that I looked to for inspiration just because she embodied someone I could identify with. [Her style] was similar to mine but very much different,” Kola said of May. “There’s a lot of us [women] who are sneaker lovers, and not to say that other people don’t deserve the opportunity, but I think that her having the aesthetic and approach that she has made the most sense” for a collaboration.

In spring 2018, May teamed up with Jordan Brand to relaunch its women’s department through a campaign known as Season of Her, according to Nike. This campaign marked the first time the sneaker giant has launched a full women’s footwear collection in its 35-year history.

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“I want a dope shoe to be a dope shoe regardless of whether it’s men’s or women’s,” May said. “It’s really cool to see how far we’ve come. … We don’t want the secondary colorways [designed for women specifically]. We want what Michael [Jordan] is wearing because he’s the greatest.”

Long before May was a streetwear maven, her admiration for sneakers was ignited when her Uncle “G” bought her her first pair of Jordans. Because Hillcrest Drive Elementary School required uniforms, sneakers became her primary mode of style exploration.

During an interview at her West Hollywood apartment, which houses nearly 300 pairs of shoes, May said, “Your only flex was your shoes, so I was always trying to have the newest Air Forces or the newest Jordans. That judged everything. ... On a cultural level, growing up in the hood of L.A., sneakers [showed] your personality. I can wear all black and then wear some crazy colored sneakers, and then you’ll be like, ‘She’s very modest but she also likes to be bold.’”

Aleali May
Aleali May at home in West Hollywood.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

In her youth, May looked to her favorite musicians, such as Aaliyah, members of TLC and the Spice Girls, for style inspiration. A childhood photo of May posing confidently with her hands on her hips, sporting baggy jeans, bright red sneakers and two long pigtails, was displayed on the refrigerator door in her home.

“Not much has changed,” she said with the same youthful grin.

At age 16, she began purchasing shoes with money she earned from her first job at PacSun. She was voted best dressed at her Colorado high school, where she spent four years while her father was stationed in the military.

After graduation, May moved to Chicago to study marketing at Columbia College. She worked as a sales associate at Louis Vuitton before moving on to RSVP Gallery, a conceptual retail store owned by fashion designer Don Crawley (a.k.a. Don C.) and Louis Vuitton men’s artistic director and Off-White label founder Virgil Abloh.

“I felt like I was in the right place where something was evolving, but we didn’t know what exactly it was yet,” May said. “So being in the mix of everything as it was about to happen, I think that’s why I really loved being there. [At RSVP], it was never about gender. It was about pushing the youth, and I loved that motto.”

She credits Chicago as the place that helped her recognize her niche in fashion and where she met many of the people she still works with today, but L.A. is the city where she solidified her position in the industry. May moved back to her hometown in 2013. Within two weeks, she began working at L.A. streetwear boutique FourTwoFour on Fairfax and booked a gig to dress Lamar for a “Jimmy Kimmel Live” appearance.

May’s résumé has expanded to walking in fashion shows for brands such as Kith and A-Cold-Wall, styling Jaden Smith in her sneakers for the cover of Highsnobiety magazine and posing for international campaigns for brands such as Smashbox Cosmetics. (She styled herself for the photo shoot.)

During NBA All-Star Weekend in North Carolina earlier this year, May told a crowd that when she “got a Jordan, [all women] got a Jordan.” This statement has become the mission of her career. With the continued emergence of female influencers and more women embracing streetwear fashion, the industry has no choice but to pay attention.

“Being the only woman in the room, I think there definitely needs to be more, but I also think it’s cool because we’re starting somewhere,” May said. “I’m just really about representing that girl and making a point [of] what we do and what we don’t like.”


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