How Aleali May Changed the Sneaker Game for Women
Badass Women spotlights women who not only have a voice but defy the irrelevant preconceptions of gender.
“I wasn’t the kind of girl who played with Barbies,” says Aleali May (pronounced “uh-lay-lee”). Growing up in South Central L.A. during the early ‘90s—otherwise known as the golden age of hip-hop—the designer, stylist, model, and influencer (with 250,000 Instagram followers and counting) instead turned her attention to sneakers. Specifically Jordans.
As an elementary schooler at Hillcrest Drive Elementary School, May brought her accessory A-game on Fridays, when students were permitted to wear their footwear of choice. “It was a competition if you came with the newest or rarest sneakers,” she says.
Fast-forward to present day and May has perhaps the most unique pair of all: her own custom-designed Air Jordan 1, cementing her place in history as the first female collaborator with the Jordan brand on a sneaker style for both men and women. To mark the milestone, she recently made her big-screen debut in Unbanned: The Legend of AJ1, a new documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival about the history of the Air Jordan 1 and its impact on fashion, sports, and music.
Here’s how she got there.
Why she’s a badass: Last year, after stints at Louis Vuitton and Virgil Abloh’s RSVP Gallery in Chicago, May became the first woman to collaborate on an Air Jordan sneaker design for both mens and womens. Since then, she’s added stylist to her resumé, racking up clients including Kendrick Lamar, Tinashe, and Lil’ Yachty. She's also modeled for brands like Kith.
Family ties: May credits her Uncle G for introducing her to sneaker culture at a young age. “He bought me Jordan 12's when I was in elementary school,” she says. “That was when I developed a true love of high-tops—it informed the silhouette of every sneaker I’ve gotten since.”
Overcoming obstacles: Being the sole woman in a predominately male-run market isn’t without its fair share of challenges. “There’s always an internal battle to represent myself and keep going,” May says. “The challenge is not giving up.” During particularly tough times, she’s leaned heavily on her Buddhist faith. “I do the same chant as Tina Turner and Orlando Bloom,” she says. “Nam myoho renge kyo. It’s about pushing through every barrier and reaching your highest potential.”
Claim to fame: Designing a sneaker that pays tribute to her L.A. roots. The corduroy detail on May’s Jordan 1 is a nod to corduroy slippers sold in flea markets throughout her hometown of South Central, and the black and silver colorway represents her favorite NHL team, the L.A. Kings. “You can wear them up or down—it doesn’t look like a basketball shoe,” she says. “When you put them on, you want to be like Mike (Jordan) and dominate the world.”
Women she admires: Aaliyah, Alicia Keys, and a few token Spice Girls. “I had posters of Aaliyah and Alicia Keys all over my childhood bedroom,” she says. “I was all about the mix—sometimes I want to be a little crazy, sometimes I want to dress up, but most of the time I just want to be comfortable.”
Looking ahead: May hopes to continue making waves in the footwear industry. “I want to take Jordan silhouettes to the next level,” she says. “I want to highlight more women. There are more girls just like me that love heels but also love sneakers.”