Aleali May's Uncle G bought her the first pair of Jordans she owned; they were 7s, and they dropped in 1992. Now, 15 years later, the 25-year-old — who's styled the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Tinashe and Lil Yachty, has modeled for brands like Adidas and Kith and currently boasts a whopping 197,000 Instagram followers (landing her firmly in "influencer" territory) — just became the first woman to design an Air Jordan sneaker that will be released in both men's and women's sizing.
With the classic Air Jordan 1 "Shadow" as the foundation, the Air Jordan 1 x Aleali May pays homage to her home city, Los Angeles. The corduroy upper is directly inspired by the house slippers her father used to pick up at the famous Slauson Swap Meet, where she, too, used to shop. "Slauson Swapmeet is where you go [buy] your jewelry," May says of the South Central LA market that Frank Ocean recently name dropped in his single, "Biking." "I used to get all my pro fives to go under my uniform. I got my socks there — slouch socks — because I went to Catholic School and I wanted to spice it up. Race car jackets. Bamboo earrings, all at the Slauson. I was shopping for sneakers there, too. They sell rims there. They sell grills. It's huge."
The shoe's chenille, satin and orange accents are representative of the Los Angeles Raiders and LA Kings Starter jackets that were extremely popular in the '90s. "I thought, let's do the satin from the Starter jacket, but then it also kinda plays off the fact that the other two satin [styles] dropped, the Royals and the Breds, so it's like taking something that's classic — the Shadow, the slippers, the Kings jacket — putting it with something that's newer, like the satin releases."With each of these components, it was her call to sell them in both men's and women's sizes; for that reason, her signature is inside the sneaker. "I just wanted to appeal to everybody. I didn't want to put my name on the outside," May explains. "I wanted men to be able to wear it as well as women. I was like, 'I wear men’s and women's clothes, guys, I think we need to do both.'"
When I ask the LA-based multi-hyphenate if, looking back, there was any specific point in her career she felt truly prepared her to partner on a sneaker with Jordan, she points to deciding to go to Chicago for college. When a by-chance meeting put her face-to-face with Don C, the co-founder of RSVP Gallery and someone to whom she looked up (but only recognized from the internet), it really started to seem like she put herself in the right place at the right time. "Don walked up to me and said, 'Yo, I be seeing you on the internet, you're fresh,' and inside I was like, [gasp] oh my gosh. Don C said I was fresh." Later that night, Don and his wife Kristen offered her a job at RSVP Gallery, which she accepted while going to school full-time and working at Louis Vuitton. Eventually, May would leave the latter for RSVP. "He gave me this pitch like, 'We're building Power Rangers over here. Everybody got their special technique and the way that they kill it, and that's what I'm trying to build.' And I was like, 'I'm sold!'"
Despite skipping her last year of college and opting to stay in LA for good, she considers her time in Chicago as training her for the experience with Jordan. Within five years, she'd announce the Aleali May x Air Jordan 1 on the heels of the Spring 2018 season of fashion month. "Man, I [feel like] that was so long ago," she laughs, discussing the lag time between initial talks, development and the sneaker's release date. As with most well-kept industry secrets, these things stay under wraps, "for-ev-er, like 'Sandlot,'" she says." Plus, the project went far beyond the scope of her wildest dreams. "I never imagined [having] a Jordan, or even sitting in Portland for that meeting."
There was no way to know those 7s — and every matching pair her uncle picked up for her with his thereafter — would have such a huge impact on her life. But even being the first woman to release a shoe in both men's and women's sizes (and doing a lot of work in male-dominated spaces), she's looked to many women as key influences from a young age. "I wanted to be Aaliyah," she says. "I wanted to be Kimora Lee Simmons. Come on. Baby Phat?" When asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she recalls finding less of a "job" and more thinking about particular women to emulate. "I was always trying to find girls that represented me. It was the Spice Girls era; my whole wall was Alicia Keys and Aaliyah."
However, once finding her own identity and sense of style and beginning to work within her space, there were fewer to emulate. "I knew Vashtie and Don C's wife, Kristin. They were two girls I looked up to and who mixed [fashion and sneakers]," May explains. "And Amber Rose, randomly, when she would wear sneakers — it would look fresh with her leather jackets and her shades."
Despite being so influential in the sneaker and streetwear spaces, May gushes over women who've inspired her and directly played a major part in her growth. She recalls a moment shopping with her uncle and his wife, whom she points out was "fresh," as well. "She used to wear Bathing Ape hoodies with skinny jeans and cool Air Max [shoes]... I'd go shopping with her, too." Specifically, May tells me a time in her teens that she was feeling like she was too small or too thin for skinny jeans. Her aunt was not having it. "She told me, 'Look at this mannequin's leg. That's the same size as your leg. Who told you that you could't wear skinny jeans? That's what's hot right now.' And I was like, 'OK, I'm going to wear skinny jeans!'"
In speaking to her, it's clear that her taste and accomplishments have built a great foundation for her work with Jordan — but so has her undeniably strong sense of self. In addition to her aunt, she says, "My grandmother, my mom, my stepmom — these women helped me understand you gotta love yourself first, and then the confidence comes." With self-love comes confidence; with confidence and dedication to herself came opportunity. Decidedly picky about who she works with, May explains, "I have to ask myself, 'Will you wear this? Can you flex this? Can you make somebody look at this differently? Is this something you can look back and be glad I did it?'"
May makes sense for Jordan, and Jordan makes sense for May. "When people see you living in it, as a lifestyle, you aren't really selling it," she says of her words to live (and work) by. When I ask what's next, she doesn't give any clear indication on future sneakers, but she is clear about her love of fashion and what she's been doing. "Within fashion, I just want to keep evolving. I want to keep polishing these areas I focus on. I want to polish my styling. I want to polish my modeling. I have different jobs but I love every bit of every job, even the stressful parts. The process is the greatest part."