For years, the sneaker industry has been controlled by and catered towards men. It once seemed impossible for women to take on leadership roles in this male-dominated field, but Vashtie Kola and Aleali May have surpassed expectations. As the first two women in history to design a pair of Air Jordans, and the creative direction behind major brands, the two have revolutionized footwear with their innovation.
What began as a love of sneakers and a unique style that drew attention in Kola’s youth evolved into a career as a leading stylist, DJ, artist and creative. In 2010, Kola became the first woman ever to design a pair of Air Jordans. The “Air Jordan 2 Retro Gs ‘Violette’,” design was inspired by her brand, Violette New York, and represents, “masculine meets feminine and old school meets new school,” according to Kola.
Although Kola played a role in popularizing sneakers for women, she insists that she did not start any trends, but rather stayed true to the style she had always loved. Her website features throwback pictures of young Kola in her hometown of Albany, always wearing the latest kicks. When she moved to Manhattan for film school, she was frequently met with criticism about her “unladylike” style. Despite the judgement, Kola leaned into her individuality and turned her passion into a career, curating a clientele of well-known brands like Puma, Billionaire Boys Club, and Roc Nation.
“When I came to NYC to study film I quickly became known for being one of the rare gals at that time who wore kicks all the time,” Kola said in an article published on her site.
“I say ‘rare’ because it was truly rare to find a girl who loved sneakers as opposed to now-- where everyone and their mama wears kicks.”
Like Kola, May’s love for sneakers started at a young age, prompted by her elementary school’s strict dress code. Because shoes were her only form of creative expression, May was always rocking a new, bold pair of Air Forces or Jordans. Born and raised in Los Angeles, May got her start in fashion with a part-time job at a Louis Vuitton store, which helped her land a gig working for Don C and Virgil Abloh’s RSVP Gallery while attending Columbia College Chicago. Her career had a strong start, and May has gone on to style high-profile clients including Kendrick Lamar, Jaden Smith and Lil Yachty.
Following in Kola’s footsteps, May designed her first Jordan collaboration in 2017, the “Air Jordan 1 Aleali May/ Satin Shadow,” making her the first woman to create a unisex shoe in the brand’s history. May credits Kola with influencing her and opening the door for women to get involved in streetwear fashion.
“When I got a Jordan, all women got a Jordan,” May said, as reported by the LA Times, exemplifying her mission to encourage more women to embrace streetwear.
In 2018, May collaborated with WNBA star Maya Moore to create “The Court Lux,” Air Jordan 1 and Air Jordan X. The AJI sneaker incorporates a removable faux-fur feature to represent May’s sense of fashion, a combination of luxury and streetwear style. The collaboration made Moore the first female basketball player to sign with the Jordan brand.
Kola and May’s authenticity is apparent in their work and has inspired women to defy stereotypes. While streetwear and sneakers may not be considered “ladylike,” the designers are pushing the boundaries between masculine and feminine style and proving that streetwear has no gender.
“I want a dope shoe to be a dope shoe regardless of whether it’s men’s or women’s,” May said in an interview with the LA Times. “It’s really cool to see how far we’ve come.”