Vashtie Kola Went From Being Bullied About Kmart Shoes to Fronting Pony’s New Sneaker Campaign

vashtie kola, pony, topstar sneaker
Vashtie Kola's tomboy aesthetic is a seamless fit for her Pony campaign.
Courtesy of Pony

Vashtie Kola is affectionately known as “Downtown’s Sweetheart,” but she’s far from a girly girl. Based in New York, the multifaceted creative — music video director, designer and creative consultant fall within her repertoire — may be best known for her DJ skills, but her tomboy aesthetic is a close second. Kola’s typical street-meets-edgy gear made her a natural fit to front Pony’s latest Topstar sneaker campaign.

vashtie kola, pony, topstar sneaker Vashtie Kola and Pony visited some of her favorite New York spots for the Topstar campaign. Courtesy of PONY

“I was never interested in feminine silhouettes or items. I was always in baggy jeans, always in sneakers, and so for me, [being a sneaker connoisseur] was sort of a representation of me as a young person, or young woman especially,” she said.

Since a young age, Kola rejected the social-bred notion of what it means to be a lady: dainty dresses, high-heels and the overall concept of speaking, acting and thinking “like a lady.” She’s owned her innate sense of style, an emphasis on comfort and cool, since she was a schoolgirl.

vashtie kola, pony, topstar sneaker The Pony Topstar sneakers in suede. Courtesy of PONY

“Growing up, I always faced the adversity of ‘a lady dresses like this,’ and ‘a lady does this,’ [but] why cant I just wear what I want to wear and be comfortable and still do ladylike things?” Kola said.

Questioning the status quo and going against the grain have paid off for the music and video guru, who has created for the likes of Solange, Justin Bieber and Kendrick Lamar. With various modeling campaigns over the years including Aldo, Puma and Supreme, serving as the face — and serving face — for Pony was a natural next step for the model.

vashtie kola, pony, topstar sneaker The Pony Topstar sneakers in suede. Courtesy of PONY

At an intimate breakfast, Footwear News chatted with Kola about her Pony partnership, not keeping her white sneakers clean and advice for those who may come from little but have dreams of making it big.

How did the partnership come about?

“They reached out last summer, and we talked about various ideas. Once they figured out how to go about bringing in ambassadors, and it being very New York-central, they teamed up with Joey Badass first and then brought me in after. By that point, they had more a defined idea of what kind of partnership they wanted.”

How do you style your Pony sneakers?

“I feel like I’ve been dressing the same since I was 12 — literally, pleated skirts. I went to Catholic school my whole life, so I wore a pleated skirt every single day until I was 18 and even then I would wear ankle socks and sneakers. As much as I like to dabble with all kinds of sneakers, I really do like a low sneaker and a classic silhouette.  The things I gravitate towards are always classic and traditional. So even the varsity [I’m wearing] is a varsity with a pleated skirt. I’m not wearing an asymmetrical [style]. I just keep it simple.”

vashtie kola, pony, topstar sneaker Vashtie Kola sports the patent leather Pony Topstar. Courtesy of PONY

If you could design a Pony sneaker, what would you do?

“I’m all about embellishments. I would probably do a sequin or something that has shine or texture. And something very much blinged-out.”

How do you keep your white [Pony] sneakers clean?

“I don’t. I’m really good at not creasing. Being a sneaker collector and connoisseur, you learn how to maneuver. There are some tricks. It’s just feeling it out, but they won’t be worn all day.”

How did you become a sneaker connoisseur?

“I grew up in the hood, and it’s kind of universal — even more so now — but growing up in the hood, sneakers were really representative of style and also of opulence and money. Even though you might not have had [money], to have a pair of name-brand shoes [that were] crispy clean, it was like ‘Oh wow, you’re cool,’ and growing up I didn’t have any name-brand shoes.

“At that time, in the ’90s, different brands were the cool brands, so I couldn’t afford [them]. Knowing that sneaker culture was so important to where I was growing up but then also not being able to have it made that yearning even greater. By the time I got my after-school job, all my money was going to sneakers.”

vashtie kola, pony, topstar sneaker The Pony Topstar sneakers in suede. Courtesy of PONY

What were the cool brands in the ’90s?

“Jordan was the epitome of everything. [In] the ’80s, brands like Pony, Saucony — those more technical walking shoes — [were popular] so the ’90s became more athletic shoes like basketball, running and training. But I’ve always enjoyed the walking shoe, which, in my opinion, [Pony] would be like the walking shoe. It represents so much to me as far as the things that influenced my early beginnings. I’ve always loved B-boy culture, so if you’ve ever seen Jamel Shabazz’s work he captured New York in the ’70s and ’80s, and it was very much Pony everywhere, and so that look is ingrained in my memory.”

What would you say to people growing up in the hood now who aspire to be the face of a shoe brand or “make it”?

“It’s possible. It’s weird because people say that and people think, ‘But it’s not possible for me.’ But it’s really possible. I literally didn’t have name-brand shoes. In 5th grade I remember being bullied. A kid literally called attention to everyone in the class to make fun of the fact that I was wearing sneakers from Kmart, and I lived through that. I didn’t have money. I didn’t have anything cool. It’s truly about visualization and knowing that it’s possible.”

“Sometimes you feel, ‘I have to have this sort of job in order to be happy, in order to be this person in society,’ and a lot of people are afraid to break out of what they’re known for because of fear. At some point in the beginning, I was really nervous. And my parents are immigrants, working class, so the thought of quitting a job was unfathomable. To go against that grain and to see that it was a successful move for me was like, ‘OK, I’m just going to keep going and not worry about the details.’”

vashtie kola, pony, topstar sneaker The suede Pony Topstar sneaker will debut in early December. Courtesy of PONY

With firsthand experience being from an immigrant family, what would you say to inspire people who may feel they aren’t accepted and can’t branch out?

“When you focus on what you can’t do, you will just not move. Even as someone who is successful for most people — and I’m very fortunate and grateful for everything I’ve had — I’ve learned [that] when you focus on what you can’t do and focus on the problem, you will just be a part of it and nothing will come to you that way. Whether you’re an immigrant or not — people [also] ask me if it’s hard being a woman — and I’m like, it’s hard being anything. Being a man, being trans. [But] I’m here, I’m living, I’m breathing, and I’m going to do what I have to do. You can’t even consider that it’s something holding me back.”