In the footwear industry, still largely dominated by male leaders, it isn’t easy for any woman to rise to the top. But women of color grapple with even more significant hurdles. Among the major issues they face: pay disparities (gender and race), access to leadership training and the ability to get business funding.
Here, seven fashion insiders open up about what drives them, how they’ve overcome obstacles and their tips for success.
Long before she made history last fall as the first woman to design an Air Jordan sneaker in both men’s and women’s sizing, Los Angeles native Aleali May was trailblazing her prodigious career.
The Filipino and African-American stylist and fashion consultant endured bullying in school as a result of her mixed race but gained newfound confidence after being voted best-dressed. “I started wearing boy’s clothes because I didn’t want to show my body. It was so skinny,” she said of how her signature tomboy style came to be.
After she moved to Chicago in 2010 to study at Columbia College, May’s extracurricular activities paved the way for her to enter the fashion game. With a hustler mentality, May nabbed gigs at Louis Vuitton and Virgil Abloh’s boutique, RSVP Gallery, and even found a mentor in streetwear designer Don C.
After three years in school, “everything that told me to move to Chicago told me you’re done here,” said May, and she returned to California. She’s since added styling credits for Kendrick Lamar and Jaden Smith, among others, and a social media following of over 250,000 fans, to her repertoire.
Working with Nike and other brands has helped her garner an insider’s perspective on the industry. “Everybody’s realizing we need you, and you need us. Let’s work together. These companies are so big that timelines slow everything down, but there are people like Frank [Cooker] and the Jordan women’s team constantly fighting for women to have a voice,” she said.
Luxury brands such as Chanel are also drawn to May’s strong sense of style — and she recently attended the fashion house’s cruise show in Paris. “Being in that situation, and one of the few women of color, represented — sometimes it’s a little much for me,” she admitted. “I’m blessed to be here, but at the same time, it’s a big role, and I want to do this right.”
Tsering Namgyal has earned her stripes in the shoe business. The brand president of Chinese Laundry started her career in retail with Maison Blanche, a role that led her to a major opportunity: overseeing women’s footwear for May Department Stores. She climbed the corporate ladder across various companies, but despite reaching senior-level status, Namgyal said she still experienced bias.
“People assumed that I was anything but the boss,” she recalled.
“Never assume. There were several meetings where I found it amusing that it was only toward the end that they realized the
decision maker was not who they were speaking to. It taught me to be more aware of myself so I wouldn’t repeat that same mistake.”
Now the member of Two Ten’s board of directors feels “privileged” to have helped guide WIFI, the organization’s program for empowering women in the industry. It’s grown to over 4,000 members since its inception in 2010.
Namgyal said networking is a huge part of being successful in the industry. “Join Two Ten, attend the events, speak to people,” she said.
As the first African-American woman ever to serve as a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, Misty Copeland has been a role model for millions — and she wants to send a strong message to her fans. “Women [should] be behind each other and motivate each other. Our society doesn’t always celebrate that or push women to feel that way. We’re always competing,” the Under Armour ambassador said. “We’re at our best when we have a support system and have an example set for us.”
For Copeland, [fellow dancer] Raven Wilkinson has been instrumental in helping her navigate the twists and turns of her career. “She was the only black dancer in her company in the 1950s, having to leave because the KKK was threatening her life. It’s amazing to see somebody who has come through all this still be so positive. [She wants] to help me and push me to be what she wasn’t allowed to be,” Copeland explained.
Now Copeland herself is paying it forward by working closely with the ABT’s Project Plié initiative, an outreach program that provides training and support for underrepresented communities in the classical ballet world.
“If you can’t afford proper training, the chances of having a career are less,” she said. “It’s beautiful to see how enthusiastic these young kids are — to have a chance to explore and learn this art form.”
Stephanie Mui credits her grandmother, an immigrant from Hong Kong, with inspiring her retail career. “She started off washing dishes at a local restaurant, where she had to walk to work in the middle of winter storms, making minimal pay,” said Mui, the director of visual merchandising, strategy, communication and execution at Finish Line Inc. “Her hard work and persistence paid off. She became a successful entrepreneur with many businesses under her belt.”
As Mui navigated her own career, she admitted that one of her biggest obstacles was her fear of failure. I didn’t want to appear less valuable, especially as a woman of color,” she said. “Once I overcame that, I realized that learning from mistakes actually led to further growth.”
For emerging talent, Mui offered some valuable advice. “Do not be afraid to be persistent, to have a voice, to take control and make the first move,” she said.
Mui also laid out top priorities for fostering minority women: leadership development programs, equal pay and flexible work schedules. Finally, she pointed out the “need to work harder to understand subconscious biases.”
Los Angeles’ Fairfax Avenue, a haven for streetwear fanatics, was long dominated by male-owned stores — until Melody Ehsani arrived.
After four years operating solely as an e-commerce site, Ehsani opened her first brick-and-mortar location on the notorious strip in 2012. “[It was] more of a practical decision than anything else,” she said. But it inadvertently became a monumental moment. “I took pride in being able to usher in a more feminine presence,” she recalled of becoming the first woman to operate a storefront along the esteemed strip. “It felt good to break up the swordfest, and I think all the guys here appreciated it equally.”
Six years in, Ehsani is still learning the ins and outs of being a storeowner. As a Persian woman whose family has no retailing experience, she experiences many challenges. “I wish someone taught me about credit and how to file taxes. Even at this stage, I’m looking for someone to teach me how to get funding, what a pitch deck looks like, how to partner,” she said.
The businesswoman now also uses her retail space to foster a community. Ehsani regularly hosts a Speaker Series, where customers line up for talks like they do to buy shoes. “The paradox in that is beautiful to me,” she said. “I don’t want to perpetuate materialism. I want to enrich people, let them know what inspires me and allow them into my world.”
Shortly after a 2010 chance encounter with a friend, former Nike executive Astor Chambers, Vashtie Kola found herself selecting swatches to put her own spin on the 20th anniversary Air Jordan 2. Significantly, she became the first woman ever to design a coveted Jordan shoe.
“It was and still is an out-of-body experience,” she said. “I grew up as a poor kid in the hood who didn’t get my first pair [of Jordans] until I was 18. It made me, and [hopefully] a lot of other young people, see that anything is possible.”
Born to working-class Trinidadian immigrant parents, Kola spent her childhood drawing the shoes and clothes she couldn’t afford before working her way through art school. By the time the Jordan collaboration came about, the DJ had made a name for herself in the New York music and arts scene — so much so that her 2009 Jordan 3-shaped birthday cake headlined street/culture blogs around the web. (It was a milestone for Kola, who said she had been “denied entry to clubs and clowned for” being a tomboy who favored sneakers over stilettos.) She stressed the importance of rallying minority women on the rise. “Listen to ideas. Groom and support,” Kola said. “I was granted chances by all kinds of people, including women of color. They taught me how to move and how to hustle.”
Sandrine Charles, CEO of an eponymous consulting firm, has an enviable fashion résumé. After taking the first big step in her footwear career at Haddad Brands working on Nike kids, she went on to hold several mid- and senior-level roles at various agencies. She led communication for the likes of Kith, Ivy Park, Pony, Nike SB and more, including launching premium men’s lifestyle brand Noah.
While her background illustrates the depth of her experience, Charles, like many other women of color, has faced an all-too-familiar obstacle. “[We’re often] being passed up for opportunities despite our skills being up to par or beyond. However, my life mantra is simply to sit and do the work and let the results speak for itself,” she said.
After branching out on her own in 2016, Charles has made it a priority to mentor minority women — and employ them. Now she is charging the industry to do the same. “Models have been utilized in a larger capacity to showcase diversity. However, there can absolutely be more efforts — from internships to salaried employees to the boardrooms, she said. “There are instances where the culture is being [driven] without input from people in that world.”
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