Black History Month Spotlight: Stylist Kesha McLeod Turned Clients Like Serena Williams and James Harden Into Family

For the past three years, in honor of Black History Month, FN has celebrated African Americans in footwear and fashion with our ‘Spotlight’ series. For 2020, we’ve added a theme: Diversity as a Superpower. This year, we’ll highlight movers and shakers who’ve used their voice to drive change and create access for others. Also new for 2020, FN commissioned New Jersey-based artist, Briana Woodberry-Spencer, to design the series’ logo.

Kesha McLeod’s career as a stylist to athletes began in 2006, first creating looks for recently retired NFL great Vernon Davis. But her passion for fashion — and footwear — dates back to the mid ’90s.

Speaking with FN, McLeod recalled the first shoe she fell in love with, Nike Air More Uptempo, and the moments surrounding its release.

“All the boys had them, it was the cool sneaker in my school at the time. I remember we went to the flea market and they had those sneakers there,” McLeod said. “[And] there was a Keith Murray song with LL Cool J, ‘I Shot Ya,’ I memorized that and I remember wearing those sneakers memorizing that song.”

Today, her clients are some of the best in their respective sports — and several of them are known for their robust sneaker collections. Her roster includes Nike-backed tennis icon Serena Williams and NBA stars James Harden and P.J. Tucker. (The latter is commonly referred to as the league’s sneaker king.)

Here, McLeod talks creating lifelong bonds with her clients and passing down knowledge to the next generation.

When did you discover that a career as a stylist was for you?

“For my associates [degree] I went to Katharine Gibbs [College for] fashion merchandising and then I graduated [from] UMass Amherst for my bachelors [in] marketing. I was in school and definitely did not want to sew or design or any of the sort. I wanted the clothes to be ready to be put on someone.”

How did you find your voice?

“It came to me — kind of the law of attraction — and I just had to find a lane. I could have been any kind of stylist. I did editorial for music and a lot of other things but I wanted to make a stamp — be the greatest I could be and put 100% into that and I picked athletes. And now I have mainly champions. It was one of the things I strived to achieve, to be on top among my peers who are there with me.”

How do you leverage your blackness as a strength daily in your professional endeavors?

“It sets me apart as an individual. In the last five years, black has been in and we have a voice. But we’ve always had our voice. I just speak louder than others. I make it known that I do dress these black men and these black women who are extremely great at what they do and I use my blackness as they use theirs in their field, whether it’s basketball, football, baseball or tennis. Because we are minorities, we always have to strive to be greater than our counterparts — just because we are black.”

How do you help other people of color gain access to the industry?

“I’m always hiring for interns and assistants. I’m willing to give advice. I’m willing to speak at different engagements [and] my DMs are always open. On Instagram and Twitter, I have a voice and I get to speak to the public more. I have a lot of friends that I’ve never met on there and I offer the advice that I was never given — that I had to figure out. To give people the chances you were never given, to be able to do that, is such an inspiring thing to me.”

What barriers exist in expanding opportunities for African Americans in the industry?

“We’re still overshadowed. People only talk to us in February when it’s [NBA] All-Star and Black History Month. Us stylists — particularly who style athletes — are African American and do this 365 [days a year]. Some of our clients have been with us eight or 10 years so they become our family at the end of the day. That is a black tradition: You care for something so much and you find different opportunities and you grow from it. You go from being a stylist to being a creative director to running certain parts of their enterprises. With that, [I say] we don’t have barriers. I’ve been doing this now for 14 years and there’s no way I could have predicted that the last five or six years that I’ll have the greatest sport athletes in the world [on my client roster].”

What role, if any, should companies and their leadership take in overcoming those barriers?

“My friend is now part of the cultural diversity [initiative] at Gucci. Companies are now opening up because it’s not taboo to speak about it. They have to speak about it. We’re the ones trending for you guys and it’s those things that are opening doors for people. Look at fashion now. The patterns are different, they’re elongated and it’s because James Harden or LeBron James want to wear it. You’ve got to look at little things like that to see how things are tweaked and how things change because of who is driving the market.”

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