How Michael Jordan Personally Inspired Aleali May to Work Even Harder

In FN’s February magazine, Jordan Brand president Craig Williams joined retailer James Whitner, designer Aleali May and WNBA champ Aerial Powers for an exclusive discussion about their efforts to celebrate Black culture and improve conditions for the Black community. 

In 2017, Aleali May became the first woman in Jordan Brand’s history to design a unisex sneaker with her Los Angeles-inspired Air Jordan 1.

That was followed by several more collabs, including new-look iterations of the Air Jordan 1 and Air Jordan 6.

Four years later, she made history yet again, as the first woman to create a Jordan Brand women’s footwear and apparel collection. Some of her recent standout drops include an Air Jordan 1 High Zoom Comfort and an Air Jordan 14, inspired by her Inglewood High School drill team in California and her half-Black and half-Filipina heritage, respectively.

However, as accomplished as she is, May is quick to acknowledge the pioneers before her. Most notably, she points to Vashtie Kola, who collaborated on an Air Jordan 2 in 2010.

“I like to hone in on that because, here I was [launching my first Jordan Brand] shoe seven years later. It took a while. By that time, I should have been the 50th, the 100th woman to have a shoe,” May said. “I always like to remind people of who came before me and say, ‘The more women [doing this] the better.’”

For Kola, the appreciation is mutual. “With every sneaker she does, Aleali harnesses this femininity but also her voice and her culture, and that’s important for young women to see,” she said. “She’s opened doors for other women by showing her roots, her heritage and involving that in everything she does.”

Other sneaker legends share similar love for May, including designer Frank Cooke, who has helped bring her dreams to reality on each collaboration.

“Aleali tells real stories. Her fans and people who follow her can relate,” Cooke told FN. “That’s also breaking down the barrier for not just women’s but unisex, making shoes for everyone. I’m glad she’s telling a lot of the women’s stories and empowering other women to want to do shoes.”

Aleali May Jordan Brand
Aleali May, shot exclusively for FN.
CREDIT: Scrill Davis

May’s achievements have also gained the seal of approval of Michael Jordan himself. “I met MJ after the 6s,” she recalled. “He was like, ‘I love everything you’re doing for the brand.’ That didn’t feel like my boss. That felt like the OG saying, ‘You are doing good, keep going.’ Jordan Brand has created an environment where it’s like, ‘We want to see you do well, we’re here to support you.’ It feels good to have a work family.”

May added that she feels a kinship with the basketball icon. “MJ’s whole goal was: Go the hardest and push everybody to come up with him,” she said. “I feel like that represents my story, too. It’s like, ‘I’m going to kill it at this fashion s**t and I’m going to show everyone you can do that too, and you can do it in your own way.’”

After starting in retail and working as a creative director at Virgil Abloh and Don C’s RSVP Gallery, May has grown into a fashion force who wears many hats as collaborator, stylist and model. In 2021, for instance, she starred in the campaign for Jay-Z’s cannabis company, Monogram.

When it comes to her designs, May aspires to elevate the conversation around sport and style, pointing to the way that Ralph Lauren bridged the fashion and equestrian worlds. “Sports and music helped create fashion,” she said. “These are things that coherently go throughout the culture, and we need each other to coexist so we can create dope things and keep advancing.”

And she has a strong model for her goals. “Look at Michael Jordan, that is an African American man that made something of himself. It’s amazing to view it and be like, ‘Wow, if one person could do that, maybe I can too.’”

Aleali May James Whitner Craig Williams Aerial Powers Jordan Brand
(Clockwise from left): Aleali May, James Whitner, Craig Williams and Aerial Powers.
CREDIT: Scrill Davis
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