When you think of women in streetwear, you think of Aleali May. She is synonymous. “I don’t like to label myself as just a sneakerhead,” May shared over the phone when we got in touch with her. “I’m a fashion girl. I love all of it.”
Born and raised in South Central L.A, model, stylist, and shoe designer May is known worldwide for her 7 collaborations with Jordan Brand – the “Millennial Pink” Jordan 6’s sold out in minutes, the “Zoom Comfort” Jordan 1’s snagged a supporting role in Issa Rae’s Insecure – and for styling the likes of Kali Uchis, Tinashe, and Kendrick Lamar and many more. In the era before social media she was collecting Jordans like some girls collected limited edition Barbies. Her Tumblr is a virtual shrine to early 2010s Macbook photobooth fit-pics, BAPE, Chanel silk scarves, Murakami flowers, excerpts from Buddhist meditations and verses from Jay-Z. Muse? Women, past and future. Favorite song? iPhone on shuffle for the surprise element. If shuffle fails, then anything Aaliyah. Dream date? Someplace secluded and intimate where she can get to know you.
As complex as what meets the eye, muses, meditation, and maneuvering emotional black holes are just a few of the topics that came up when we spoke with the designer just ahead of the launch of her new fashion brand, Mayde Worldwide which May creative directed herself. Cobalt blue blends of cotton/fleece/spandex, the garments are logoless, versatile and made with comfort in mind. Meet SUPERWOMAN Aleali May in conversation with Dominique Mkhonza, peeling the layers back around her persona.
Who or what or where is your muse?
Muses definitely come from everywhere. I wasn’t always into what everybody was into and as a young girl, you know, we didn’t have social media to look at and see who was next, but I was being fed these great icons and great women in pop culture from the R&B and hip-hop spaces to the Spice Girls all the way in London (Laughs). I grew up an only child but there was my grandmother, my aunts, my cousins. They were my original muses. I loved experiencing women who could kind of show me how to do it.
Persona has become a product a little bit – do you ever feel pressured to put more of yourself out there on social media?
With my projects, specifically with sneakers, I feel like that’s my way of telling my story. I’ll never be the most active person on social media, I have shit to do in real life (Laughs), but I do feel like those are good times to be able to get off something that is personal to me and also speak to other women while I do so. People think, like–“You’re a mystery!”–and I’m not trying to be. Social media has become this thing where we want to know everything you do. It’s okay to enjoy something without everybody knowing. Right then and there.
For sure. Even the most personal online personality can’t get all that personal.
The girls we grew up with in the media, we didn’t know everything about their life. We’d see someone pop out and think, “Wow, she must be working super hard because every time I see her she’s debuting a new music video.” If you did hear something personal, it was in a magazine and she was telling you about her favorite lipgloss. We got hints about the kind of person someone was but we weren’t on Instagram live with them waiting to see everything.
What was the initial desire that pushed you onto the path that you’re on today?
Since I popped out the womb, my uncle was like, “I got you a pair of Jordan’s.” It was such a culturally driven shoe, I never questioned why I was buying Jordan’s. Like, nah, it’s Michael Jordan. That’s all I had to know. In high school I started putting outfits together. My family was in my ear like, “Find your own style, find your own swag, mix things together.”
In middle school my step-mom bought me magazines. Teen Vogue and Seventeen, cute girly magazines. I’d flip through the pages like, Oh my god, who is this? Like, fashion is definitely where it’s at. Baby Phat, Rocawear, FUBU, all about living life fabulous and just being beautiful and designing beautiful things. Being Filipino and Black, too, I saw women like Kimora Lee Simmons and she made you feel like you were That Girl because she was That Girl. I felt represented for sure. A lot of times I was looking at the R&B and hip-hop scenes and there’d be a fly model with a fashion brand – ‘cause I don’t sing or rap – and I thought I could try that too.
I noticed super profound excerpts from Buddhist texts and meditations on your Tumblr. Is spirituality big for you?
Definitely. Seven years ago I started practicing Nichiren Buddhism, the same one that Tina Turner practices. You chant a mantra but you also take that prayer and create action with it. Like, okay, what are you going to do from this moment on? Because there are always going to be obstacles. We’re human and we can’t be happy all the time. You can find your happiness by breaking through something that was bringing you down. The more I practice, the more I learn about myself, my own mind, and my ability to reach, like, certain heights. With my first shoe, for example, it was crazy for me, I’m like, Oh my god, we accomplished this, I never knew or saw this coming for me. And then they were like, we want you to do another one. Like, oh, wait, hold up – this isn’t it? I thought this was it. You subconsciously have this cap on your idea of where your life can go but sometimes that’s just the start.
What do you think is the most valuable thing you’ve learned in a dark time?
When I’m going through a dark time, I chant my ass off. I go to the Buddhist centre. There’s a young women’s group. Basically, young ladies like ourselves sign up for shifts at the centre. Everyone has a task or focus, it could be cleaning the bathrooms or standing at the front desk, whatever it is. We chant for an hour together and then stand in a circle and go around and share with the group what we’re battling. Then we take all of the energy that we can and we give it away to what we’re assigned with on that shift. It’s wild because at first you’re thinking,“What does that have to do with what’s going on with me?” But it’s a way to remind yourself that you are bigger than what you’re battling. Every time I walk away, I just feel like I always feel a little bit better, like a weight has kind of lifted.
Aleali is wearing earrings and top from Area, the jacket is from Marei1998 and shoes by Jennifer Le.
Do you ever want to isolate and be alone with your problems or is it instinctual to gravitate towards community?
I’m a Cancer, so I can definitely be a little emotional when I’m going through a dark time. I’m like, we’re going into this black hole. But then I’m like, look, call your friend. I call my grandmother because she will literally tell me anything. As real as it is, she will give me the actual truth. Reaching out helps. Just the natural encouragement of having that conversation, having somebody listen to you. When you’re done with that conversation, you feel lighter. Like, I can do this. There is life outside of this. At the Buddhist centre we think about our problems like: What is this a reflection of? You really gotta go deep and look in the mirror. A lot of times, not every time, but a lot of times there will be dirt. It may be a dirty mirror but through the dirt there’s this polishing moment. It’s not as easy as it sounds, every situation is way different.
If you could go back in time and dress the characters of any film, which film would it be?
Oh my goodness. I’m thinking of a couple. Lara Croft is one of them. Aliyah in Queen of the Damned is another one. All of the women in Kill Bill as well. I love it because it’s like, “I’ll whoop your ass while looking fresh as hell.” I have Tomb-Raider action figures in my room. I’m definitely that type of girl. Boss Bitch vibes.
What would you say is your favorite part of the creative process? The beginning (inception of idea), the middle (the process), or the end (final outcome)?
I think the final is always just – wow. With shoes you’re looking at a CAD (computer-aided design) of your shoe for so long and you start doing the samples and then you’re asking friends, like, “What you think?” You make your final tweaks and then it’s just this kind of weird nervous feeling. All the shoes leak before you even talk about your shoe. Of course, the guy sneakerheads are like, “This is trash, this is trash,” and you really have to be prepared for that. No one tells you about that part (Laughter). There are certain times where you’re like, damn, it’s hard being a woman in this space. The guys I was working with at the Jordan Brand were like, “Oh, they always do this.” It’s funny. The highlight is when I see women wearing my pieces, having their own style, putting together a cool fit. I don’t make shoes for everyone to dress like me. I make them to be in your closet with whatever you feel like putting on that day. That’s the high note. Love from women. Having women share with me that they see themselves in what I’ve put out there.
What do you want people to feel when they wear one of your designs?
I want you to wear my shoes and walk into a room like, I can solidify the bag with these shoes. We were so geared to think in this way that says that when we walk into a corporate room you have to wear a closed-toe heel. But a clean sneaker has its own magic to it. I’m also a heel girl – I love heels, I love boots, I love design. But hey, I just want to give you options. When you feel good, you can go into any room and get the bag.
Would you ever design a heel?
I would love to…
That might be a natural next step. Tell us a little bit about Mayde, your recent launch.
It’s my first foray into a non-collab and it’s just the start. Hoodies, sweats, sports bras, biker shorts. Staple pieces you can keep in your closet for when you don’t really want to get dressed. I wanted to step into this space because for years everyone’s been asking me when I’m coming out with my brand. I’ve felt like – you can’t sweat the technique. I can’t be rushed at any point (Laughs) because I really love designers, I love wearing other people’s shit. When I’m coming to Fashion Week that’s me coming to study other people in person. I didn’t go to fashion school. Fashion Week is like a summer program for me. It’s an investment. I took the time to step into a place where I said, okay, I’m really doing this. Once I commit, I’m in it.
That’s important for women like me who don’t always have the confidence for a DIY moment. I definitely prefer if the cut comes cute.
Exactly. I want something where women can always buy something from me if they want, if it fits whatever they’re going for. You can always find a cool cut, a cool silhouette with me. Just more of that. I love the natural evolution of everything.
Interview by Dominique Mkhonza
Photography by Sarah Feingold
Styled – Aleali May
Make up – Kaiyla Franklin
Cinematographer – Reggie Louis-Jacques