Black women are taking over the footwear industry
These stars in sports, music or fashion double as designers, trend leaders and representatives for major brands
In celebration of Black History Month, it’s only right to recognize what’s become more than a trend in the footwear industry:
Black women have taken over.
And we’re not just talking about women’s-exclusive sneaker releases. At the helm of global sportswear companies, such as Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Puma, Converse and more, are Black women — athletes, designers, executives and creative minds — shaping the culture of the business.
The foundation was paved in the ’90s by the early icons of the WNBA, carried on through the 2010s by artists pushing fashion like Rihanna, style icons carving a new path such as Teyana Taylor and a sports legend breaking barriers in Maya Moore.
The continued impact of Black women has never been more noticeable than now. From the O.G., who 25 years ago became the first woman in sports history to get her own signature sneaker — a series still relevant today in Retro form — to the Queen joining Adidas for the biggest female partnership in the history of Three Stripes. The GOAT in women’s sports has her own building at Nike’s headquarters, while her older sister, who once signed the then-richest endorsement deal by a female athlete, is wrapping up her career as the face of a classic brand. And when Puma and Converse sought a return to relevancy in basketball, each brand’s plan involved signing a WNBA point guard.
These are The Undefeated’s top female figures in footwear. Whether stars in sport, music or fashion, they double as designers, trend leaders and spokespeople for major brands. But, most importantly, they’re all Black women.
Aleali May / jordan BRand
Aleali May never hesitates to shout out Uncle G — her father’s brother, whom she credits for sparking her passion for sneakers. During her childhood in South Central Los Angeles, every time Uncle G got new kicks, he made sure to get a pair for his niece, too. Years later, after starting in the fashion industry working for Don C and Virgil Abloh’s RSVP Gallery in Chicago, May got her own Air Jordan, as the first woman in Jordan Brand history to design a unisex sneaker.
Her milestone extended a path set by Vashtie Kola, the brand’s first female collaborator, who designed a ladies-exclusive Air Jordan 2 in 2010. May’s “Satin Shadow” Air Jordan 1, released in 2017, paid homage to home, inspired by the corduroy slippers her dad used to wear from the swap meets at LA’s Slauson Super Mall.
“The Satin Shadow was not only a win for Los Angeles,” said May at Sneaker Con in 2019. “It was a win for women, in general, to show that we can exist in a male-dominated space and make a shoe that both men and women love.”
The 28-year-old May, a model, stylist and sneaker designer with nearly 500,000 followers on Instagram, now has a trio of Air Jordans to her name and another coming soon. In 2018, she teamed up with WNBA star and Jordan Brand athlete Maya Moore for the design of the “Court Lux” Air Jordan 1, before dropping her “Millennial Pink” Air Jordan 6 in 2019. May has already taken to Instagram to show off her latest collab — a blue and green edition of the Air Jordan 1 High CMFT — expected to officially arrive sometime in 2021. A girl from South Central who became one of the faces of the Jordan Brand, May is puttin’ on for all women alike.
“We’ve always been sneakerheads,” May told The Undefeated in 2018, “but we’re starting to get noticed, and it’s only the beginning.”
Natasha Cloud / Converse
In 2020, Washington Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud became the first woman to sign an endorsement deal with Converse since the brand’s return to basketball in 2018 after nearly a decade away from the sport. Yet the week Converse had planned to officially unveil Cloud as its face of women’s basketball, she asked the company to postpone the announcement in the name of the country’s ongoing fight for social justice.
“We saw George Floyd being brutally murdered by the police,” said Ron Johnson, Converse’s general manager of global basketball, “and Natasha was very quick to say, ‘There is something more important to talk about right now. There is something more important to leverage my platform behind.’ We got behind her 1,000% from that point.”
Converse supported Cloud as she hit the streets of Philadelphia in protest while donating $25,000 on her behalf to the American Civil Liberties Union in her home state of Pennsylvania. And more notably, after Cloud chose to opt out of the 2020 WNBA season to continue to fight for social justice reform, the brand covered her financially during her time away from basketball.
“Once we learned about Natasha’s decision, we quickly acted and said we’d match her forfeited players’ salary,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t a hard decision to make.”
Expected to return to the court in 2021 for the Mystics, whom she helped lead to a championship in 2019, Cloud will be the only player in the WNBA reppin’ Converse — a distinction she takes great pride in, especially as a biracial woman who identifies as Black.
“Converse just fits me, from fashion to the work that I do in the community to building and empowering not only me as a Black female, but as a bisexual female as well,” Cloud told The Undefeated. “When you can be embraced in every facet of your life by the brand that you’re signed with, that’s everything. So I’m extremely blessed to be with Converse.”
Beyoncé / Adidas
“A new beginning,” read Adidas’ Instagram caption beneath an image of three black stripes over a yellow backdrop. The understated post teased the biggest deal signed by a woman in the history of the sportswear industry.
On April 4, 2019, Adidas announced a multilayered partnership with superstar Beyoncé, bringing her on as a creative mind to develop footwear and apparel for the German-based brand.
“This is the partnership of a lifetime for me,” said Beyoncé in a statement. “Adidas has had tremendous success in pushing creative boundaries. We share a philosophy that puts creativity, growth and social responsibility at the forefront of business. I look forward to relaunching and expanding Ivy Park on a truly global scale with a proven, dynamic leader.”
That was a key part of the deal: Reviving Beyoncé’s clothing line Ivy Park, which debuted in 2016. The deal also ensured that she retained her role to continue “her journey as one of the first Black women to be the sole owner of an athleisure brand,” Adidas stated in the announcement.
Before joining Adidas, Beyoncé engaged in extensive talks with other companies, including Under Armour, Reebok and the Jordan Brand, before ultimately launching her own corporate category within the Three Stripes.
At the time she inked her deal, Beyoncé’s 126 million Instagram followers totaled more than all 36 Adidas accounts combined. Now, Beyoncé and Adidas are synonymous. Since 2019, she’s posed on the cover of Vogue in an all-Adidas fit, showed off a Three Stripe tooth grill and designed three collections of apparel and footwear, featuring her own reimagined versions of sneaker silhouettes from the Nite Jogger to the Ultraboost. Beyoncé’s most recent collection dropped, fittingly, during February. A Black woman is leading the way for Adidas — and we’re completely here for it.
Sheryl Swoopes / Nike
Sheryl Swoopes used to make a habit of popping up at Lady Foot Locker just to see if it was really real. In 1995, a year before she became the WNBA’s first signing, Swoopes was the first woman in sports history to get her own signature sneaker.
“The very first time I was in a Lady Foot Locker and I heard a little girl walk in, she didn’t ask for an Air Jordan or a man’s shoe,” Swoopes, the former Houston Comets star, told ESPN+’s SneakerCenter in 2019. “She said, ‘Do you have the Air Swoopes?’ ”
Ahead of the 1996 Games, Swoopes — a four-time WNBA champion, three-time Olympic gold medalist and 2016 inductee to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame — debuted the Nike Air Swoopes, a lightweight sneaker designed with a midfoot strap and “S” on each tongue.
Swoopes wore six more signature models during her career: the Air Swoopes II (1996), Air Swoopes Zoom (1997), Air Swoopes IV (1998), Air Tuned Swoopes (1999), Air Swoopes VI (2001) and Air Swoopes Premier (2002). She also paved the way for an exclusive collective of fellow female hoopers to receive a signature, proceeded by only eight players with their own sneaker: Lisa Leslie (Nike), Cynthia Cooper (Nike), Rebecca Lobo (Reebok), Nikki McCray (Fila), Dawn Staley (Nike), Chamique Holdsclaw (Nike), Diana Taurasi (Nike) and Candace Parker (Adidas).
Yet no player in the history of women’s basketball has had more signatures than Swoopes. Her sneaker legacy began in 1995 when she met that little girl at Lady Foot Locker.
“I walk over to her and I said, ‘Do you like the shoe?’ ” Swoopes remembered. “She said, ‘Yes, I love the shoe but I love her even more.’ ”
The little girl’s mother eventually realized Swoopes was the one standing before them. Then, the little girl did, too, and hugged her hero.
“I said, ‘I would like to buy these shoes for her,’ ” she continued. “That was the first pair of Air Swoopes that I actually purchased.”
In 2018, Swoopes became the first woman to have her sneaker retroed, when Nike brought back the Air Swoopes II in celebration of her lasting mark on the brand and women’s basketball.
Skylar Diggins-Smith / Puma
When Puma announced it’d be relaunching its basketball category in 2018, the newest handful of NBA draft picks signed to the brand were credited with helping kick-start the brand’s resurgence. The Twitter Moment recapping the news said the rookies were “the first basketball players to sign with Puma since 1998.”
“Wrong!” Diggins-Smith quote-tweeted. “But welcome to the family!”
Since joining on with the brand a full year before in 2017, the decorated Diggins-Smith – a four-time All-Star guard now with the Phoenix Mercury – has headlined nearly every single launch campaign for Puma along with her male counterparts. Whether that’s revamped takes on the Clyde silhouette, showcasing women’s training products or unveiling J. Cole’s latest kicks, Diggins-Smith has come to define what it means to be a versatile crossover star in the sneaker game.
“Somebody like Skylar has been the best example of the type of athlete that we want to bring into our family,” said Adam Petrick, Puma’s global director of brand and marketing. “Skylar has a connection to fashion, a connection to style and creativity, but of course, she’s a premier athlete at the top of her game.”
As the first face of the brand’s comeback, Diggins-Smith has since paved the way for more WNBA players to be added to the “Puma fam,” as she continually looks to push for opportunities in the merging of hoops culture, sportswear and fashion.
Chiney Ogwumike / Adidas
For years, the top stars of the WNBA have received endorsement deals with brands that highlighted their prowess in sports. Since being taken with the No. 1 pick of the 2014 draft, Chiney Ogwumike has been redefining the landscape of what it means to be a WNBA star, expanding her profile beyond the WNBA and into media and TV roles that will continue to open up opportunities for a generation to come.
Two years ago, she landed a multiyear contract with ESPN to become a full-time basketball analyst – on top of her full-time basketball player status – one of the youngest at the company. Last summer, she was the first Black woman to host a national radio show at ESPN. Ogwumike has been inked to Adidas throughout her career, where her rise and reach have made her one of the brand’s most dynamic endorsers.
“There is nothing she cannot do, from success on the court to her leadership roles within the organization to executive producer, she shows everyone who watches her that your dreams are limitless,” said Chris McGuire, Adidas senior director of sports marketing.
During her time with the Three Stripes, the Los Angeles Sparks forward has headlined hoop shoes such as the Next Level series, highlights the brand’s Ultraboost running line and takes a lead role in the Adidas Legacy program that sponsor workshops and life skills sessions at dozens of high schools around the country.
“Chiney is an exemplary partner, her presence and vision can be felt anytime she steps foot on the Adidas campus,” said McGuire. “She is always willing to push us to be better. This natural leadership style creates a genuine impact on the community around her.”
Serena Williams / Nike
“You can take the superhero out of her costume, but you can never take away her superpowers.” – @Nike on Twitter
That was the slogan of a 2018 ad Nike released in response to the French Tennis Federation’s ban of the black catsuit that Serena Williams wore in her first tournament after giving birth to her daughter, Olympia.
The powerful message not only highlighted the 30th anniversary of Nike’s timeless “Just Do It” campaign, but also celebrated 15 years since Williams, one of the biggest stars in the history of tennis, became one of the brand’s athletes.
In 2003 — after spending five years with Puma on a $15 million endorsement deal she signed at 16 — Williams, then 22 years old, joined Nike on a contract worth up to $60 million, with performance incentives, over eight years. There’s no doubt that she’s lived up to her initial Nike deal. Williams has been a part of the brand for 17 years, having won, coincidentally, 17 Grand Slam women’s singles titles — and counting — while reppin’ the swoosh.
In 2018, Williams teamed up with Nike and fashion designer Virgil Abloh for the design of The Queen Collection, which she debuted at the US Open in celebration of the 50-year anniversary of the tournament.
“With Serena,” Abloh said, “we have one of our generation’s most powerful, inspiring athletes as a muse.”
To know just how much Williams has meant to Nike in the past two decades, take a stroll through the brand’s global headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, where the Serena Williams Building is the largest structure on campus stands, more than 1 million square feet and covering nearly three city blocks.
As Williams, with 23 Grand Slam singles titles to her name, chases a chance to surpass the record of 24, Nike unveiled a new collection dedicated to her ahead of this year’s Australian Open. The apparel features four words that sum up how Nike regards the 39-year-old star:
“Greatest female athlete ever.”
Tamera ‘Ty’ Young / Reebok
It’s about time.
After entering the WNBA in 2008, Tamera “Ty” Young, regarded by many as the biggest sneakerhead in the league, and perhaps in all of women’s basketball, now has her first endorsement deal with a footwear company.
In late January, the 34-year-old Young announced a partnership with Reebok, joining Lexie Brown of the Minnesota Lynx as the brand’s lone ambassadors in the WNBA.
“This is my 13th year and I’m finally signed,” Young told The Undefeated. “It’s a dream come true, because I’ve always wanted a sneaker deal. … When Reebok sent the contract, I had butterflies in my stomach. Like, ‘Yo, this really happened.’ ”
Young spent more than a decade without a deal with a major brand, though she’s owned thousands of pairs and built a social media presence of nearly 1 million followers on Instagram. A native of Wilmington, North Carolina, Young shares the same hometown as Michael Jordan and attended his alma mater, Laney High School, where both of their jersey numbers are retired. Over the years, she established quite the reputation as a sneakerhead, particularly surrounding her extensive collection of Air Jordans.
“For so long, people thought I was signed with Nike, but I wasn’t,” Young said. “And for so long, I heard excuses as to why brands couldn’t sign me.”
In 2018, the platform @WNBAKicks (now @madeforthew) declared Young the No. 1 sneakerhead in the WNBA. The following year, Nice Kicks named her the WNBA Kicks On Court Champion, an award she likely locked after breaking out a pair of “Zen Grey” Nike Air Yeezy 1s in a game for the Las Vegas Aces.
Young didn’t play during the 2020 WNBA season, but will return in 2021 with a new team, the reigning champion Seattle Storm, which she joined a few weeks after announcing her Reebok deal.
“Reebok first talked about partnering with me when I wasn’t playing, which meant a lot,” Young said. “Now that I’m back in the league, I’ll be able to show that loyalty and love back to a brand that’s been around and about the culture for so many years. I’m just grateful, blessed and excited to be in the Reebok family.”
Young has never worn a pair of Reeboks in a WNBA game. Soon, that’ll change.
“I can’t wait to show off my swag on the court,” she said, “in my Reeboks.”
Naomi Osaka / Nike
After her US Open win in 2018 against her childhood idol Serena Williams, 20-year-old Naomi Osaka was headed for superstardom. With a No. 1 world tennis ranking in hand, Osaka landed one of the largest total endorsement deals in not just tennis, or for a female athlete, but in all of sports.
As a bidding war broke out in early 2019 between her previous brand, Adidas, and her new partner Nike, The Times of London reported the landmark deal to be worth in the range of $8.5 million annually.
Ever since, Osaka has been one of Nike’s most heavily featured athletes, headlining new Air Max casual models, starring in global brand campaigns and launching clothing capsule collections with her rounded initials logo. The Japanese-born star also helped to unveil one of Nike’s biggest recent collaborations, the series of revamped late-’70s running shoes and sportswear pieces with Japanese fashion brand Sacai.
Kick game is elite, @naomiosaka 🔥🎾
— espnW (@espnW) February 3, 2021
As her profile has continued to explode, so too has her penchant for fashion both on and off the court. She’ll often break out loud patterns, vivid colors and sporty looks to match her upbeat and joyful demeanor.
Earlier this month, Osaka unveiled a new pair of the NikeCourt Air Zoom GP Turbo that was released exclusively in Japan. The shoes feature gold coins for good luck, with her name in Japanese along the heel. A doodle of Japanese folklore cat Maneki-Neko, which is supposed to bring good fortune, is placed on the side of the shoe holding a water bottle and racket.
“I got to this stage by being myself, and I should keep doing that,” she said.
Candace Parker / Adidas
The footwear industry is long overdue for another women’s signature shoe. It’s been nearly a decade, with Candace Parker’s “ACE” series with Adidas the last to launch. Throughout her accolade-laden career in the WNBA and even before, while starring at Tennessee, Parker has been the female face of Adidas Basketball for more than 15 years.
“When I came out of college, it was just natural to sign with Adidas just because I’d been with them. It had become more like a family,” she said. “I knew everybody within the company. They wanted to grow with me and have that type of partnership.”
After leading the launch of her first three signature shoes, Parker was soon headlining the brand’s industry-defining Crazy Light series in 2011, with custom “ACE” logo hits still featured on her personal pairs in Sparks-themed purple or Vols-nodding orange colorways.
For her WNBA championship win in 2016, Parker helped to launch the Crazy Explosive, the brand’s first basketball shoe to feature Primeknit and full-length Boost cushioning. In 2019, she was featured with the brand’s NBA stars in its massive Marvel collaboration pack, receiving her own superhero channeling colorway of the Pro Vision.
“Candace is a true pioneer on and off the court, from her many hoops accolades to being a mother and a broadcast journalist,” said McGuire. “She continues to pave the way for the next generation of young girls, building a legacy that transcends gender.”
As Parker returns home to Chicago this next season, after playing her entire career with the Sparks, she’ll continue to be the face of the only brand she’s known, headlining its latest innovations on and off the court, tapping into its Adidas Legacy network of 10 high schools in the Chicago area and finishing one of the most decorated careers in the history of the game.
Venus Wiliams / K-Swiss
Throughout their careers, Venus and Serena Williams have set the bar not only on the court, but also in how brands have partnered with and highlighted tennis endorsers.
Venus first signed a five-year deal with Reebok in 2000 for $40 million, the biggest endorsement deal of any female athlete at the time. Ever since, she has looked to involve herself continually in the design and creation process of her footwear and apparel, helping to shift the look of the sport along the way.
Her latest brand partner is K-Swiss. When the brand ambassador announcement was made this past fall, a dozen-item footwear and apparel collection was simultaneously released that had been in the works for several months and she co-designed under her EleVen brand. The capsule has its own microsite at ElevenByVenusWilliams.com and will look to represent K-Swiss’ perspective on women’s casual fashion going forward.
“EleVen is not defined by being the best. It’s the pursuit of your best self,” said Venus Williams. “This tireless pursuit is what wakes me every morning and drives me to push harder, live bolder and keep learning every step of the way.”
With new takes on the brand’s staple five-stripe tennis sneaker and tops and pants featuring seasonal plaids or new prints, the collections speak to Venus’ longtime passion for fashion design. She’s continually looked to polish her skills through design courses over the years, and has expanded into interior design as well.
“Venus is a true visionary, but she doesn’t stop at the creative work, she’s actively involved in every other element of business as well,” said Gabriella Gomez, K-Swiss global marketing director. “Together we are curating the concept of ‘tennis as a lifestyle,’ and the collections we are building on are designed for ambitious women with an athleisure twist.”
Coco Gauff / New Balance
One of the most impactful endorsers today was also one of the youngest to sign her first sneaker deal, as Coco Gauff was just 14 when she landed her deal with New Balance in 2018.
Just months later, she took down Venus Williams at the US Open. A year after that, she headlined New Balance’s “We Got Now” campaign, taking on a more daring tone as a face of the historically conservative company known for its simple gray and white dad shoes.
“She’s not just here to climb the rankings,” the campaign declared. “She’s here to lead the next generation.”
Gauff, now 16, is looking to expand her platform beyond tennis and also take on pressing matters such as raising social justice awareness. She’s given passionate speeches at protests, and routinely uses her social media accounts to highlight injustices.
This month, she also headlined New Balance’s Black History Month collection with the theme “My Story Matters.” While showcasing the themed lifestyle sneakers inspired by the shimmering purple robes of gospel choirs, Gauff has pushed for more Black boys and girls to share their stories through the global campaign.
Cardi B / Reebok
When she first signed with Reebok in late 2018, rapper Cardi B was known for her loud looks, long nails and constantly shifting hairstyles, but her sneaker game wasn’t as established. That all changed during the brand’s first creative meeting with Cardi B in Miami, as she toured materials booklets and design options to create the two sellout sneaker silhouettes.
To get the brainstorm session started, Reebok’s designers had picked out eight of her “top fashion moments,” with Cardi B sharing memories or moods of what went into each outfit. Eventually, the first two sets of launches were landed on, with an understated offering out of the gate, and a brighter, more electric effort up next.
Later that year, a trio of more understated colors of each model were released, a white, black and red option of the brand’s classic Club C sneaker with a chunkier midsole, and the all-new Club C Cardi, a new design with a thicker lug bottom and partially clear platform with emphasized proportions. The follow-up launch was true Cardi B, with vivid metallic and glossy neon pink and green taking on each shoe.
“Similar to Cardi herself, these colorways are impossible to ignore,” said Michelle Briggs, Reebok’s senior design manager of color & trends. “They were made for those who want to stand out, be bold and be noticed.”
While some brand collaborations feature sky-high prices or regional exclusivity, one of Cardi B’s priorities was accessibility for her fans. The Club C Cardi is priced at $100, with the Club C at just $80. It’s also one of the only collaboration collections that is released in full family sizes, from toddler and grade school sizes up to a full range of women’s sizes.
“I had to prove to myself that I can do this and now for my next season collections I’m gonna go even harder!” she said on Instagram.