How Aleali May became the queen of Air Jordans
Behind the 29-year-old designer’s journey with the Jordan Brand to her latest collaboration – the ‘Fortune’ Air Jordan 14
Aleali May has made a habit of writing out any and all aspirations that pop into her mind.
The 29-year-old model, stylist and fashion designer from South Central Los Angeles even has a name for the random thoughts she jots down. “Manifestations,” she calls them, in hopes they ultimately materialize.
“After I write my manifestations, I always sign the bottom and put the date,” said May via Zoom in early August. “Just because I think it’s me emphasizing to myself, ‘This is something I want.’ ”
May still has the piece of construction paper, dated “Thanksgiving 2019,” on which she manifested the initial concept of her latest sneaker design for the Jordan Brand as part of a creative partnership that’s lasted for the past five years.
“I wrote down that I wanted a jade Air Jordan 14,” May recalled. “It was about, ‘How do I take those manifestations and do that?’ … When the opportunity came up and the Jordan Brand asked, ‘What’s something that you want to do?’ I definitely was like, ‘I want to do a 14.’ ”
Twenty-one months after she first put pen to paper setting her goal, May’s “Fortune” Air Jordan 14 has arrived, with Thursday’s global release of the low-top silhouette, designed in a light sand, black, metallic gold and jade colorway. The sneaker is inspired by the first pieces of jewelry she received as a little girl from both of her grandmothers, telling the story of May’s half-Black and half-Filipina heritage. Ahead of the drop of the “Fortune” Air Jordan 14, May also arrived at a humbling realization.
“Honestly, I can’t believe this is my fifth Air Jordan,” said May, who in 2017 emerged as just the second woman in Jordan Brand history to design and release her own sneaker.
The first was Vashtie Kola, a Trinidadian American artist, filmmaker and designer from Albany, New York, whose lavender colorway of the Air Jordan 2 dropped in October 2010 during May’s first year at Columbia College in Chicago. One day, May, then 18 years old, pulled up to a sneaker boutique called Leaders 1354, where she saw Kola’s creation for the first time.
“I saw Vashtie’s shoe sitting on the shelf,” May remembered. “I didn’t think anything of it. I wasn’t like, ‘I’m next.’ It was just like, ‘This is superdope coming from this fresh ass girl.’ ”
May didn’t become the next woman up until years later, after Frank Cooke, then a footwear designer for the Jordan “NRG” team (the division behind the designs of the brand’s most exclusive releases), took notice in 2016.
“I saw Aleali modeling and she had a real distinct look to her,” said Cooke, who left the Jordan Brand in October 2018, but has worked on all five of May’s Air Jordan models, including her most recent “Fortune” Air Jordan 14s as a creative consultant. “She pulls off fits and looks that you don’t really see out there. She has a huge range when it comes to style. And that’s what was appealing to me about her.”
May has a short and sweet way of describing the style that’s made her a fixture at New York and Paris fashion weeks while ballooning her Instagram account to half a million followers: “I’m pretty much about minimal, subtle detail,” she said, “but deadly.”
Cooke sent May a pair of the 2016 “Bred” Air Jordan 1s and a matching sweatsuit, which she posed in for an unofficial photo shoot as an influencer. Meanwhile, he persuaded the brand to give her a chance to design her own sneaker as an official collaborator.
“It was the perfect opportunity, I think,” Cooke said. “When it comes to women’s product, a lot of times, it’s put in a box. But I knew that Aleali had the ability to appeal to both men and women by making unisex product.”
In October 2017, May became the first woman in Jordan Brand history to design a unisex sneaker, with the release of her “Satin Shadow” Air Jordan 1 as a unique take on the revered “Shadow” colorway of Michael Jordan’s first signature sneaker. The design of the “Satin Shadow” 1s was inspired by May’s affinity for satin shorts, as well as the corduroy house slippers her dad used to cop from swap meets at LA’s Slauson Super Mall. For May, that debut Air Jordan collaboration represented a true love story to the city she calls home.
“Since day one,” Cooke said, “she’s had a strong vision of storytelling.”
In the beginning, however, May had a very modest approach to the design process. “I just felt superblessed and grateful,” she recalled. “I was designing my first pair of Jordans, like, ‘This is one and done.’ I basically tried to design as if, ‘That’s it.’ ”
Yet, opportunities to craft her own versions of Air Jordans kept being presented. And May took full advantage.
In December 2018, she delivered her “Court Lux” Air Jordan 1, as part of a collection that she teamed up to design with four-time WNBA champion Maya Moore – the first women’s basketball player in history to sign an endorsement deal with the Jordan Brand – highlighting the bridge between basketball and fashion. By March 2019, May flipped the script of a classic sneaker silhouette with a vibrantly unprecedented colorway. But her “Millennial Pink” Air Jordan 6s were so radical that May experienced a bit of an ensuing rut of creativity.
“After my third pair, the ‘Millennial Pink’ 6, I was like, ‘Wow. I feel like I’ve done so well, but I don’t even know what I’d do next,’ ” May said. “I felt like I had just reached the cap for myself at the time.”
May eventually found inspiration during a trip to Shanghai in September 2019 for an exhibit hosted by renowned jewelry design house Tiffany & Co. There, one piece on display from the late 19th century particularly captivated May. It was crafted with jade, and immediately brought back memories from her childhood.
“What was my first piece of jewelry I received?” May said she remembers asking herself. “It was jade, from both my grandmother, who is African American, and also my grandmother, who’s from the Philippines. It was a common theme. And if you look more into jade, it’s all about good fortune, bringing good energy and protecting you. Jade had sentimental value …”
For one of her next Air Jordan collaborations, May had honed in on a theme and backstory. She also had a marquee material that she wanted to incorporate. The only thing else left to decide was the sneaker silhouette she’d utilized.
“What would be most natural for me to make next?” another question May posed to herself. “If people have been following my journey, I definitely sport 14s. I love 14s, because it’s really cool they’re based off a car – a Ferrari. I realize, when I go to fashion week, especially men’s fashion week in Paris, 14s look great with a pair of leathers, a pair of baggy pants. I love the silhouette. It’s a more slept-on sneaker. It was like, ‘I do wear 14s a lot … so, let’s hit it.’ ”
May wrote down her manifestation – “jade Air Jordan 14” – and three months later, fresh off of Paris Fashion Week, right before COVID-19 forced the world into lockdown, she arrived at Nike’s global headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, to meet with Cooke and Jordan Brand’s NRG team. In two days on Nike’s campus, May not only completed the design of her “Fortune” Air Jordan 14, she also finalized the launch of her “Califia” Air Jordan 1 Zoom Comfort. The main inspiration behind the “Califia” Air Jordan 1, which dropped in April along with the first-ever apparel collection she designed for the brand, is her high school drill team coach, Shanora Holloway. But the sneaker actually gets its name from a fictional Black warrior queen portrayed in 16th-century Spanish literature, after which the state of California is speculated to be named.
“I’ve seen Aleali’s progression in design in terms of paying attention to detail,” Cooke said. “If you look at her first Air Jordan 1 and now to her Air Jordan 14, you can see how much she’s grown. Now, I think she understands what it takes to build a shoe from the ground up. Not just doing a colorway or putting out a collaboration. Seeing it through from start to finish during the process.”
Part of that process for May this time around involved connecting with P.J. Tucker, the NBA’s undisputed “Sneaker King,” to debut her “Fortune” Air Jordan 14s on court during the 2021 NBA playoffs. May first met Tucker at an eBay event during 2019 NBA All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina. And in a moment of paying respect to May’s grind as an Air Jordan collaborator, Tucker told her point-blank: “Lemme know about anything you got coming out,” May recalled him saying. “I’m down to rock it.”
“We had been talking, because he’s worn a couple of my other shoes before. I was like, ‘I’m working on something, definitely want to send you the new pair.’ I sent the 14s to him the day before. I got an email saying they delivered. I didn’t know he was going to put them on the next night. I sent them to him early. He was the first one. … It was really dope, too, because I love the cross between fashion and basketball. This is a basketball shoe, made by a basketball player. So, for the first pair to go out on a basketball player, I think it ties into what the Jordan Brand is – that bridge of fashion and sports.”
Yet even more special to May than Tucker’s debut of the “Fortune” 14s was the sight of two of the most important women in her life wearing them. During a Jordan Brand photo shoot to promote the release, May posed in a vintage wicker chair, flanked by her African American grandmother Sharon and her Filipina great-aunt (“Tita”) Sue, the older sister of her maternal grandmother. In the powerful family portrait, May, Sharon and Sue are all wearing jade bangles on their wrists and the jade-themed “Fortune” 14s on their feet.
“Aleali always had on her Jordans,” Granny Sharon recalled of young Aleali in 2017, when May’s first Air Jordan 1 collaboration released. “I used to take her to the mall. We would be in the shoe department and I would make her walk around the store with girls’ shoes on, with little heels. She was like, ‘Granny, I can’t wear this, they hurt my feet. Why do I have to wear these? I wanna wear tennis shoes.’ That was a point where I was trying to make her into a girly girl. Didn’t know that she was gonna end up doing what she is doing.”
In five years, May has released five different pairs of Air Jordans – the “Satin Shadow” 1s, “Court Lux” 1s, “Millennial Pink” 6s, “Califia” 1s and, now, the “Fortune” 14s. No woman in Jordan Brand history has more designs to her name than May.
Not only is she one of the faces of the Jordan Brand, she’s manifested herself into the queen of Air Jordans.
“We’ve been working together since 2016,” Cooke said. “Here we are, five years later, and she’s still doing shoes. For her to have this longevity, I’m excited to see where else her future goes in footwear. In my mind, the sky’s the limit for Aleali at the Jordan Brand.”
Aleali May’s approach to sneaker design is, admittedly, different now. And those “manifestations” of hers have taken on new life.
“It’s shifted from, ‘Lemme design like it’s my last,’ to, ‘Lemme design as if another girl later on is gonna come and be inspired by these stories and then be able to build and create,’ ” May said. “I’m definitely excited. I feel like we’ve not hit the height of it yet. Women in the sneaker world – we’re just getting started.”
On June 10, before Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Brooklyn Nets and eventual NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks, Tucker took the court for warm-ups in May’s “Fortune” 14s, becoming the first person to publicly lace up the sneaker.