exclusive

Why Aleali May Is the Style Star for This Generation—and Next

Welcome to My Influence, a celebration of personal style that explores the unique, diverse, and eclectic points of inspiration that inform the way we dress. Here is where we shine a spotlight on some of the coolest and inspiring women in fashion and take a closer look at not just what they wear but why they wear it.

1/4

If you were born between the late ’80s and early ’90s, you probably have the same childhood picture as Aleali May. Eyes bright with excitement, teeth flashed in a wide smile, and a proud stance showing off your latest prized possession: a copy of the Spice World VHS. “It was my birthday, and that was the one thing I really wanted,” May tells us when we get her on the phone. 

We’re referring to a photo that the now 25-year-old sent us when we asked her to provide some pictures of pivotal moments in her life that informed her sense of personal style. May might be the first woman we’re speaking to in our My Influence series, but she’s also someone we’ve been following and admiring for a long time. To date, the native of South Central Los Angeles has established herself as a fixture within the global fashion—not to mention, music—scene. She’s an image consultant and stylist who’s worked with artists including Lil Yachty and Tinashe. She not only has a knack for blending streetwear and athleisure with luxury labels like Chanel, Rick Owens, and Céline in her every day, but this duality has become her signature. She somehow makes the looks feel special but not too pristine. If you think that has nothing to do with the aforementioned Spice Girls, you’d be wrong… but there’s a lot more to it.

2/4

Photo:

clockwise from top left: (Aaliyah) Kharen Hill/Shutterstock; (May with grandmother, uncle, and father) Courtesy of Aleali May; (May) Paley Fairman; (May and friend) Courtesy of Aleali May; (Bob Marley) AP/Shutterstock; (Kill Bill) A Band Apart/Shutterstock; (Destiny's Child) Carlos Chavez/Getty Images; (May at home in L.A.) Paley Fairman; (May’s Air Jordan 6 “Millennial Pink”) Paley Fairman; (Missy Elliott) Sacha Waldman/Trunk Archive

“I’m Filipino and black,” May tells us of her background, “And I will often get ‘Are you Mexican?’ ‘Are you this?’ or ‘Are you that?’ I’ve always been self-conscious. When I was trying to find girls who represented the type of girl that I wanted to be, the Spice Girls were just some of them.” She expresses that she found part of herself in the pop stars of the time—Scary Spice and Sporty Spice—but it quickly becomes evident that so many people in her life reflect a broad spectrum of personalities and culture that she’s pulled inspiration from. They’re not quite as archetypal as a Posh and Ginger per se, and while they include incredible women like TLC, Gwen Stefani, and the late Aaliyah, they’re not necessarily famous either. For May, it’s hard to speak about what makes her style special without looking to her family first.

Still an L.A. resident, May grew up in Crenshaw with stints in Colorado as well. “I am an army brat,” she says, referring to her father who’s been in the services for most of her life. “Whether or not things are going to be relevant, I am still going to wear bomber jackets, cargo pants, and workwear.” And if it’s her father who’s passed down an appreciation for all things utility, it was May’s mother, who immigrated to the U.S. from Manila, who set an example of all things natural and effortless in beauty. “Her whole style was like Sade. She’d wear the pulled-back ponytail with gold hoops, a Ralph Lauren button-down with the riding pants and boots, and always had red lipstick.”

Another pivotal piece of May’s style influence? Her Uncle G. “The first time I ever saw Bathing Ape or Jordans was on him. The first time I ever saw a Lil’ Kim poster, the one where she’s wearing the little bikini and she has her legs open, that was in his room,” she recalls. Meanwhile, May’s grandmother (and recent #MyCalvins co-star) might be the reason the style star knows how to wear Chanel pearls as well as she does baggy jeans. “This was the woman who taught me everything about how to be an independent woman and how to be strong,” she says of her Granny. “She’s always the type of woman that I thought of if I want to be classy and be swag at the same time. That’s like the Beyoncé of the family.”

3/4

Photo:

clockwise from top left: (May at home in L.A.) Paley Fairman; (Tupac) Mtvfilms/Shutterstock; (M.I.A.) Mark Abrahams/Trunk Archive; (B.A.P.S.) New Line/Shutterstock; (Michael Jordan) Focus on Sport/Getty Images; (May with father) Courtesy of Aleali May; (Beat Street) Orion/Shutterstock; (May with father) Courtesy of Aleali May; (Books) Paley Fairman; (Boyz n the Hood) Columbia/Shutterstock; (May with grandmother) Courtesy of Aleali May

Genetics aside, as we get to know May a little better, it becomes more and more evident that her ability to meld aesthetics and not conform to any one look is something that’s ingrained in her. It is her. “Millennial kids, we don’t really dress one way every day anymore. I feel like each person born within this time is super important, every person has their own role, so it’s up to me to keep streetwear and high-end fusion alive. It’s up to the next kid, whatever they believe in, to keep that alive.”

But somewhere along the way, the act of simply being herself and honoring the designers, musicians, pop culture icons who have resonated with and reflected her has made May a leader in the fashion industry. What’s more, she’s changing it by helping create visuals for some of the coolest and groundbreaking young artists today—be it styling Kendrick Lamar and Tinashe or working on the album cover for Lil Yachty—as well as collaborating with her biggest client of the moment, Jordan.

This past year May became the first female collaborator in Jordan’s 30-year history, and just last month, she helped the brand officially launch a collection solely for women. “We took the satin from my Jordan 1s,” May said in reference to her initial design she released in October of 2017, “and we created 10 different colorways. So this is taking a classic silhouette and making something for her. We wanted to create, you know, a little jealousy for the guys.”

4/4

Photo:

clockwise from top left: (The Lost Boys; (Aaliyah) Jake Chessum; (May at home) Paley Fairman; (Spice Girls) Polygram/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock; (May with mother) Courtesy of Aleali May; (May as a child) Courtesy of Aleali May; (Coming to America) Paramount/Shutterstock

The other groundbreaking aspect of this project is also the ability to put women at the forefront of streetwear. “We’re all women designing these sneakers, creating the content, and talking to other women about what they want in sneakers. It’s something that’s never been done before,” she says.

After chatting with May, we’ll admit that it becomes even harder to narrow in on what specifically influences her style (and perhaps it’s because we also spend plenty of time chatting about why Rick Owens is so amazing, the fact that she’s a seasoned hula dancer, her love of Coming to America, and then there was the time she completely schooled us on Nichiren Buddhism), but that’s what makes her most interesting and inspiring. That, and the fact that her career ambitions are as much about the next generation of artists' and visionaries' senses of self, as it is her own.

“I am doing it for the culture,” a phrase she’s often used to describe her work and drive. “I am doing it for me, I’m doing it for my hometown, I’m doing it for the young girl who may also be from the hood and not see herself ever having a shoe. I just want to show girls that you can do whatever you put your mind to, whatever background you come from, just keep pushing and never give up. When you get a win, everybody like that gets the win too.”