Words: Alexis Barnett

Photography: Myles Loftin

In the last 10 years, streetwear culture has importantly become more inclusive of women. A few key names helped pave the way, including Vashtie Kola, whose style and creativity opened doors for a new generation of enthusiasts and collectors. While it’s been a decade since Vashtie became the first woman to design her own Air Jordan, the multihyphenate has cemented her legacy as a cultural leader who’s always one step ahead.

When Instagram was still brand new, Vashtie was already documenting her life as a director, designer and DJ. Back then, being a jack of all trades carried some stigmas; to Vashtie and many others, it was a natural way of life that included mixing traditionally men’s and women’s fashion, as well as streetwear and luxury. In the early 2000s, Vashtie owned her personal style by effortlessly pairing Jordans with designer handbags, no matter the circumstance.

The Albany, New York native quickly became synonymous with all things downtown NYC and was nicknamed “Downtown’s Sweetheart.” In 2008, she started sharing her music videos, parties, Violette clothing line and more on her lifestyle blog. Vashtie’s love of basketball, sneakers and a particular shade of violet soon influenced a silhouette for sneakerheads of all genders, the Air Jordan II Retro “Violette,” released in 2010.

As an OG influencer and overall wunderkind, Vashtie helped create the blueprint for luxury streetwear while staying true to herself. And though life looks different today than it did a decade ago, her classic, laid-back style endures in her new roles as a mom and a wife. Last year, Vashtie postponed her wedding in exchange for a city-hall ceremony, where she wore an all-white ensemble including a durag, cargo pants and Nike Air Force 1s. “I always liked the idea of being able to play around and do whatever you like with your style,” she explains. “My core is centered in being a tomboy at all times.”

We caught up with the creative director and new mom to reflect on the last ten years and staying true to her style in a world full of trends.

It’s been 10 years since the launch of your Air Jordan II. How does it feel to look back at a milestone that happened a decade ago?

It feels surreal. On the one hand, it feels like just yesterday, but on the other hand, it feels like forever ago. The interesting part is that my memory of that time still feels as exciting as it all was 10 years ago.

Take us back to 10 years ago, right around the time when Jordan Brand first approached you about a collaboration. What was your style like a decade ago, and looking back, what do you remember as some of the best trends of that time?

At that time, I was dressing similar to how I dress now but much more tomboy-ish. I wasn’t wearing makeup or getting my hair done for anything. I was wearing cut-off denim shorts and oversized tour T-shirts with button-up shirts over them. I wore a lot of sneakers and heavy-duty boots, too.

I feel like everyone was still in an era of maintaining their own unique style, even if it was not necessarily deemed as “good.” You had a group of friends, and not all of your friends wore the same brands. Today, we’ve all become more similar in that sense, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe that’s just for now. Back then, everyone really had their own look.

Fast forward to now: what are some of your favorite and least favorite things about streetwear in 2021?

Growing up as a tomboy in streetwear, I always heard the term “unladylike” being thrown around. There were certain nightclubs and places where I couldn’t even walk in wearing sneakers and a T-shirt, no matter the brand. Now, I’m excited to see the people who didn’t acknowledge streetwear beforehand see what a powerful force it is.

On the other hand, streetwear is being utilized as a trend, even though it’s a lifestyle. It’s ingrained in the culture. I don’t consider streetwear a trend, and I would hate for it to be thrown by the wayside in a short amount of time by the same people who just started embracing it.

I know that you worked at a tattoo shop when you were 14 years old. Can you tell me more about how that experience influenced your style and creativity?

I started off by cleaning things, like the counters and the items they used for holding the inks. Then, I worked my way up to sterilizing the equipment and scheduling appointments. Eventually, because they knew I was going to apply to art school, they had me do drawing exercises. It started out as still lifes, and then it continued on to tattoos. I learned every ounce of what it takes to work in a tattoo shop.

The guys working there were in their 30s and mainly from New York City and New Jersey. They would tell me stories and also put me on to music since their tastes were definitely more eclectic than mine. I grew up in the hood, so I knew hip-hop, and I knew grunge and alternative and punk rock, but they knew way more experimental music and artists. It was cool to hear their experiences in life, where they came from and also be put on to so much music and art.

What are the key moments from your adolescent years that helped shape your style today?

My older brother and sister had a huge impact. My sister was into English electronic and rock bands, and she was a tomboy in her own way. I got really into tour T-shirts in high school. I spent way too much money on them. My brother was into hip-hop and fashion, designer jeans and things of that nature. He was always wearing something well-made, and he always had on great cologne. The blend of their styles shaped me.

Where I grew up also shaped me because I grew up in the hood, because I grew up in the hood, and at the time, it was cool for girls to wear baggy clothes. It was cool in general. Growing up in spaces where you feel unsure as a young woman, baggy clothes are like armor, in a way. I didn’t have to wear anything tight or anything that showed off my body. I was also always looking at what rappers were wearing. Even today, if I see an old photo, I often try to identify what they were wearing and see if I can buy it.

Let’s talk about your city-hall wedding. Did you always imagine yourself walking down the aisle in a durag and Nike Air Force 1s?

I wanted my wedding day to represent me, so that’s how it started. I wanted to look back at photographs and see myself, not me wanting to be someone else for that moment. The city-hall wedding was about me and my husband. I wanted us to look at each other and be like, “Oh yeah, that’s the girl that I married,” or “That’s the guy that I married.” Even before I had settled on that outfit to wear, he was like, “I fell in love with you as you were, in a baggy shirt and baggy shorts.” I thought that was also a nice thing.

When I was coming up with the idea of the outfit, I wanted it to be white, because as much as I am a tomboy, I am still traditional, too. I wanted to honor the heritage or culture that I feel shaped me and allowed me to be myself, which is hip-hop culture, Black culture and streetwear.

What are some exciting ways you’ve seen sneaker culture become more empowering or accessible to women?

I think that we, female sneakerheads, have made ourselves known, which has helped brands recognize that we are here. Social media has helped because before the Internet, brands weren’t as aware of the many different types of women who just wanted sneakers like the men were getting. The joke in the industry was that brands would “shrink it and pink it,” meaning they would take whatever was selling for men, make it smaller and make it pink. Sure, who doesn’t love pink, but we also love sport colors, black, navy, etc.

Seeing Aleali May dominate the sneaker space has been amazing because I feel like she’s breathing life into these silhouettes in her own unique way. That’s beautiful. I love what Melody Ehsani is doing, too. And there are so many others, it’s exciting. It’s a win for these women to be doing what they’re doing, but it’s also a win for the rest of us.

Where does your love of the color purple come from?

Purple is an important color to me for many reasons. I love the color range from periwinkle to wine, but I also love that purple is a combination of red and blue. It always felt like the joining of opposites, which is very much me: a tomboy with girly moments, a hip-hop lover and a punk fanatic and a vintage connoisseur who loves designer. As you know, I also named my brand Violette in 2008.

Purple is also a color that feels gender-neutral, and that has always been important for me. Having grown up preferring to wear men’s brands, I often felt like an outsider for my fashion choices. I understand why categorizing exists in the mainstream marketplace, but if you rely on it as a rule, it can truly limit, inhibit and alienate folks. I think almost all colors have blurred the lines of gender now, even pink. Colors have many different cultural meanings beyond commerce, too. In 2021, I think most of us have evolved to understand that color is universal.

If you were to design another sneaker today, what elements would be the most important to you?

If I were to do another sneaker, it would be a vegan sneaker. I’ve been vegan for a long time. It really began with my love for animals, and then it became about wellness and being conscious of what’s going on. We have the ability to make any kind of leather; we can make leather from coconut shells. It’s better for the planet if we start minimizing our use of leather. It’s about preserving our resources, the Earth and taking care of the animals we have.

Let’s talk about the Jordan WMNS Summer 2021 apparel. What are some of your favorite elements from the collection?

I like that the collection has some heritage in MJ himself. The silhouettes give me nostalgia for the ‘90s, which was a huge era in my life. These pieces are completely my style and have the colors I love to wear. I love the ease and comfort of the cropped T-shirt and oversized diamond shorts. It’s a perfect blend of throwback and current trends.

Though you love the AJ2 and have rocked other Air Jordans throughout the years, how do you like to style the AJ1, especially this “Court Purple” colorway?

I’ve always loved that it’s classic and chic, just a clean silhouette. I think it’s the perfect sneaker for any occasion, with a suit or with jeans and a T-shirt.

If you could go back and give yourself a piece of advice a decade ago, what would it be?

I would tell my younger self to quit overthinking and not to rush my experience, growth or healing process. You get to where you’re supposed to be at the right time. Your arrival is always at the right time. So don’t worry about having to be somewhere at a specific time in your life, because you’ll eventually find where you really need to be.

The Jordan WMNS SU21 Apparel for Summer 2021 is now available on Jordan.com and from select retailers. The Air Jordan I High WMNS “Court Purple” releases June 3, 2021 on SNKRS and from select retailers.

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