Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are shining the spotlight on the diverse journeys of women of color in sports – from veteran athletes to rising stars, coaches, executives and more – in the series, Elle-evate: 100 influential black women in sport.
Stylist, designer and consultant Courtney Mays is the visionary behind some of the best dressed players in the NBA. Today — thanks to Mays and the mentors she credits before her, like Rachel Johnson, stylist to LeBron James — the convergence of style and sport takes place in the tunnels of arenas around the league, game after game.
“I think Rachel really pioneered the idea that the tunnel could be that five-second track,” says Mays. Players no longer arrive with their heads down in sweatpants or ill-fitting suits; The NBA player’s new pre-game uniform consists of luxury brands, tailored suits and intentionally styled apparel. But it’s not just about showing off or competing for the best dressed player – the weekly catwalk is about letting the world know that there’s something to say that’s stronger and more impactful than any three-pointer or triple-double shot.
“LeBron, Dwayne Wade, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony are the veterans of this movement. We’re paying attention to what they’re wearing when they arrive at the arena. Now what you’re seeing is guys getting their power back,” says Mays. “I can dribble, I can dunk, but I’m also a businessman, or I have an affinity for fashion. As you’ve seen Klay Thompson enter the arena on his motorcycle and Russell Westbrook, he really pushes the envelope with his style. It’s cool that guys have started using style to influence a culture.”
Mays understands that it can start with fashion, but that’s the vehicle, not the message. It’s about an image – it matters how the world perceives you, especially as a black man or woman.
“I think black people are the arbiters of style. Most of our country is based on black culture’s definition of what’s cool, whether it’s music or fashion or food,” says Mays. “Whether our peers realize it or not, they are idolizing these athletes, and they are black men and women. We can have that power if we allow ourselves and use style to be in that conversation.”
While fashion and sports may seem like opposites, for Mays, both are part of her DNA. Her father, an NFL player, and her mother, a flight attendant, instilled in her a strong sense of style and the importance of always being at her best. Growing up in Cleveland, Courtney was always into sports, playing basketball, field hockey, and lacrosse throughout high school. She went to the University of Michigan, destined to be a pediatrician. Like college, it teaches us to explore other interests. Courtney joined a fashion club while in college and fell in love with art history. Her next stop was New York City—she told her mom that she had an internship with Tracy Reese (one she didn’t have) just to get permission to go to the style capital to pursue her dreams. Fast forward to 2022 and Mays is the stylist when it comes to menswear.
“I’m kind of a brat, for lack of a better term, in my own style of sensibility,” says Mays. “I love menswear tailoring. I love menswear fabric. Even when I think of our house, I’m looking at stripes, herringbone and Glen plaid. These are the fabrics I gravitate towards. My perspective has evolved because fashion has become genderless and I love playing with size.”
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Like his NBA clients, Mays wears a uniform that is the epitome of his personality: easy, comfortable, classic, approachable and understated, with a point of view. She may not be the center of attention, but she does grab attention, leaving you curious enough to wonder about the person behind the black suit, plain T-shirt, and must-have sneakers. Her approach to style and life is one with purpose and passion.
“Everything we do is intentional,” says Mays. “With Chris Paul, when he was president of the players’ association, we were really trying to make sure his image reflected that, being presidential, making sure he always had that managerial style. You are creating or curing these identities through fashion.”
While the above-average muscular frames of NBA players are the envy of most men, dressing off the court is more than a challenge. Even with her own six-foot body, Mays can create and creatively manipulate a head-turning look, regardless of her size or body type. His point of view is as strong in front of the camera as it is behind the scenes, challenging designers to expand their boundaries to include more inclusive shapes and sizes.
“I recently walked into the Nike store and they started selling plus size, which is quite an accomplishment,” says Mays. “I would love to create or even help encourage these brands to do better when it comes to size inclusion. And there’s that opportunity when it comes to men and women — they’re missing out on a whole market of people who just want to look cool and feel cool, but don’t have access to pieces that fit them well.”
Mays understands the power of image. She’s more than a stylist; she is an activist and influencer, using fashion as her voice to let the world see and hear black men and women.
“Style is a way of telling stories. Style is a platform to talk about bigger issues. Style is how you present yourself to the world without having to open your mouth,” says Mays. “Style is a combination of all the things you are, whether it’s your taste in music or your history, where you’re from. There are so many things. It’s crazy; It’s just clothes, but it’s also much more than that.”
Miss Brooks is a contributor to the Empower Onyxa diverse, multi-channel platform that celebrates the stories and transformative power of sports for women and girls of color.