Stylist Courtney Mays has had a strong connection with sports for as long as she can remember. Her father played in the NFL, and she played power forward in basketball all throughout high school. But, Courtney Mays never anticipated styling the top NBA players in the league. In fact, she never planned for a career in fashion at all.
While she might not have always considered working in the industry, Mays grew up surrounded by fashion. "My parents have always been extremely stylish but I caught on sort of late," she tells TZR. "I would be remiss in saying that I think my size always made me shy away from fashion because there were never too many options for me, and I never saw anyone stylish who looked like me on TV. Being a 6-foot, plus-size girl has been a journey, to say the least."
Once she left home and enrolled at The University of Michigan, Mays says she reinvented herself and became known for being the style-obsessed girl on campus. "I even became president of the fashion club, styling photoshoots and curating shows," she explains. "I was so very serious at the time but it's hilarious to look back on now. That reinvention changed a lot for me. I developed an appreciation for fashion as art and began to understand the power of clothes just by getting dressed every day."
Upon graduating with a degree in art history, Mays made the move to New York City. Shortly after her arrival, she began working under fashion designer Tracy Reese. "I was given the opportunity to work in the store, showroom, and PR office at the time everything was really in-house," the stylist says. "From there, I met someone who was interning with a stylist and always complained about it. For whatever reason, I was like 'I wanna try that!'" Mays became an assistant to Rachel Johnson and Crystal Streets who had A-list clients like Ciara, Puffy Daddy, and Lebron James.
Because Mays is from Cleveland and knows her way around the city, she was put on all the styling jobs for Lebron James because he played for the Cavaliers. "It was kind of a win-win for everybody," she says. After being an assistant for six years, she moved to Los Angeles to begin her own business, where Phoenix Suns player Chris Paul was her first client. "In between there I worked for several different people like Kelly Rowland and Keyshia Cole, but really transitioned into menswear and fell in love with that work in the styling world."
While she does style non-athletes like actor Anthony Anderson for red carpets, Mays' primary focus is on NBA players. Traditionally, stylists may be associated with red carpets or models' street style looks, but Mays has played an important role in garnering interest around players' dress, too. "Right now, we are in an interesting space because the guys, especially my clients, are really using fashion as a platform to speak towards larger issues," she explains. In fact, these athletes have been speaking and bringing awareness to important topics like mental health and social justice issues. She adds, "I think especially with the world we are living in, I only see that growing more widely."
One of Paul's most talked-about ensembles happened purely by accident. During the 2018-19 season, Paul arrived opening night in a Texas Southern sweatshirt. At the time, Paul was playing for the Houston Rockets, and Mays' father happened to attend Texas Southern University. "My girlfriend and I wanted to go on campus and get sweatshirts for my dad, so it turned into a whole thing where we got a sweatshirt for Chris and he wore it to a game, and then that was the conversation — how can we amplify these stories of schools that aren’t represented so widely?" Though Paul didn't attend an HBCU, his entire family did, so Mays says representing the school is something that's not only important to him through his apparel, but also his philanthropy.
In fact, before each season, Mays talks to the players about what their goals are in terms of style. "A couple of years ago, Chris [Paul] and I talked about what the plan was going forward with his game looks," she says. For athletes, game entrance ensembles are equivalent to a celebrity arriving on a red carpet. After Paul's first Texas Southern hoodie look, the two discussed how they could continue to raise awareness for the schools. "We wanted to take that time to talk about historically Black colleges and universities." According to GQ, the stylist has obtained and customized tons of HBCU pieces for Paul to sport. And the athlete has even teamed up with the clothing line Support Black Colleges to create Instagram posts to provide educational information on the specific college he's supporting that day. "I love that we sort of spearheaded that movement where you're able to use style to speak towards a broader issue," Mays adds.
But, despite recent support, Mays says that progress has been slow in convincing the fashion industry to recognize athletes as influencers. "I remember a time when it was difficult to pull outfits for someone even like a Lebron because the fashion industry didn't understand like yes, he’s 6′ 9″, but he can still wear and represent the brand well," she notes. "I think you'll start to see the fashion community will respect the athlete as much as they do the musician."
When she's styling these professional athletes, she sticks to the same rule: Stay true to their own fashion sensibility. "I have three NBA players right now, and all three of them have really different and unique style sensibilities, so I try to make sure I amplify that accordingly," Mays explains. "I don't want Chris Paul to look like Kevin Love, or Kevin Love to look like DeAndre Jordan." Likewise, top Hollywood stylists who have multiple female celebrity clients follow this same styling principle. Take stylist Erin Walsh, who works with A-listers who have completely different fashion tastes, such as Kerry Washington and Sarah Jessica Parker.
When Mays is choosing which labels to pull for her clients, both small brands and minority-owned businesses are at the top. "Right now, and always, I've been like let's support Black designers," she says. Her longtime favorites are Pyer Moss, Martine Rose, and Fear Of God. Additionally, she's begun to work more closely with emerging labels like Romeo Hunt and Wales Bonner. The stylist also frequently shops pieces from middle range brands like COS, Tod Snyder, and J.Crew. "I don't feel like just because you play in the NBA or are a celebrity you need to spend billions of dollars on clothes," Mays notes.
For the stylist, her work goes far beyond just pulling looks from buzzy brands for her clients. "My biggest goal is to really help build their image, not just put them in the latest and greatest of what looks cool, but really help build the image off the court that’s reflective of whatever their goals are as business people," she explains. For instance, Chris Paul is the president of the NBA Players Association, so she makes sure his image reflects that in a way. "It's not just about shopping, it's about helping to build an image that'll sustain past their basketball careers."
While a red carpet is typically a one-and-done kind of styling job where they get sent what is specifically needed for the event, wear it, and send it back, styling athletes is much more ongoing. Every month, Mays travels to whatever city they're playing in. "We’re constantly building looks because, in a normal season, they play 82 games, so it’s something that's a reoccurring project," she explains. "My partner is constantly refreshing their closets and we set up a whole system of organization, like a whole pull and purge system. It's a lot more work than what people assume."