From tomboy to 'It Girl': How I embraced my culture, found my style, and became the first woman to design Air Jordans

Vashtie Kola at the Hpnotiq House Party
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  • Vashtie Kola directed music videos with Kendrick Lamar and Rihanna and is the first woman to design Air Jordans.

  • Named one of New York Magazine's "It Girls," Kola became famous for her monthly "1992" parties.

  • Kola spoke with Insider reporter Yoonji Han about embracing her Trinidadian roots and finding her style.

This is an as-told-to essay based on a conversation with Vashtie Kola, a music video director, filmmaker, artist, designer, and DJ. It has been edited for length and clarity.

My parents immigrated from Trinidad to upstate New York, where we lived in a predominantly Black American and Afro-Jamaican community. My dad is ethnically Indian and my mom is Indian and African, but growing up, I was confused because I didn't understand how the cultures came together. There was never an explanation of why we ate curry dishes while my Black friends ate more American food, and my Indian classmates often wondered why I was eating the same food they did.

It wasn't until I took a trip to Trinidad and saw the intermingling of cultures — and people who looked like me — that I started to understand. As much as I'd wanted to blend in and be American, I discovered I don't have to explain my culture, my food, my mom's accent.

Vashtie Kola with her mom and older sister
Vashtie Kola as a child, bottom left, with her mother and older sister.Courtesy of Vashtie Kola

My growing understanding of my culture influenced my style: I started wearing Indian gold, which is very common in the Caribbean, as well as fabrics from Trinidad. I listened to music from Trinidad and across the Caribbean, like soca, calypso, and dance hall.

I've always been an artist, and, after college, I really dived into exploring more of my culture through art. After graduating from film school, I made a music video for Caribbean artists that featured Rihanna. We were able to recreate the dance hall style for the video, which I was really excited about.

Creating a party for tastemakers and celebrities

Vashtie Kola
Vashtie Kola.Angelo Baque

I started "1992," a monthly '90s-themed party, as a sort of revolt against the way New York City nightlife was back in the early 2000s. Most clubs had a dress code, VIP line, and bottle service — the whole system was a huge turnoff to me.

I got turned away from nightclubs because I wore sneakers and a T-shirt, which went against the "club clothes" of skintight dresses and heels. I was very anti-that, and I wanted to create a space where people could just come as they were, and not spend a ton of money, or wait in a VIP line.

At first, I wasn't DJing, because I didn't feel like it was a space for me.

In hip hop culture, it's all about being authentic and keeping it real. I grew up respecting hip hop culture and its four pillars — DJing, emceeing, b-boying, and graffiti — and it didn't feel authentic for me to just show up with a laptop and suddenly be a DJ.

It wasn't until Q-Tip, who is hugely respected and talented and is a mentor of mine, encouraged me that I felt like it was the "okay" I needed to get into DJing.

Now, I'm creating mixes of Caribbean songs with tracks from artists I grew up listening to, like Nas, Biggie, Rakeem, and Depeche Mode. My brother, who's gay, also turned me onto voguing and house music, so those are elements I include, as well.

Vashtie Kola performs at House Party NYC at Webster Hall on February 12, 2015
Vashtie Kola performs at House Party NYC at Webster Hall on February 12, 2015.Nicky Digital/Corbis via Getty Images

The first woman to design Air Jordans

The "1992" parties put me on the radar of New York City nightlife, but becoming the first woman to design Jordans has always been the proudest moment of my career.

Growing up, I couldn't afford name-brand anything. I was 14 when I bought name-brand sneakers for the first time, and I couldn't buy myself Jordans until I was 18.

The opportunity came around in the 2000s, when I became known for my style and as the girl who hung out downtown. Style is unique; it's an expression. It often speaks before you do, so it's an important element for everyone. It can be reflected in clothing, the way you communicate, your energy.

I worked at Stüssy in college, and grew up as a kid obsessed with streetwear and sneakers. At the time, no one really wore sneakers, like they do now. But I didn't wear what most people wore, which helped me stand out.

Vashtie Kola (C) attends the Vashtie x Puma Fashion Show and Launch Party at Webster Hall on February 25, 2015 in New York City.
Vashtie x Puma Fashion Show, 2015, New York City.Daniel Zuchnik/WireImage

In 2009, I was planning a birthday party for myself, and I wanted a giant cake in the shape of my favorite sneaker: the Jordan 3. It was huge; I was so in love with the cake, I wouldn't even let anyone cut into it. I brought it home to try to save it, which didn't work out because I got home and it didn't fit into my fridge.

It's funny because certain blogs like Hypebeast covered the party, and a month later I was invited to Kanye's birthday party and he had a cake version of his Yeezys, which I was like, "Okay, you got inspired by me and that's fine."

Vashtie Kola, Q-Tip and Rob Young attend Vashtie Kola's birthday party at Santos on April 28, 2009 in New York City.
Kola, Q-Tip, and Rob Young at Kola's birthday party with her Jordan 3 sneaker cake.Johnny Nunez/WireImage

The cake led to a conversation with a friend who just so happened to be working at Jordan, who said we should collaborate. The next day, I was on the phone discussing designs to celebrate the anniversary of the Jordan 2.

I picked violet because the color — a blend of feminine red and masculine blue — was always important to me as a tomboy.

When I launched my clothing brand, Violette, I kept that unisex, because I'd been wearing men's clothes for so long, I didn't see the difference between men's versus women's. The color violet is a blurring of worlds.

I also added elements to the Jordans that represent celebrations of anniversaries, like silver threaded through the laces and amber emblems in the shoe's sole.

Vashtie's Air Jordan 2
Vashtie's Jordan 2 sneakers.Courtesy of Vashtie Kola

From tomboy to 'It Girl'

When I first got the title of "It Girl" from The Cut in 2014, I was excited and honored. I wanted to be an example for other girls, to show them they could do what I was doing, because I didn't have that growing up.

At some point in my career, I wanted to be anonymous and work under a pseudonym, especially when I was starting my career directing music videos.

But then I started to realize there were other young people who identified with me, whether they were Caribbean or Asian or white. People wrote messages on my blog from all over the world, like, "I totally identify with you. I want to dress like this but my parents don't understand," or, "They don't understand what kind of music I listen to."

I also felt like being seen as an "It Girl" was great for other people who also don't feel like they fit into the mold. My sense of an "It Girl" at the time was of girls who came from famous or rich families. Me being the complete opposite of that, it felt like a triumph for me and people like me.

It's funny seeing myself lined up with certain people in New York Magazine's roundup, because I never felt like I was part of that — they felt out of my league. They came from rich families, with last names that meant something, and I once rolled up onto a red carpet event in motorcycle boots and denim cutoffs. So it felt like it was a win for my culture, and for other brown and Black folks who don't see themselves as people who could be in that category.

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