April 18, 2021

Jordan Designer Kelsey Amy: Women in Sneakers, PE Shoes & More

Kelsey Amy’s first job at Nike wasn’t as a designer. When she interned with the company in 2013, she didn’t even know her current role, a senior color designer for Jordan Brand’s sport and promo product, existed. But after spending a few months doing marketing for the brand and getting a taste of the Portland life, Amy caught the Swoosh bug. 

She went back home to Sweet Valley, Pennsylvania—a two-hour drive from Penn State, where she had played field hockey and studied fine arts—and soon decided she was dead set on returning to the Pacific Northwest for a job with Nike. She credits this determination with carrying her to where she is today, designing exclusive colorways for Jordan Brand athletes like Russell Westbrook and Jayson Tatum as well as promotional pairs for universities and special events. 

During her last seven years with Jordan Brand, Amy has not only been coloring up some of the brand’s rarest pairs, but she’s also made it a point to pay it forward, passing down her expertise and knowledge to other women hoping to carve a path into the industry. 

“More doors are going to continue to open for women,” Amy says. “And I think it’s necessary for us to charge through them full force as opposed to maybe knocking and waiting for an answer.”

We talked to Amy about the path to Portland, her thoughts on representation for women in the industry, what it’s like to design Jordan Brand’s high-profile promotional sneakers and more. The conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity, appears below.

I guess the natural starting point would be to talk about your journey and how you got to where you are today. I know you went to Penn State, you played field hockey. Can you tell me a little more? 

Yeah. I pretty much grew up playing sports my entire life. I would say pretty much my whole life is rooted in sports and art. Then when I was in high school, I started dabbling in this world of customizing sneakers. I’m from a very small town, so fashion and opportunities to buy the latest items isn’t really—we don’t have that many opportunities. So I just started messing around with painting on my shoes, and then I would wear those shoes to different tournaments that I was participating in and I would get really cool reactions from people. Eventually I just realized I could maybe turn that into a business, but the second I figured that out, of course, was as soon as I was about to go off to college. And having a full field hockey sports schedule on top of a full art degree schedule, there just really wasn’t enough time for me to do it. So throughout my college career, I was pretty much just focused on playing field hockey, getting a degree, and then going into my senior year halfway through, I pretty much had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. 

On a whim, I had just applied for a Nike internship. Someone had sent me an email through our sports marketing program about an opportunity and I applied, went to a little seminar. And then fast forward a few months, it was quite the interview process. They had actually mentioned that they don’t usually look at seniors, which I was at the time, so I pretty much went into it thinking that I really wasn’t going to get it. Throughout the process, I just kept making it further and further in the rounds, and I ended up out at Nike that following summer to do an internship. I actually ended up somehow in a marketing internship, even though my background was in art and design. Spent the summer out there, fell in love with Portland, fell in love with just Nike as a whole. The campus is amazing. The people are amazing. Very, very different from my life back on the east coast. Very different mentalities, a little more slowed down. A little less intense, I guess I would say. 

But I didn’t end up getting a job out of that internship, because I was in a marketing role, which wasn’t really my area of expertise. Then I came back home, was living with my parents fresh out of college, which, anyone that has just graduated college going from freedom and then back to living with your parents, it’s not quite the vision you have for your life. So I just ultimately decided I was going to do everything in my power to end up back at Nike. That was when I started picking up the custom sneakers thing again. I had just dedicated myself to doing that for six months, trying to raise as much money as possible to be able to uproot my life and just head out west and pretty much just hope for the best. 

That’s essentially what I did, and in that time was when my sneaker customizing randomly really blew up on the internet. I was able to make a decent amount of money and then end up moving out there. I had no job, luckily I did have some friends who were willing to move out there with me and we all split an apartment. Did the whole live on an air mattress thing for about six months, ate a lot of peanut butter and jellies, and then just hustled and picked up where I left off with the internship in terms of the connections I had made and the people I had met. Just started meeting with people consistently and then ultimately got a little foot in the door opportunity. 

I was pretty much an admin. I was doing a lot of paperwork and financial stuff, which is definitely not my area of expertise, but throughout that time, I was able to continue to connect with people and eventually land over at Jordan Brand. I’ve been with Jordan Brand pretty much ever since and have worked on a wide variety of product while I’ve been there. 

That’s awesome. I’m glad you landed back there. You set your mind to it and were able to make the goal. 

Yeah. I mean, I make that story sound very short and like it was very smooth, but trust me, there were tons of tears, tons of setbacks, way more closed doors than open ones. But looking back, hindsight is always 20/20. Looking back, I’m super thankful for it. It showed me what I did want to do in life, what things I didn’t want to do, and then just being able to compare those things and make some educated decisions moving forward. Ultimately, just that idea of if you want something bad enough, you’ll do anything in your power to make it happen. So, I mean, it’s so much easier that it’s all worked out, but man, at the time it was a grind. 

You mentioned being into sneakers in high school. Can you tell me a little bit about that period, maybe when it was, and what sneakers were out then and what sparked your interest in shoes? 

Yeah. As I said, I was always involved in sports growing up and I just remember so vividly, every couple of weeks or so getting Eastbay magazine and I was obsessed with just all the soccer cleats that were in there, all the shoes that were in there. I always just wanted to have the coolest cleats ever and on the more lifestyle side of things, we have one mall with one big sporting goods and then there may have been either a Finish Line or Foot Locker. The opportunities to buy shoes were few and far between. 

Back in that day and age, the internet was nowhere near what it is today, so pretty much my only exposure to footwear was when I would go to the mall every once in a while. That mall was 30 minutes away from my house, so it wasn’t quite that often. But I distinctly remember when I first fell in love with shoes when the Nike Shox came out, I was so obsessed with them. I had never seen anything like it. To me, I thought at the time it was the coolest shoe that I’d ever seen. I remember they came out with a women’s pair that was all white. It had some baby blue trim around it, and I remember just begging my mom at the time. I was like, “These are the coolest shoes I’ve ever seen. Please.” At the time they were either 99 bucks or $100 flat, and I remember at the time my mom was, “Absolutely not.” $100 for shoes was ridiculous, which is hilarious to think about now. She did end up eventually getting them for me and I love those shoes to death. I wore them everywhere. I thought I was the coolest person ever. Then it just grew a little bit from there. 

I traveled a lot for field hockey, so there was a stint of time where I was on the junior national team and we traveled internationally pretty frequently. My main focus—I could care less about playing well. My main focus every time I did one of these tours to another country was, I need to find the coolest shoes while I’m over there to buy them and bring them back. It just grew throughout, pretty much from middle school up into high school and then through college. As I said, in high school was when I really started to get into the customizing thing. So again, the internet wasn’t crazy back then, but I had the means to buy white bases and figure out some of the paint that I could use. 

I would say more in high school, I was still buying shoes, but I think my focus personally was, “Man, what I am able to access in my small little backcountry bubble isn’t what I feel I would want to wear or represent.” That was where I started just making my own stuff. Started painting on different shoes and then ultimately made a couple of pairs for some friends here and there as well. So that was how it all started. I mean, it’s weird to say that it all started with Nike Shox, but, here we are. 

Your first brand was Shme Custom Kicks. Was that kind of a way to bridge your interest in art and sneakers?

I’ve always been involved in sports, always been involved in art and to your point, just being able to find a way to marry those two loves was something that was super exciting for me. At the time there was no Instagram, none of that stuff existed. It felt something that I was at the forefront of and that I could own and something that I could be known for within my small little world of people who knew me. It was just something that really excited me. I saw an opportunity to take some more basic footwear and veneer it in a way that gave a little bit more expression and a little more personality, and ultimately just a way to link footwear closer to people’s stories, if that makes sense. Looking back at that and seeing where I’m at now, it’s almost just a progression obviously on a much bigger scale, but at the end of the day, what I do now and where I started is always about getting people’s stories and being able to tell that and express that through their footwear. It’s crazy to think that this little thing that I started in a bedroom in my childhood home ultimately allowed me to take this past into what I’m doing now. 

Yeah. It’s full circle. What sticks out to me, you did the marketing internship. You did that, you did the admin work. Things that are unrelated to what you’re doing now. Did you even foresee that there would be this space where you could take your customization skills and turn that into a career at Nike? I imagine that wasn’t really a thing at the time. 

Yeah, not at all, quite honestly. I did the internship and at the time, even with that, I had no—my [current] role, how it’s defined is called color design—and I had no idea that even existed. I had never heard of it. Basically to put this all in a nutshell, I did the marketing internship and I knew then I was like, I have no idea what I’m doing in marketing, that’s not my background. So I did struggle a little bit with that, but through that struggle I ultimately decided, “Hey, if I want to get a career at Nike in design, I’m obviously going to have to go off the cuff here and do things a little bit differently.” 

What I started doing was just meeting with as many people who were in Nike design at the time, so it just creates this chain reaction of meeting with people. They tell you to meet with other people. They tell you to meet with other people and so on and so forth. I continuously just kept meeting with people and ultimately got to the point where I met with someone who was just like, “Hey, you should do a project and enter the intern design show at the end of the year” There’s a large internship, right? And everyone has their silo that they’re in. I was in marketing, but there were design interns who were in a design internship, an ideal space that I would have loved to have been in. But in talking with this one person, he was like, “Hey, just do a project and ask if you can show it in the show” Which is exactly what I did. 

I ended up having Mark Parker come by, we chatted a little bit. I even showed him my portfolio. Somehow then ended up having a meeting with him a week later. It was just, it was super cool. Mark Parker at the time, just this figure who, you know is a real person, but it’s just, I was so young at the time. Just even being able to talk to him was just the coolest thing. The fact that he took time to sit down and talk with me about my interests, talk about me, customizing shoes, talk about where I see myself with Nike. It was just super cool. That was one of the things that really sparked in me that I knew I wanted to be at Nike. That meeting alone, just excited me so much.

You mentioned (former Nike CEO) Mark Parker, but were there any other people, whether they be other designers or other women in prominent roles that you looked up to as inspirations? 

When I was an intern and I was doing this marketing thing and pretty much just so lost, I’m out here doing this internship, I’m in marketing, which is not my field, I feel I’m not doing a good job. I felt I was wasting an opportunity. I remember I had been drawing on sockliners at the time and they were all over my desk. I had a meeting with someone in design, just trying to get a better understanding of, what are the opportunities? And it was a super rushed meeting. She was only able to meet with me for 15 minutes and I left the meeting feeling so discouraged. I went back to my desk and it’s shameful even now, but I was crying at my desk because we had a week of the internship left. I was super stressed. Okay, if I don’t get a job here I have to go back home and I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life. I’ve put all my eggs in this one basket. 

A guy who I can now call a friend and a mentor now had walked by and saw the sockliners. I’m literally sitting there crying at my desk and he’s like, “Wow, what are these?” And I was just wiping tears, and I’m like, “Oh, just this little project that I’m working on for the design intern show.” He was like, “These are amazing. Hey, let’s take some time to sit down and meet.” And he’s like, “Have you met with anyone in design?” At the time a bunch of people had given me someone’s name, but I didn’t know who he was. And I was like, “Yeah, everybody keeps telling me to meet with this person.”

He’s like, “I’m him.” It was just this holistic, beautiful moment for the first time during the internship things were coming together for me. It snowballed into me developing a rapport with him and I ultimately didn’t get a job out of the internship, but when I went back home, I was able to keep in touch with him. I would check in with him when I would paint a custom pair of shoes and I would just share some images. He would share some things that he was working on. I was just super thankful that he took the time to get to know me and helped me through figuring out what I want to do. Eventually, when I had made enough money to move back out to Portland and I was doing the air mattress thing, he was one of the first people I reached out to. 

We were able to reconnect and I was showing him everything I was working on. And he’s like, “Hey this process, it’s going to feel a long time. It’s going to be super discouraging. You’re going to feel, everyone’s telling you no when you feel you should be told yes.” He’s like, “It’s all about patience. The more you keep meeting with people, things will fall into place and eventually you’ll look back in 10, five, 10 years and you’ll be like, man, I can’t believe I even struggled at that point.” And he was so right. At the time I was like, “I hate this, this process is awful.” I’m having so many people look at my portfolio and say, “I can’t believe you don’t work here or that you don’t already have a job. I can’t believe you’re having such a hard time.” That was just what it was for probably about six months. During that six month time period was when I had that admin role and I knew that was definitely not what I wanted to do. 

Ultimately, meeting with people consistently every single day, having at least two or three meetings with people, just trying to gauge interest and trying to find my way into the design world. Within maybe, I want to say a span of five hours, I was able to completely change my life to where someone had texted me and said, “Hey, there’s an ETW role opened in Jordan for color design, have you heard anything about it?” I was like, no. I had just met with my mentor maybe a couple days beforehand. He had just recently gotten a role as a director over in Jordan Brand. I immediately emailed him and I was like, “Please tell me this role actually exists, is this a real thing?” He emailed me back probably within a couple of minutes. H’s like, “Funny enough, I’ve already given your name to someone, expect an email.” And they emailed me again within 10 minutes. They set up an interview. I literally went for the interview the next morning. By the time I got back to my desk, they had offered me the role. 

So it was six months of struggle to have everything fall into place within a 24-hour period. But I look back now and recognize that I needed to build that foundation over the six months in order for that to ultimately work out as harmoniously as it did. But, it was just super cool. I was over the moon to finally be first of all in a design role, but also to me Jordan Brand is the pinnacle, it’s where I had always wanted to work. To be able to start, essentially start my design career with the place that I had always wanted to be was just super cool. 

Being a woman in this space that’s perceived to be pretty male-dominated, can you tell me about that and what your experience has been like?

It’s been interesting to say the least. I think for me, growing up and playing sports, I am probably one of the most competitive people you’ll ever meet. Almost to a fault, I could pretty much find any way to turn something into a competition. So growing up in sports, that’s just always been instilled in me. I wouldn’t say I’ve necessarily lived my life with the thoughts of, I’m a female in a male industry in the back of my mind, it’s not something that guided me initially, but as I’ve grown in my time with Jordan Brand, the world is constantly evolving and industries are constantly evolving. I think this time that we’ve had to sit at home and really ultimately self-reflect and maybe learn a little bit more about the world and the landscape of the world. 

I think it’s become a lot more important for me to connect some dots in my past that might not have, I might not have initially tied back to being a woman in the industry, but now looking back now, I’m like, man, I wish I would’ve had someone myself back then to look up to and follow. I look at what I had mentioned before, I had no idea what I’m doing right now was even a role that existed let alone a role that a female could spearhead and take to take in a new direction. For me I just, I think it’s super important and I think social media, I have a love-hate relationship with social media, but on my days where I really enjoy it is where I get messages from young women who are either in high school or college or trying to figure out what they want to do in life. 

I get so many messages almost daily from people who reach out and say, “I’ve been following your story on Instagram and I never knew a role this existed” or “It’s so cool to see a woman involved in an industry that is very male-dominated.” For me it’s just, it’s really important for me to utilize this following that somehow I’ve established on Instagram. I don’t even really know how I got to the point that I got to there, some days I wish I didn’t have it, but I’m also thankful that it does give me this platform to show young women who are trying to figure their lives out. That there are different opportunities and really you should never feel hesitant or nervous to go into these industries that you feel you don’t really have a chance in having a voice. 

Because I think at the end of the day, your work speaks for itself, right? No one would look at the PEs or things that I design and be, “Oh, those must have been designed by a woman.” Right? It’s all about understanding the industry, understanding your consumer, having a design background, all of those things are what comes together ultimately to make a project a success. I think there’s no reason that anyone should focus on, is she a male or a female? I think that holds no weight in this industry. I think at the end of the day, if I can boil it down to one thing, it’s if you’re good at what you do, you’re good at what you do. I think male, female, it doesn’t really matter. For me, it’s just really about pushing that narrative that if you work hard and you’re studying, you take the time to learn the industry and understand the people who are involved in that industry and understand the consumer that buys into that industry. Man, you can really do anything at the end of the day. 

You touched on the way things have evolved, but have you noticed things changing? Since you started working at Jordan Brand, have you noticed the male-dominated aspect changing?

Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to say male-dominated aspect in terms of, no one ever made me feel, “Oh, you’re a woman in a very male-dominated industry.” Right? I definitely don’t want to create that narrative. I think it’s just very apparent, right? I am one of very few females who work within the performance category. Those are just things you pick up on, but it’s not like anything about that makes my job harder or easier. I mentioned before, but I’ve worked on literally every category under the sun, within Jordan Brand. I was there way before we had a Jordan women’s section, which is just so cool to see that finally coming to life. 

The conversation is always very line in the sand. These are men’s shoes, [and] these are women’s shoes. For me, I was just always young and I had a passion for trying to blur those lines a little bit more and give female sneakerheads something that they could get really excited about. That was just something that was always just a personal goal of mine. To see Jordan Brand transition into this space of really highlighting females, not only within the sneaker industry, but just within the culture space of sneakers and sport and all these different opportunities, I think, and not just Nike and Jordan Brand, I think every company out there right now is just recognizing how powerful the female consumer is. 

I think we’re in the very infant stages of really tapping into that and ultimately figuring out the success of that and I think it’s going to continue to evolve over the years, but to take that back to your original question, it’s just like, I’ve been with Jordan Brand for almost six years now and to see this progression of when I first started, it was pretty much just men’s footwear and to see this progression of really highlighting female products and the female consumer is just really, really cool for me. And it’s very inspiring for me to work within that industry and, I can only hope to continue to shape that narrative, not only for the product that we offer, but to shape that narrative women in this industry in general and giving a voice to females within the industry. 

Sticking with product, what are your thoughts on women starting to get more hyped exclusive sneakers? For example the Shattered Backboard Jordan 1, the satin pair. I think you actually cut yours into low tops. Then pairs like the Off-White x Air Jordan 4, it’s definitely becoming more and more of a thing. I want to touch on your thoughts on that. 

I’ll just tie it back into what I was saying before. The female consumer has always been there and I think as of late we’re recognizing how much of a major role the women’s consumer plays in just the landscape of the culture. I think women, I’ll link it back to female sneakerheads, they’ve always existed, right? But maybe we didn’t get as much attention just because our product was maybe GS or we pretty much were reserved to buying kids’ sneakers. I mean me growing up and buying Jordans, I could only get the GS versions, right? I think maybe we weren’t taken as seriously within the industry. So for Jordan Brand to be coming out and offering exclusive products to women, I mean, not even just Jordan Brand, every brand and every company is doing it now. It’s amazing to see the landscape shift pretty much right before my eyes and to be a part of that and to be able to lift up the female voice and the female consumer and put them on a level playing field with everybody else. We’ve just never had the platform. 

For all these brands to finally be giving influential women a voice and a platform to tell their story and share what makes them unique, it’s the same thing that I mentioned where I’m trying to accomplish with utilizing Instagram. It’s all about showing younger women what the opportunities are and what you can become and maybe being able to mirror someone’s path or take little learnings from other people that you follow within the industry. With people like Aleali May, like Melody Ehsani, all of these people, without these brands supporting them and giving them the platform, it would be hard for people to be able to understand their story. I think for me, these women have always been there, it’s just a matter of brands really putting it on their shoulders to lift those voices and those stories up. It’s super cool to be within the walls and seeing that within the industry, to just be there and live it, breathe it. It’s awesome. 

You’re known for your amazing PEs with Jordan Brand. Do you have any favorites or any that stick out as especially memorable?

That’s really hard. I don’t really have a favorite. The people that I work with will tell you, I pretty much fall in love with all of them. It’s just such a labor of love. I will spend hours and hours and hours and hours working on these things just because I genuinely love the process of taking an athlete’s story and being able to bring it to life on footwear. Just taking it way back to where I started with customs, where it’s just, my friend loves cats, so I’m gonna make her a pair of shoes with some cats all over them. To be able to evolve that very infant idea and to see it, to your point, come full circle has been so cool.

I’m so thankful that Jordan Brand has allowed me to ultimately do what I’m doing. I think we’ve carved out a nice little space for ourselves within the performance footwear world. We want to bring attention to Jordan basketball product, and that was our main goal. Me making PEs is such a small part of what makes all of this so successful. There’s so many people behind the scenes that ultimately bring this stuff to life and there’s such a long process. So many teammates are involved that I’m the very, very tail end at the end of the day, I’m one of the last stops on the train. The success really comes from the team behind it and how many people are involved to be able to bring this product to life. 

Then we obviously have such an amazing roster of athletes within the Jordan Brand. Being able to take all that months and months of work that our team has brought to life and then being able to take amazing athletes from our stories. It makes my job easy at the end of the day. 99 percent of the work comes from a lot of other people. I play a super small role, but at the end of the day, I take that super small role so seriously, and I put so much time into everything and I just want to get people excited and create a conversation. That’s ultimately what I like to hang my hat on is, how can we veneer footwear differently? How can we represent our athletes best? How can we represent the brand best? And that’s just the role I play. 

You were talking about DMing with girls that are trying to get into the industry, but is there any specific advice that you have for women that are aspiring to get involved, whether it be in design or another role? 

I really can only speak from my personal experience, [but it] would just be, if you have the hustle and the drive and the want and the need to do something and you truly, truly believe in it. Literally just do it. I picked up my entire life and moved across the country and lived on an air mattress for six months and ate peanut butter and jelly because I really believed that I belonged at Nike. I really believed that I belonged in the world of design and that I knew I had the opportunity to put my fingerprint on some and really own something. That was a long process and I’m never going to sugarcoat it and be, “Oh, it’s just simple as you want to do it, just go do it.” It’s not that easy. I think, especially being women, I think the landscape is definitely changing, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done. And I think at the end of the day, ultimately I hustle and my competitiveness is what really landed me where I am. 

Like I mentioned before, there were so many closed doors where I had to just eat it and just move on and find other opportunities elsewhere. I think that drive and that idea of knowing what I wanted to do, and honestly just adding the belief in yourself is ultimately what got me where I am today. Then like I said before, for young women who might want to do this, all of these brands uplifting women voices, and me utilizing social media, it’s again, just sometimes giving someone the visual or even just planting the seed that something is possible, could completely change the way someone approaches their future. 

I think it’s amazing that women are becoming pioneers in this landscape. If I can play a small role in hopefully inspiring young girls to pursue their dreams and ultimately really pursue whatever you want, no matter the stigmas or anything that comes with it.