Ten. Figures. That’s how much Nike’s Jordan brand was capable of making at the end of 2019. Sneaker culture is a billion-dollar business, but even more so it’s a space where people have found ways to express themselves. In a world with mass-produced everything, getting an exclusive pair of sneakers can sometimes give people a glimpse of your story. Sometimes, it takes more than the sneaks. Sometimes support is harder than it seems. We know this as Black and brown women, constantly being undermined all the while people will try to replicate your work to no avail. Melanin Muse simply asks, “Why not support the authenticators, the originators, and the women with so much damn swag?” Introducing, Made for the W (formerly known as WNBA Kicks–they’ll explain that later), a group of three, incredible Black and brown women turning sneaker culture on its head and giving it a fresh face.
Where there was no fame nor fortune behind the culture of women athletes (or so the “experts” say) these storytellers found a way to turn up the heat by amplifying talented women that have always had dope shoes, dope fits, and incredible stories shunned in every way by a world stuck on the status quo. Sports—as told by Melani Carter, Made for the W Co-Founder—was NEVER a man’s world, they’d just like you to think that.
So what is Made for the W? Is it about just the women, is it about sneakers, or is it a network of the people living on the margins of mainstream sneaker culture? We’ll let Melani Carter, Co-Founder, Business Relations and Productions, Bria Janelle, Co-Founder, Social Media & Player Relations, and Simran “Sim” Kaleka, Co-Founder, General Counsel & Marketing, give you the whole story.
“We are the blueprint of what we do.”Simran
What is MADE for the W?
Simran: MADE for the W is a platform for women, sports, lifestyle, and sneaker culture. We are the heart of what’s true. We are the blueprint of what we do.
Melani: This connection is just so divine with us starting this platform. When we first started out, it was Bria, Sim, and I, and two other photographers here in Atlanta, doing work for us as freelancers. We now have 20 plus contributors that help us across the country. We haven’t even met many of them in real life, but we’ve made a connection working together virtually. We all understand that we’re all here for one purpose, and that’s to grow the women’s sports industry. What is so amazing about this platform is that a lot of our contributors did not have chances with the big corporations. They were getting overlooked.
We have the most talented team in sports…photographers, writers, industry leaders, and thought leaders. And, they literally have changed the game. In the beginning, we could not find quality photos to license. We decided to change that. So when our photographers started going to the games and shooting, other companies followed suit. I couldn’t believe that a lot of companies would let this talent just sit.
MADE for the modern sneakerhead
Let’s talk about the transition from WNBA Kicks to MADE for the W
Simran: We decided to use the @WNBAKicks handle and started the #WNBAKicks hashtag on Instagram to cultivate a platform that would assist the WNBA with more exposure and elevate the players. We thought we were allies, but they came in after we made a difference and took the rug from underneath us. We had to pivot and figure out what was going to be our name change and how we were going to still carry on our purpose and mission without losing momentum.
We understood that we had a higher calling and a higher purpose. It is bigger than one league or a hashtag. What our platform really exemplified was being able to bridge the gap and elevate women to be seen, heard, and valued in every which way that they deserve. What better way to do that than to transition and basically expand to other sports. Our platform exists in every realm of sports for women. This taught us that you have to trust the process and where it takes you, even if you may not understand it.
Tell us about the partnership between Facebook and MADE for the W
Simran: Being able to go into partnership with We The Culture (an entity of Facebook) has truly been a blessing. We’re super grateful to have been chosen. Ultimately, it has allowed us to work with other Black creatives and publish more dope content for our platform. We understand that having backing from Facebook is a privilege. Until We The Culture came about, we didn’t have the opportunity to be able to connect with other Black creatives and other Black entities. There wasn’t that level of visibility amongst each other.
“We wanted to make it easier by bringing visibility, allowing women to just be seen and heard while building a space where they can just be themselves. Ultimately, help and leave the game better than how we found it.”Melani
How did the three of you meet?
Melani: Bria, Sim, and I met in 2013, in Atlanta, at a local Pro-Am league called AEBL. We were all on our journey of sports. Bria was the host and still is the host. Sim and I were working in player relations.
Years later, Bria and I sat down at a local seafood restaurant in Atlanta for over every five hours, literally, talking about the mission and what we wanted to do to help women in sports, not just athletes, but, like, ALL women. Because one thing that was happening—especially for me—there was a lack of opportunities in space for us. We just knew our mission was to literally build a platform that allows women to not have to go through the struggle before getting to the place where they want to [be]. We wanted to make it easier by bringing visibility, allowing women to just be seen and heard while building a space where they can just be themselves. Ultimately, help and leave the game better than how we found it.
What pair of kicks influenced you to become a sneakerhead?
Melani: I have two. The first was the Iverson’s Question, which was my very first sneaker that I was introduced to in elementary school. As far as collecting, my favorite of all time is the Jordan Cement 3. I love that shoe just because it’s so sleek and you can wear them with anything. You can dress it up or dress it down. I buy a pair every time it comes out.
Simran: So that was my first pair of sneakers [The Air Jordan 3 “Black Cement] that I ever got in first grade. I’m born in Chicago and being able to see Jordan playing in them and being a Bulls fan—it’s full circle for me. Back then, there was no one checking for them at all. So it’s really cool to see how over time this sneaker has cultivated into being a staple in the sneaker collection. So that was my first pair. And as Mel said, it’s the most classic. I feel like it tells a story and is nostalgic in itself.
Bria Janelle: So I’m a little different! I caught on to the sneaker game later. I played basketball so a lot of my sneakers were basketball sneakers. I played in Jordan 10’s and those are my most memorable sneakers because I won a state championship in high school. The sneaker that really got me into collecting sneakers is the Black History Month AJ 1. I really understood what Nike was doing with the Black History Month collection, so I was like I have to cop these.
Melani: Another sneaker that was a staple here in Atlanta, of course, is Air Force 1. We copped those every single school year.
“I wanted to figure out how we could create something that would last after we’re gone, to help players be able to make enough revenue to not have to go overseas to play for nine months out of the year and come back.”Bria Janelle
What makes you so passionate about women athletes?
Bria Janelle: I think, being a former collegiate athlete, my support is important. Unfortunately, my hoop dreams didn’t go very far.
Melani: You’re 5’4”?
Bria Janelle: Yeah, well, I am 5’4’ and ½ on a good day [laughter]. I have a lot of friends who play in the league and we didn’t spend a lot of time together because the games are during the summertime. If they didn’t live in the city of Atlanta, we saw each other once a year. I wanted to figure out how we could create something that would last after we’re gone, to help players be able to make enough revenue to not have to go overseas to play for nine months out of the year and come back.
Melani: For me, on the side of media and production and working behind the scenes, I saw the stories that were being presented and it wasn’t putting women in a positive light. We would always see them questioning the ability of the women or their sexuality. The stories were about what they were wearing or their hair and makeup. Basically, it was always about the appearance of women, never more so about their talent, their ability, and just them being just women. That was one area that I was seeing that needed to change. I hated the fact that there wasn’t enough programming or storytelling around these women in a way that was authentic and true to who they are.
“That goes back to THE BLUEPRINT. That goes back to originality and just cultivating something organically. And, that’s a part of our superpower.”Simran
Simran: For me, it was visibility on both sides. I did sports, entertainment, and law—having worked for a sports agency and working with NBA clients overseas, I understood that women were making so many of the moves, but you wouldn’t know it. And, you wouldn’t see it. After being in this space for 10 plus years now, it made me realize that our presence was needed. On both sides, the players, as well as the women behind the scenes in sports making things happen every day. How do we create a platform to elevate them? How do we create a platform to humanize them and tell their stories in an organic way? That’s what linked all three of us together because we all share that passion. That goes back to THE BLUEPRINT. That goes back to originality and just cultivating something organically. And, that’s a part of our superpower.
“I think sneakers are a common piece where it doesn’t matter about your gender or race. It is one part of our culture that unifies us and brings people together.”Bria Janelle
How did you know that focusing on sneaker culture would really amplify and change the way we all like to see the WNBA players in women athletes in general?
Bria Janelle: I think sneakers are a common piece where it doesn’t matter about your gender or race. It is one part of our culture that unifies us and brings people together. We all wear sneakers. And, when you see these women on the court, they have some dope sneakers that they are wearing, PEs (Player Exclusive Shoes), and colorways that people just weren’t taking notice of. There is so much more to a female athlete, like Mel mentioned, other than her sexuality or being a mother. There are so many different lifestyle factors that weren’t being highlighted in the realm of women’s sports. We found a lane that people weren’t talking about. We knew that we could really amplify this. In the process of amplifying, I don’t think we really realized how big of a thing that it was until it just took off and, you know, people just started gravitating towards it. So we realized that this is what the game was really missing.
“You have to understand the power of what a sneaker can do and so many layers. Never underestimate the power of a sneaker telling the story within itself.“Melani
Melani: I’ll add to that. Although female-focused, we wanted it to be a gender-neutral platform so that everybody could enjoy it. And at the time, for me, the frustration that was happening within sneaker culture was that it just wasn’t authentic in storytelling. For example, if you had a basketball sneaker dropping or a new silhouette dropping, we would see models wearing it in an ad when you have women athletes that can represent the product more authentically and understand the product more than a model. Within the culture, we knew that the models were not going to wear that shoe.
You have to understand the power of what a sneaker can do and so many layers. Never underestimate the power of a sneaker telling the story within itself. [The] mainstream tried to start different conversations but they never went the lifestyle route. You’re talking about the inequity of pay, but no one was doing anything about it. In order to change that and shift the narrative, you have to do something that has never been done before. For us, it was about bringing visibility for women to get brand recognition, partnerships, and money.
“You can’t replicate or replace what’s real. We moved with that knowledge and understanding that what’s for you is for you.”Simran
What were some of the struggles to get the platform off the ground?
Simran: Some of the struggles that began…still live with us today. I think it’s because of an entity that was made from the dirt, from the ground up, with two brilliant Black women and one Brown woman. And we didn’t have the backing. We didn’t have any investors. We didn’t have any big names, but we had originality. We had the culture. We had the knowledge and the understanding of our demographic.
We also had intent… intention is really important moving in this space. And, that’s what essentially keeps going even now. You can’t replicate or replace what’s real. We moved with that knowledge and understanding that what’s for you is for you. And if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t have been able to do what we do for MADE for the W. Even the art of being able to pivot from WNBA Kicks.
A lot of people and platforms came about after us, but it wasn’t until our platform and purpose came to be. And I think that has been the biggest frustration is they’re bigger names, they’re bigger corporations, they have backing behind them and they are able to bring that to life. But I tell both of them all the time, it speaks testaments to what we do. Because we did this on our own. As much as people might feel like that might be a hindrance, I think that is our superpower and our strength.
“So I’d say we’ve been pretty impactful.”Bria Janelle
What has been MADE for the W’s biggest impact? Do you feel like you’re getting the recognition you deserve?
Melani: Before us, in 2018, we didn’t see a lot of women athletes getting any brand deals. We had conversations with a couple of players and we said, “What is it, what’s missing?” A lot of their agents or marketing teams just weren’t fighting the way that we want to fight. They were just accustomed to the players being in the U.S. for three months, then they went overseas. The consensus was that it’s hard to market women athletes. So, we came in to change that narrative.
Our biggest impact is when we first started to highlight their sneakers; the women started getting seated. Now, it’s turned into a bigger picture where these women now start to get brand deals and sneaker contracts. We saw the biggest bid come with Sabrina Ionescu when she was in a bidding war with Under Armour and Nike, which had never happened before. Everybody wants women now to represent their brand.
I knew our impact was huge because there is a notable shift in revenue and focus for Nike’s women’s business from 2018 to 2019. Nike declares 2019 its year for women. At that time, we were the only platform that was highlighting women’s basketball culture. I just knew that that was something that we had changed.
Bria Janelle: [agreeing with Melani] Also, on the media side, we started to see platforms spring up. The first one was in December of 2018, NBA Kicks and the logo looked very familiar. We’ve seen other platforms that highlight sneakers, but not to the magnitude of how NBA Kicks were doing it, which obviously, they focus on the NBA side. Chronologically, after the 2018 WNBA season, we see the color ban being lifted in the NBA. By December 2018, the NBA launched NBA Kicks followed by a big display at the All-Star showcase of men, and for the first time in a long time, women’s sneakers. So I’d say we’ve been pretty impactful.
“Literally we’re in bed. I’m like, “What Kobe just followed us?” He actually called our platform huge.“Melani
What type of support have you received to help the platform grow?
Bria Janelle: Let’s start off with the NBA players. Obviously, you need allies. The first person to really show support to our platform was Kyrie Irving. He would literally, like, comment on our pictures. Kyrie has been an advocate for women and you’re definitely seeing it now with all that he has going on. The next person who we all would say on the NBA side, that really just touched our hearts, is Kobe Bryant. I remember the day that he followed us, I was like, “Did yall see that Kobe followed us?”
Melani: Literally we’re in bed. I’m like, “What Kobe just followed us?” He actually called our platform huge. At this time, it was like six of us literally running the entire platform. That’s crazy! Understanding up until his last days, he wanted to support women’s basketball and even us, he had asked for merchandise sending over his sizes.
Simran: For him and Gigi.
Melani: That right there like it gives me chills. It’s amazing because we understood, he was really about to change the game and he did change the game with the support and allyship of women’s basketball.
Bria Janelle: Facts. And, on the WNBA side, definitely, Natasha Cloud was an advocate for us. So to see her get a sneaker deal is amazing. And, Erica Wheeler.
Melani: She [Natasha Cloud] was actually the first woman athlete at Converse to get a sneaker deal.
Bria Janelle: Yeah, go figure. Why? [That’s what happens] when you look at the players: Essence Carson, Seimone Augustus, Nneka Ogwumike, Brittney Sykes, and Alex Bentley—who was actually the first player that we spoke with about the idea. You can’t mention WNBA Kicks or MADE for the W without mentioning Alex Bentley.
Melani: One of the coolest things is that a lot of people assume, [is] that we have like this PR team or marketing team that goes after these athletes. And it’s literally building relationships, either personally or through DM. Direct messaging has been our best friend. One person who literally supports everything that we do is Dwayne Wade. I would never forget this. We wanted to do a fashion piece but who can we get to host it? We were like D. Wade. He said yes, he’d love to. Not knowing that he’s going to film this video on his anniversary with his wife. He sends over the video with the countdown and to our surprise, Gabby Union is also a part of the countdown.
That support and understanding that whatever it is, you know, I got you! And of course, with our merchandise, rocking that. It just means the world to see that. And then, of course, Ty Young. OMG! We are here because of Ty. One of the biggest sneakerheads in the league…in a game period. She was underrepresented for a long time in this world. And now, she got a sneaker deal! After 11 years, she’s now signed with Reebok.
How does it feel to be selected as our Cover Muses and what impact do you want your story to have on other Black women?
Simran: I think it’s an absolute honor. When the opportunity came our way, I was ecstatic just because of what the platform itself represents. It really is something that is curated just for us. For us to be selected, it really is a true privilege. We want our story to translate and show that there is nothing that [you] possibly can’t do, even if you don’t necessarily have the support, but you have the willpower, you have the drive, and you have that purpose in you. That is a path that you can create for yourself.
Bria Janelle: When you look at the words “melanin muse,” like, my melanin is what makes me me. That makes me unique. That makes me unrepeatable; makes me a miracle of love. Just being able to take two entities and combine them together and make one big explosion of something greater and it’s just an honor and privilege.
Melani: Being one of the first on the cover—understanding you could have gone to so many people—we understand that level of respect. I think the platform is just amazing. It’s for us, it’s by us. You will do our story right and not just put any fluff out there. This is something that will literally change the world. You guys didn’t give up. You understand the value and what needed to be told when it came down to our stories. So I’m just honored to even be a part of this and being a freakin’ Cover Muse. Thank you for allowing us to tell our story.
Simran: We don’t take it lightly at all.
Melani: At all.
Bria Janelle: Facts.
Simran: We just can’t wait to see and have a front-row seat to see Melanin Muse get it’s just due. So, thank you.