A Master in Fit

Photo: Bob Metelus

Stylist Courtney Mays is an expert at fit. That comes in handy when assembling looks for athletes including Breanna Stewart of the New York Liberty and WNBA legend Sue Bird. She learned the importance of tailoring at home. “Putting a suit together, and the importance of different colors, came from my dad,” she says, adding that she uses menswear pieces to dress her female clients. “My draw to menswear shines through in the women I work with because I’m working with girls who are more gender fluid.”

This ability has also garnered her attention from media, and in 2022 she was named one of the 100 Most Influential Black Women in Sports by Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx. She takes that influence seriously and uses it to promote the work of smaller, up-and-coming brands, especially those run by Black women.

Mays got her start in fashion at the store of designer Tracy Reese, who has dressed icons Michelle Obama, among many others. While working there, she also started to help out at the showroom and in PR. She got connected with Rachel Johnson, “the godmother of the convergence of sport and style,” Mays says. She sent in her résumé and was hired. There, she met Calyann Barnett, later Dwyane Wade’s longtime stylist. Mays worked up and eventually styled for Chris Paul and other athletes. When Paul was traded to the Clippers, Mays moved from New York to Los Angeles. “He hired me to be part of his team and that jump-started my career styling athletes,” she said.

Mays’s interest in sports runs deep. Not only did she play basketball through high school, but her father is former NFL quarterback Dave Mays of the Cleveland Browns. She learned her love of dressing through him and her mother. “Watching my parents get dressed to go on a date night and the attention to detail they paid on how they looked, I grew up in an era where it was important,” she says, recalling how her dad wore double-breasted suits, cuff links, and an onyx pinkie ring. “It was important for my family and my community to show up as their best selves, which has a huge impact on how I view fashion.”

How does your background in sports affect your work? 
My dad set the precedent for the importance of sports in my life. Football was always on. I played basketball through high school. I went to a big sports college, too. But I didn’t realize I wanted to work in that world. I never wanted to be a professional athlete. But I’m a competitive person. I love the game, watching and being there. Now my clients are like part of my family. I care how their team is doing, make sure they’re okay, scream at the TV like, “Get the rebound.” I’ve always been creative and loved sports, and now I get to work in a space where the two come together well.

What do you consider when you are styling?
My goal is to elevate their style sensibility, none of my clients dress the same. I’m cognizant of their fit needs and the things they love. This is what’s important to me. I think I’m also known for celebrating small business. Part of that, transparently, is my frustration with the luxury world. There are also so many talented people just wanting to get a break. I like to create a community around stylists and brands, small businesses, minority-owned businesses, and women-owned businesses. I’m not interested in putting you in the latest, hottest, newest exclusive thing. I believe in creating lasting, timeless wardrobes and leaning into smaller companies that are just as cool and innovative, if not better. As much as I believe you should not spend all your money on wardrobe to create a viral moment, no matter how much money you make, the buying power is different for female and male athletes. I also partly lean so heavily on small businesses and emerging brands. That celebration of small business came out of both a desire to promote the less recognized and also an actual need to find affordable pieces that were elevated and could compete with luxury houses.

Sue Bird Photo: Steph Chambers/Getty Images

How is styling an athlete different?
For women athletes, it’s definitely a conversation about size inclusivity. You’re working with women who are six-foot-five and wear a size-13 shoe. You may also need to consider concepts of gender fluidity. Does this woman want to present more masculine or feminine? And if she wants to present more feminine, am I making the size-14 shoe because she wants to wear the four-inch heel and Christian Louboutin doesn’t make that? Those are real conversations we have. I’m a plus-size girl and getting dressed has always been challenging. The fashion world excludes this group beyond typical sizing, but it’s missing out on such a huge business opportunity. There’s such a diversity in sizes, and it’s so visible in sports. But everybody wants to look cool, dress well, and feel confident, so why not make your clothes one, two, three sizes bigger than you normally would?

How did you arrive at this green suit for Sue Bird?
The green Gabriela Hearst suit celebrated her jersey retirement from the Seattle Storm. Obviously, we wanted to wear green to honor the team. But because it was her day, we said, “Let’s make it neon.” It was important for Sue to wear a suit because it felt classic and timeless, finished and appropriate, for this celebration that was heartfelt, sentimental, and fun, but was also serious and history-making. I think we achieved that. It also lent to the rock-star vibe in her that we don’t necessarily see all the time with this white pointed-toe Chelsea boot. I had to send the suit to Seattle. She and Megan Rapinoe went to the tailor – we tailored it on FaceTime. I would never suggest this, but I’d been working with Sue for a year or so at this point and I was grateful to be familiar with her fit. I’m a huge proponent of tailoring; those small details help make it look more finished.

Breanna Stewart Photo: Scott Eklund/NBAE via Getty Images

This look for Breanna Stewart is also great. How do you play with different suiting styles for your clients?
This is from Favorite Daughter. I remember finding them, seeing how long the pants were, and saying, “We need these in every color.” And it also helps that now everything is oversize and baggy. Something that is probably supposed to be massive on the standard consumer fits well with those of us who are six feet and above. I met with Breanna, but she was coming straight from overseas days before the first game of the season for the Liberty, so I didn’t get to have a fitting. I hate to send somebody something, and it doesn’t work, but my wife is around the same size as Breanna, so she became my fit model. I wanted the look to feel less work-y, and the fact that the leather Nanushka jacket matched the vest and the trouser worked in my favor.

A Master in Fit