This story is part of Image issue 6, “Energy,” an exploration what sports style feels like in the City of Champions. See the full package here.
“When you get dressed, you gotta see yourself,” L.A. stylist Courtney Mays says, recounting a time in her life when looking in the mirror wasn’t the most enjoyable experience.
The 38-year-old Cleveland native says what’s essential when getting ready is taking the time to do the small things — those simple flourishes that raise her spirits when she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror, whether it’s adding layers of jewelry to her usual work uniform of sweats, sneakers, T-shirts and blazers or applying some mascara instead of dashing out of the house.
She first started to understand the beauty of fashion when she observed her parents’ sartorial rituals as they dressed for outings together. The care communicated through those details — her father shining his shoes and adorning himself with accessories, her mother’s knack for making any item her own, from evening gowns to remixing men’s tuxedos with a bustier and pumps — left a lasting impression on Mays.
The possibility for storytelling, for asserting a sense of self and rewriting public narratives without saying a word, makes fashion a playground of opportunity. This keen understanding paired with an emphasis on clients not only looking good but feeling good shines through Mays’ styling process. You feel it as she describes creating good ambience at fittings with candles and upbeat music as well as in the viral fashion moments, such as seeing her client Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul sporting a custom varsity jacket highlighting all 107 historical Black colleges and universities during the 2021 NBA All-Star game.
Here Mays shares the fashion lessons that changed her relationship to getting dressed.
You’re on a Saturday date night in downtown L.A. What are you wearing?
I’m probably wearing a suit with a T-shirt and sneakers — and all my jewelry. Or maybe a cool oversized sweater. These leather pants that I’ve been wearing over and over, my partner’s probably sick of seeing them, and these cowboy boots I found at a random vintage store. I want to wear those boots until they basically have holes in them. I love them so much. At the end of day, I’d probably wear pajamas. As long as I have all my jewelry on, I feel like I can go somewhere.
During your own style journey, what’s an underrated fashion tip you realized was a game changer?
This is so funny. [My partner] Candice and I were just talking about this. We have what we call “the Vegas Theory.” Anytime you go on a girls’ trip to Vegas, one of the first things people do is pack their sequins. I used to get so stressed out by it thinking I didn’t have anything that was Vegas-appropriate, but why do we do that to ourselves? I wouldn’t wear sequins on a regular day, so why do I think because I’m going to Vegas I have to put on sequins and 9-inch heels? Let me go to Vegas and be myself in my double-breasted suit, and that’s my Vegas look. Show up as your most comfortable and confident self in all of those spaces — whatever that looks like for you.
What would your best friend say about your style?
She’d probably say I’m a tomboy who marches to her own tune and she’d say something about my red lipstick because pre-COVID, I literally wouldn’t go anywhere without it. My mom always wears red lipstick and red nail polish. That’s a part of who she is, and I started taking that on. That’s something I always pay homage to.
What’s a fashion rule that’s common knowledge within the industry that more people outside of the industry should embrace?
I feel like most stylists and designers mention the importance of a good tailor, but I think the average person doesn’t utilize it. I saw this guy at the airport the other day who had on a three-piece suit. If he had just taken that suit to the dry cleaners to make some small adjustments, he could’ve been so fly. A lot of people go to the store, put the clothes on their body, and they expect it to fit like the picture. They forget you just need a little nip and tuck here and there to have it fit your body the way it should feel on you. Every garment is different. Every body is different. Taking that extra time to tailor your clothes is so worth it.
What’s the one item in your closet you can’t live without?
I have this white Margiela shirt, like a men’s classic white Ashford shirt oversized. I probably need to figure out how to get another one because I wear it so much. For so long I was just buying ASOS white button-ups because they had my size. So to see something that was much better quality and it actually fits well, I wish I’d bought two or three of them. It was kinda pricey for a white button-up but it’s become my go-to when getting dressed. I used to be like, “Mom, you only wear white shirts.” But now I totally understand. It’s the classic go-to. You can throw it over a tank. You can wear it with jeans. There are so many ways to wear a white shirt. That is the closet staple for sure.
When deciding on looks for the guys, from tunnel walks to the red carpet, what sort of physical cues indicate an outfit is a winner during a fitting?
It’s definitely that one-foot-in-front-of-the-other kind of stance where they’re checking themselves out in the mirror. It always goes back to the tailor. When you put something on and you start pinning it and changing the shape into what it should look like, you start to see them realize, “Oh, now I understand this is going to be cool.” There’s a little bit of a, like, “OK, I see you moment.” Also, if they let me take a photo, I know they like it. We used to have one client who would literally stand in the mirror for a couple extra-long minutes. It would be hilarious. Even Anthony [Anderson] and I have this thing where I’m like, now do your pose. I have to know you like this outfit. When they do their little GQ pose in the mirror, I know I did a good job.
You’re having a relaxing day off and doing something that brings you joy. What are you wearing and what are you doing?
Definitely wearing menswear pajamas, which I love. And I’m probably home cooking with Candice. We’ve learned how to make a really good puttanesca. My family’s from Louisiana so I’ll battle anyone on my gumbo or my shrimp étouffée. A lot of times we’ll eat while we’re cooking, so we’ll make hummus or pico de gallo to snack on. As long as there’s fresh flowers, a good pot of gumbo or something on the stove, a good playlist going and a glass of wine, I’m in a good place.
Or we recently started going to the Hollywood Bowl a lot. It’s the best ever. We’re thinking about getting a pass because we’ve been there four times in the past six weeks. We have what we call our Hollywood Bowl outfits. I have this John Elliott men’s sweatsuit that I love, and then we have these big plaid Gucci ponchos that we got from somewhere super on sale. It gets kinda chilly at night so it’s our cozy-but-kinda-still-chic look with our combat boots or sneakers — and these big, lightly tinted sunglasses. Candance stole a pair of mine, which I will never see again. That’s our Hollywood Bowl uniform. Listening to live music, having a good glass of wine, all the things that allow you to escape into that moment of clarity and downtime is what I love, and if there’s music, I’m there.
Why is living in Los Angeles the right fit for this chapter of your life?
I moved to L.A. in 2012 after my commute from New York would go from two to three days to two to three weeks. After announcing to anyone who would hear me that I would never move to L.A., I officially became an L.A. girl! Best decision I made except for the distance from my family. L.A. has been a city of dreams for me. I’ve been able to expand my professional career in ways that I never imagined. It’s also exposed me to a lifestyle that, albeit cliché, has changed my relationship to food, to exercise, to art and music, and to nature. I’m a little, as I like to call it, “vegan adjacent.” I love a good Sunday morning bike ride on the beach or throughout my neighborhood. The Hollywood Bowl has become a favorite stomping ground and you can usually find me hanging out in a local gallery or museum. I studied art history in college, and L.A. has sort of reignited my passion for the arts.