For most sneaker fans, having the chance to design your very own shoe is a dream come true. That dream became a reality for six lucky sneakerheads last year when Nike announced its On Air design contest in celebration of Air Max Day—the brand-created holiday that is observed yearly on Mar. 26. The month-long contest invited fans in the select cities of New York, Paris, London, Shanghai, Seoul, and Tokyo to create and submit their own unique design concepts featuring existing Air Max silhouettes. Upon the thousands of entries, fans had the opportunity to vote on their favorites, which narrowed it down to just one winning design for each of the aforementioned cities.
Of the lucky six winners, one of them included New York-based Gabrielle Serrano a.k.a. "Queen Leo," who is looking to take the sneaker world by storm with her upcoming Air Max 98 "La Mezcla." The design itself features a gradient upper representing the city's diverse population while a crackled leather mudguard draws inspiration from New York's "Concrete Jungle" moniker. Additional details include teal accents on the mini Swoosh branding and on the laces, which are inspired by the iconic Statue of Liberty.
To dig a little deeper, we got a chance to speak with "Queen Leo" herself about some of her favorite Air Max sneakers, inspiration behind the Air Max 98 "La Mezcla," and what we can expect between her and Nike in the future.
How did you get your nickname “Queen Leo?”
That actually came from my friends. They are all b-boys, which is from dancing and they all had nicknames, so they decided to give me a name because I’m a Leo and I was born in Queens.
What is your favorite sneaker in your collection?
It’s hard to choose but I would say the Air Max 97 “Silver Bullet” because I have so many pairs of them. Every time they would re-release I always buy it. I like the classics as well, the Air Max 90s, the Air Max 1, any Atmos collab. I met the designer on the campus and he is amazing. He signed a few of my shoes too, which now I can never wear them again.
How many sneakers do you currently own?
So the last time I counted it was around 800 and that was a few years ago. I haven’t actually counted in a while because there’s too many. It’s because I never sell them. I even keep the beat up ones.
Why did you choose the Air Max 98 as the canvas for your design?
I chose this model because it went better with the story I was trying to tell. I wanted to highlight the different skin complexions. The Air Max 97s are one of my favorites but the layers go up and down and I wanted the colors to be more balanced on the uppers.
I heard you like sneakers with a good story behind it, can you elaborate on your choice of materials for your shoe?
Yeah, I wanted the materials to reflect the story as well. For the mudguard I chose to use the crackled leather because I wanted it to represent the Concrete Jungle.
Street photography is a passion of yours—was there one picture you took that made you go “That’s my design idea?”
Any picture I took of the city definitely reflects onto the shoe but I don’t think there was one picture. I took different pictures with different skin complexions, which all ties in.
Did you have any design experience leading up to this contest?
Not technically. I was at home sketching when I found out that I was selected. Since I’m really big into sneakers I’ve done some NikeiD and customized shirts and jackets.
How did you feel when you first saw your sample design in the Nike Campus in Beaverton, Oregon?
Oh, that was amazing! Coming from the mood board to having my shoe in hand, it was an amazing feeling. I don’t think it even hit me when I had it in my hand that it was real.
Let’s talk about the previous contest winner, Sean Wotherspoon. I know he was assisting in parts of the design process. What advice did he give you?
Yeah, he was the mentor that I had at the campus and I met him earlier just through this journey. He’s a really great guy and he was just supportive of any idea I was having. He was really into my original sketches. He said I should try to show my entire journey from the beginning because people really like that.
Sean [Wotherspoon] became more of a well known after his sneaker was released. Do you hope for the same?
No, I don’t expect to be Sean. I really wanted this shoe to represent my city and everyone here. For me, it was more about trying to include everyone and less so about just myself.
What can we expect from you and Nike in the future?
I mean I would love to continue working and designing with Nike but I guess you will have to wait and see.
Gaby will be attending this year's Nike: On Air workshops as a mentor to a handful of participants taking place in the Nike Soho store between Mar. 22 to Mar. 31. The workshops will guide fans through the creation process of select Nike Air products including the recently released Air Max 720. To learn more, click here.
The upcoming Nike Air Max 98 "La Mezcla" as well as the rest of the On Air designs are expected to release at select Nike retailers on Apr. 13.