At just 37 years old, James Whitner owns and works with nine influential footwear and clothing boutiques across the East Coast, including Social Status (in five locations), Atlanta’s A Ma Maniére, and Orlando’s Trophy Room. His business imprint is spreading faster than his name—he currently only has 635 Instagram followers—but that doesn’t bother him a bit. He’s just happy to be alive.

In 2004, back in his hometown, Pittsburgh, Whitner woke up strapped to a hospital bed. He was nursing a gunshot wound, the result of a street brawl his friends had with another group; it wasn't even his fight. In the hospital, Whitner was visited by friends from his Pittsburgh crew. He says none of them are alive today. That’s when it hit me,” he says, “I needed to remove myself from that environment. I needed to be doing something different.”

A lot has changed for Whitner over the past 12 years, but his experiences today, as one of streetwear’s fastest rising moguls, are informed by his trials in Pittsburgh, a city that he describes as a dark place for young black people. “It was a normal thing,” Whitner says of violence in his hometown. “Every time we went out, someone got shot. There was always an incident. You never knew what was going to happen.”