The name James Whitner might not ring a bell for the average sneaker consumer, but he’s become one of the hardest working and most expansive independent sneaker store owners in the U.S. The crown jewels of his empire are Social Status, which has locations in North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Florida, Atlanta, and Houston, and A Ma Maniere, a high-end boutique that’s located in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. He also helps advise Michael Jordan’s son, Marcus, with his Trophy Room venture in Orlando, Florida, as well as a handful of other shops. A Ma Maniere recently collaborated with Jordan Brand on a Jordan 720 Proto Max, which has a 3M upper, glow-in-the-dark outsole, and featured T.I. in its rollout campaign.
This isn’t the only project that Whitner has worked on as of late. Social Status collaborated with Jordan Brand on an Air Jordan VI for this year’s All-Star Weekend, and it resulted in a timeless moment: Michael Jordan himself came into the store during the release in a turquoise fleece jacket, boot cut jeans, and Travis Scott’s unreleased Air Jordan 1s as he was shown the store by Whitner. The photo went viral, and it not only showed that Jordan is still a legend in his older age, but also that Whitner is a man with connections.
We got the chance to talk to him before the release of his upcoming Jordan collaboration about it all.
Why’d you do a non-retro Jordan?
We wanted to start like trying to catch a different vibe. Everything has been about the retro. It can be limiting sometimes. That's one part of it. The other part of it was I kept asking myself and I kept saying to the brand like, "Yo, if we do this thing right, and you just kind of just let us work, we think we got some legs and let us work with it." And they was fucking into it for once. I think they're into it. I think they're into it at times, but, for whatever reason, it doesn't get done. Now it really seems like they're into what's happening with the consumer and experiences. And creating those experiences. I think they get it.
Were you nervous about what the reception's going to be on a non-retro shoe?
Man, you know what, it's the honest-to-god truth, but nervous is a relative term. Because you work hard to build your brand, but the moment you stop doing things that you think are right or for you and things that you don't think you can speak to, then you’re putting on for the consumer 100 percent. It all can't just be about the function. You gotta be about trying to push shit forward in every key perspective. It's not the “in” thing to do non-retro, but I think it was something that was important for us to do.
How did you come up with the design?
Initially it was supposed to be something we were gonna do for Super Bowl and obviously with everybody coming to Atlanta for Super Bowl, it's the number one question they're asking like, "Yo, you taking us out? You gotta show us around and take us out, I hear Atlanta's crazy." The reason I love Atlanta is it's the perfect mix of like hippy, cool, black kids, dope ass kids, just emerged in trap music, and that shit comes together with the hood at Follies and fucking Blue Flame. When it emerges at night, it just becomes like a scene that's very different from L.A. and New York, which have their own vibe depending on where you’re going. If you've ever been in Atlanta you catch all the vibes. This shit is just uniquely different. I wanted to do some shit that spoke to Atlanta nights. We was like, "We need something that when they go out in the club.” If they glow in the dark, then you hit em with a photo and the 3M shows up.
Do you think Atlanta's the new New York?
I wouldn't say it's the new New York, because that would somehow take something off of New York, but I would just say that Atlanta has arrived as an international destination of focus around the globe. Atlanta now makes sense around the world. Where it used to be an up-and-coming city, or it was the thing to do in the South, or it was the capital of the South. I think Atlanta is now a global, international city, and I think what you're starting to see is the music and art and creative culture, in general, people look to Atlanta to see what's happening.
Do you think it’s because of the music?
Nah, I think to say it’s just the music’s influence is taking away everything that's happening there. You gotta look at all the people and all the things that kind of has come out of Atlanta and all the things that's happening in Atlanta. But you can't ignore the music, right? It's right smack dead in your face, like you can't miss that part. But once you get there and you start to dig in, this city has a lot.
What was it like to be in the photo of Michael Jordan coming to your store, Social Status, during All-Star Weekend wearing the fleece jacket?
It's been a blessing to be able to do what we do. They pulled up a couple minutes before he showed up and was like, "Yo, MJ is about to pull up.” Like, oh shit, MJ's pulling up, and there's a thousand kids outside. I think in that moment you’re like, "Oh shit, is this about to happen?" And then like I didn't have time to think about it, and he just pulled up. My team sent me a picture in our office. They created this secret meme making fun of me. They sent this video around the office of me hugging MJ, and I had the biggest cheese on my face. Needless to say, that shit was like crazy. Who writes a story that way? Like yeah we're gonna do a launch at All-Star and MJ shows up. That shit's like an epic moment.
I'm assuming that's not your first time meeting Michael Jordan, right?
No, it wasn't my first time meeting him.
You guys work together. Is there anything he's like told you that's stuck with you?
He constantly encourages you to push and be uniquely you, like constantly. You understand his legend off the court without even knowing what he did on the court. He's one of the most inspiring people to talk to and probably one of the best listeners. For somebody of his stature, you would think he could be like arrogant, but he's an incredible listener. He's always been just super motivational, especially with everything surrounding retailers. And he's curious. [His son] Marcus does Trophy Room, so you would think MJ doesn’t talk about it or tunes out, but that is so far from the truth. He's not tuned out, he pays attention to every little thing, and you may not think he's paying attention, but he actually is. Overall it's been incredible like going through the journey of meeting Marcus, spending time with him and [his sister Jasmine], Jeffrey, and their whole family. MJ. I'm not going to make it like we're family, but they treat me like dope as shit.
Definitely. What's your relationship like with Marcus doing Trophy Room?
That's little bro. He's somebody that we talk constantly either by text or by phone for one reason or another. He's an amazing dude to be MJ's son. You would think somebody who's the heir of a billionaire, he wouldn't need to work, but he has incredible work ethic. He has a point of view of his own, and I think that's the part that MJ loves about all of his kids: Jasmine, Jeff, and Marcus all have point of views of their own. If you know them, you know that they're amazing people. I know some spoiled-ass broke kids, so they could act completely different than what they do, but they don't.
How crazy is it for you to be like a kid growing up rough side of Pittsburgh, buying Jordans growing up, and now all of a sudden you help run a store with Michael Jordan’s son and are affiliated with MJ.
From a responsibility perspective, I very much feel like I need to always make sure that things are right. I think because I come from Pittsburgh I do that out of loyalty. I couldn't imagine what it would feel like to let him down. Man it's crazy! Who writes this story? Who says this like, "Yeah you're gonna get out the projects. You're gonna not only get out the projects, but you're gonna be able to like progress and have a voice in the sneaker, streetwear, and fashion community. Bigger than that, yeah, you're gonna work with the biggest brands in the world and be able to sit around and be treated like family." What? It's surreal.
It feels like you guys have kind of become the go-to spot in Atlanta, would you say that's fair?
Yeah man, I think it's funny you say that. I think the blessing is that we've been able to speak to the marketplace, and they respect us and they allow us to have a voice. I think we respect the consumer and their journey so much. They continue to rap with us and other brands want to partner with us for that reason. There's a reason why we're probably making our biggest investment yet. We're bringing all of our retail contacts together to launch another space in Atlanta by the end of 2020. It will be a fucking a dope ass science, technology, cultural arts space, and then a retail space all together. It'll be like 25,000-square feet. There will be an “Eats” space will function as a shared work space, restaurant, chill space. The retail space will be another space. The technology, arts, science, which will just focus on pure like community, culture, arts, that'll be one space. Then we'll have four one-story living units, or living suites, and two two-story living suites, and then a 5,000-square-feet rooftop terrace. We want to continue to be the place that the kid rocks with, and we wanna be ingrained in to the Atlanta community and continue to help Atlanta be an international destination.