MJ Jaworowski's eyes were watering as he tried to make his case to Nike. He was there at the brand's Oregon headquarters to convince them to let Notre, the boutique in Chicago he co-founded in 2014, rework the Dunk, the classic 1985 basketball shoe that's lived countless lives as a retro model. Some of those lives overlapped with his own, tugging him into the world of limited-edition sneakers back in high school.
He remembers then seeing a pair of "Mork & Mindy" Dunks from the Nike SB line floating up an escalator at the arena he was at for a local hockey game, his eyes climbing with them. He didn't know what they were, but the mental image was vivid enough to fuel frantic AOL-era internet searches that yielded the answer. That grew into an obsession, a start in the footwear industry, and, eventually, an influential store in one of America's biggest sneaker cities. Recalling the journey during his pitch pushed Jaworowski's emotions up.
"It was embarrassing but funny," he says now. "I don't think Nike has that many partners that go into meetings and have that strong of a connection to a shoe."
He went into that presentation with the goal of creating a Notre version of the Dunk referencing the tough utilitarian garments of the Midwest. Jaworowski and Jose Villanueva, another of the store's co-founders, wanted to design a sneaker paying tribute to their fathers. It would be indebted equally to the work shirts those men wore to their factory jobs and the co-founders' own memories of the Dunk.
The vision will be realized this week with the Notre x Nike Dunk High collaboration, a collection of two shoes releasing on Jan. 21. The tan and blue colorways debuted exclusively at their home store for $150 each on that day, followed by a second release of just the blue colorway via SNKRS on Jan. 23. (They were originally slated to release in November 2020 until Notre decided to push things back to accommodate shipping times, marketing plans, and a similar Vans project.) They are not nearly as flashy as recent marquee Dunks, seeking merit instead through careful details.
"We knew we wanted to do something classic, that you could beat up, wear into the ground and it would look better with age," Jaworowski says.
They have faux-vintage midsoles styled after a beat pair of Michigan-colored SB Dunks in Jaworowski's collection. The Notre Dunks use work shirt-like badges to plant the store's name on the tongue. They come with three sets of laces: a striped hockey lace tracing the shoe's path back to that arena, an oval lace pulled from SB Dunks, and a straightforward flat lace. The sneakers are asymmetrical, with leather on the lateral side and canvas on the medial side. Their heavy suede panels are attached with triple stitching that references sturdy work boots. This kind of reverence for workwear is embedded in the store's story.
When Notre opened on the north side of Chicago in 2014, cult Japanese brand Visvim's meticulously made clothing was a big draw there. Back then, the only sneakers available at the store were from New Balance and Vans. They made strides in sneakers, picking up Adidas and getting a blessing in the form of an 18-pair allotment of the first-ever Yeezy Boost 350s in 2015. The next year, Notre relocated, opening a shop in Chicago's West Loop and opening its Nike account. A year later, it was a tier-zero Nike partner, meaning the store had access to the brand's best and most limited product. After that, in early 2019, came the conversation and the pitch that led to the Dunk, Notre's first-ever Nike collaboration.
"We fly out to meet with some of the Nike team," Jaworowski says, remembering that the Dunk wasn't the only shoe available for the project. "They had a handful of options on the table; one was the Air Max 2090."
He homed in on the Dunk, the shoe he came to appreciate at that hockey game in high school; the shoe that he followed into the rabbit hole of footwear obsession. His love for Dunks deepened during Jaworowski's time working at Premier, a skate shop in his local Grand Rapids, Michigan, that sold the coveted, puffy-tongue SB versions. He started there in 2007, just after the golden era of the Nike SB Dunk had dawned, offering to work for free so he could have some legitimate involvement in the industry.
In securing a collaboration with Nike on a beloved shoe like the Dunk, he, Villanueva, and the team at Notre are leaving a legitimate mark on the industry. They felt that to do so, they needed more than a colorway. Hence the handshake-shaped imprint, the Notre logo of two hands clasped that interrupts the Swooshes on the Dunk's medial side. Although Jaworowski wishes the fidelity of the logo were better, he sees its presence on such an iconic model as an achievement in itself. There was a time not that long ago when Nike wouldn't allow such alterations to its most recognizable mark.
"It seems like that Virgil timing really changed things," Jaworowski says, referring to designer Virgil Abloh's Nike collection that shifted the proportions of some of its most popular models. "That's where it changed for me in my mind, when Nike started to loosen it up."
The victory of the handshake logo aside, Notre did not accomplish all that it originally intended to on the shoe. Its Dunk was originally going to have a further, inconspicuous homage to the workwear inspiration.
"Under the first layer of suede it would reveal a steel toe piece," the Notre co-founder says. "Whether it's actual steel or aluminum or something like that, that was one thing we were pushing for."
That idea was never sampled up and scrapped over quality control concerns, though. There was also an anticipated customs issue around the piece of steel changing how the sneaker would be classified as it was shipped around the world. They did, however, sample a third colorway that hasn't been revealed to the public yet. Jaworowski, who has that shoe tucked safely in a locker next to his desk, is hopeful Nike will let Notre release that colorway in the future.
"If everything goes well with the release this week, and customers are happy," he says, "maybe there will be a third colorway later on."
Before the shoe is judged by the public this week, it was judged in private by a host of sneaker industry veterans. When they were still in the sample stage, Jaworowski showed the Notre x Nike Dunks to Eric Blanding, the owner of Premier who acted as a mentor to him upon his entry into retail. He solicited reactions from the likes of Alex Bruzzi, chief business officer at the seminal sneaker boutique Undefeated, and Kith founder Ronnie Fieg.
Ultimately, the feedback that may matter most for Jaworowski is that of his father, whose uniform helped inspire the design. This is a different, more literal kind of dad shoe. It's a sincere tribute to 30 years of factory labor, an expression of a work ethic handed from one generation to the next.
His father, who celebrated his 58th birthday this week, has a pair on the way. While they may not be suitable attire for his work at the automotive factory in Grand Rapids, Jaworowski believes the sneakers will summon some of the same feelings the Dunks did in him back at that presentation at Nike.
"I think he's going to be pretty emotional about it," Jaworowski says. "I've only seen him cry once in my life."