Meet James Whitner, the Street-Life Survivor Who's Quietly Taking Over the Sneaker Industry

After a gunshot almost ended his life, the entrepreneur behind Social Status is building an East Coast empire and collaborating with Michael Jordan's son.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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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.”

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Whitner grew up playing football; he attended Edinboro University and graduated in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. But he was running the streets and selling drugs on the side, and even before the shooting, it caught up with him. “I’ve walked both lanes simultaneously—I’d been incarcerated for two years for drug charges and I graduated college with honors.”

But then the shooting happened, and the choice became clear: a brand new lane. He moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, and opened his first sneaker store, Flava Factory, in 2005. It was a far cry from his current retail outposts, which carry a blend of sneakers and premium clothing. “I’m from the projects. When I first came up with Flava Factory, I was very young and in a more ‘urban’ mindset,” Whitner says. “When I rolled the store out, I went with what I already knew. That went on until I started Social Status in 2007. I wanted to change things up because everything I was doing wasn’t urban.”

Opening Social Status, a sneaker boutique that’s now recognized internationally, changed everything for Whitner. It wasn’t just a profitable business—it made him realize how easily he could benefit from being the big fish in a small pond. The majority of America’s recognized sneaker boutiques are in major cities such as New York, Boston, and Los Angeles. Whitner knew he didn’t have to compete on the same playing field as everyone else, so he set about expanding his empire in so-called secondary markets. 

“It’s how you see the market. If you look at the landscape of the United States, there are only a couple boutiques that matter. There are all these secondary markets that are cool cities that have nothing going for them,” he says. “What I started to notice was that when I opened Social Status in Pittsburgh and Charlotte, there was nothing like that there. I went up the road to Greensboro, a town full of colleges, and no one was serving that market. Then you go to Raleigh, where you have Duke, UNC, and NC State. The culture exists in these places, but there’s no one to service them.”

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It’s impressive that Whitner has been able to set up an empire of sneaker boutiques that collaborate with brands such as Reebok, Diadora, and New Balance and carry clothing from Off-White and Gosha Rubchinskiy. But Whitner says his real crown jewel is A Ma Maniére​, a luxury clothing/high-end footwear store in Atlanta he opened in 2014. The store was the host of 2 Chainz’s episode of Complex’s Sneaker Shopping show, but it specializes in clothing brands such as Stone Island, Rick Owens, and footwear brand Hender Scheme. Whitner now has plans to open a branch in Washington, D.C.

“The secret is that I’m an apparel junkie more than I am a sneaker guy,” he says with a laugh.

Whitner escaped street life in Pittsburgh, but Atlanta has its own problems as well—A Ma Maniére​ fell victim to several robberies last year. In September 2015, someone drove a car through the store’s front and stole over $15,000 in goods. “For a week straight, we had incidents of people driving cars into the store. We had to lock it up like a safe,” Whitner says. “The problem isn’t unique to us. It’s unique to Atlanta.”

When asked how these situations make him feel, Whitner’s response is measured. “People are going to do what they do, but I just need to react. And it needs to be a reaction that’s positive for me and positive for the business. A part of you wants to react differently, but you can’t feed into the negativity.”

Meanwhile, Charlotte has become a hotbed for racial tension in America, with the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott leading to nights of protests that occasionally turned violent. This situation weighs heavy on Whitner’s mind. “As a black man, this is why you wear a chip on your shoulder,” he says. “This shit’s been happening, we just all have video cameras [now]. They’ve been killing us. I’m just a bit disappointed by the looting going on. That’s not how you get a response, but I empathize with people breaking shit because they’re angry.”

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Whitner has a brother who’s serving 20 years in prison back in Pennsylvania. He visits him almost every month, in between running his multiple businesses and raising a 9-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son. It’s a grind, but it keeps him humble even as his business grows at a rapid rate. “I’m not a guy that craves fame. I crave execution, the finished product, and what the brand stands for,”  he says. “I don’t feel complete if people just know who I am. I would rather be the richest guy in the world and no one knows who I am, versus the richest guy in the world and everyone knows who I am.”

Whitner is now working with Michael Jordan’s son and former UCF Knights shooting guard Marcus Jordan to help run Trophy Room, a new sneaker shop in Orlando, Florida. The store has gained notoriety thanks to Marcus’s involvement and vision, but Whitner’s guiding hand behind the scenes is helping all the pieces come together. “I’ve been working with Marcus with everything he’s working on with Trophy Room,” Whitner explains. “Mutual friends introduced us; he had wanted to open a boutique since back in his undergraduate days at University of Central Florida in Orlando. We hooked up once him and his dad narrowed down where it would be. They thought I’d be able to help Marcus with the experience I’ve had over the past 10 years.”

Trophy Room might be the latest step for Whitner, but it sure won’t be his last. He has plans to turn his nine stores into 20 by the end of next year.

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“I’m an ambitious person. Who wants to lose? Anything I do, I want to be the best at it,” Whitner says. “If you know there are guys are out there who are killing it and you’re not getting your fair shot, it’s going to light an engine to get you to where you want to go. I just want to win. Second place isn’t comfortable for me.”

Years after Pittsburgh nearly claimed his life, he’s come full circle and owns two stores and several rental properties in Pittsburgh. But says he wouldn’t ever move back. “Who I am now and who I was then are two different people,” he says.

With his new life, and his place in the footwear industry, firmly established, Whitner is now focused on longevity and legacy. “When you talk about Hermes or Supreme, those words mean something to the world,” he says. “My goal is for the kids to identify with my brands—not with me, but with the things I’ve created. Because they’ll be here when I’m dead and gone.”