Chocolate or strawberry milk? Whether or not we realized it at the time, this choice in the school lunch line was one of the first independent choices we all got to make growing up. Choosing that flavor during lunchtime in the cafeteria line was a small-yet-important part of every kid’s day. There’s a certain level of nostalgia connected to that moment in time for that reason, even if it’s something you may not have thought about recently. With their chocolate and strawberry milk-themed Nike Dunk collaboration, that’s what James Whitner and his store Social Status hope to evoke. The upcoming project marks the first Nike collab for the boutique in its 10-year history.
Some might instantly think of the school cafeteria, but Social Status’ upcoming release was inspired more specifically by the free lunch program, a federal initiative that provides free school meals to children living in underserved communities across the country. Whitner says he remembers going to collect his free lunches growing up in the Mon-View Heights housing community in Pittsburgh.
“As a kid, you didn’t get that many choices, right? A lot of things is being told to you,” Whitner tells Complex over Zoom. “It’s those nostalgic points that as adults now let us go back on a journey together.”
While it can be expected this shoe will sell out like every other sneaker collaboration these days, he made sure that the “Free Lunch” Dunks didn’t start and stop at that quick monetary transaction. The story that customers will experience for the release was given attention, too.
“So many [Black] people have made it. Kanye. Jerry [Lorenzo]. All these people have made it. But our stories don’t live. And I think stories define our culture better than any one person can,” says Whitner. “The stories are more important than the product. The product is additive. The community and the story are the parts that really matter. I want our stories to live longer than the product journey.”
To reinforce the story, a short film released on Aug. 17 teased the collab. It was shot in the same neighborhood that Whitner grew up in, and saw a youthful cast navigating their community to acquire their brown-bagged meals for the day. The Social Status team wanted to keep the story as authentic as possible. LeBron James, who grew up nearby in Akron, Ohio under similar circumstances, even took to Twitter to let Whitner know how well he captured that moment in his own upbringing. “It validated that we got [the storytelling] right,” says Whitner of LeBron’s tweet.
On the flip side, there are the people in the sneaker community just there to get the newest release and move on to the next ones, who are more concerned about resell prices than what Whitner and his team put into the rollout. While he says he understands that part of “the game,” it does bother him to an extent. But he isn’t blaming the consumer if they have that mindset.
“Commerce has to happen. I get that. We can’t take that out, or we wouldn’t have the ability to tell the stories,” says Whitner. “There’s so much product out there, just buy, sell, buy, sell, commerce, and not enough seduction. I definitely think we have to raise the standard and expectation of what we want to see from a launch.”
Whitner’s passion for storytelling doesn’t mean Social Status skimped out on the design of the shoes themselves though, which are made to represent chocolate and strawberry milk, respectively. The brown “Chocolate Milk” colorway arrives on Sept. 10 and a pink “Strawberry Milk” option is slated for a later date. Each will be released across Social Status’ various retail channels. One color will also be arriving on SNKRS in due time, while the other will drop at select Nike accounts. Which pair will be which has yet to be revealed.
The uppers of each mix premium materials like nubuck and velvet. Whitner says the bubbly pink gel Swooshes are supposed to mimic the actual milk found in the carton. Standard cloth tongue tags have been replaced with a crinkled Tyvek stamped with Nike and Social Status logos that resemble the tickets given to students for them to claim their lunch. The plethora of materials used are printed on the medial heel like ingredients. Expiration dates of “Fall 2021” are printed on each liner. Intentional or not, the circular rope laces are reminiscent of straws. The materials are the same on both color schemes, just placed differently. For instance, velvet wraps the “Strawberry Milk” toebox, but nubuck is used on the “Chocolate Milk” pair. This attention to detail even extends to the packaging, which sees the box specially designed to resemble a milk carton and the paper resembling a school lunch calendar.
Arguably the most important physical detail of Social Status’ Dunk project is its unique shape. Not quite a Low. Not quite a High. And yet not quite a Mid, Whitner says. The chopped look was uniquely created for Social Status. Whitner is adamant about the special silhouette and says seeing sneaker blogs refer to them as Dunk Mids was a bit irritating.
“At first, it was supposed to be one High and one Low. Then we said, ‘What happens if we just create something for it?’ That’s the point of being able to work with Catalyst, right? We can create for the story,” says Whitner. [Ed. Note––Catalyst is a small design team at Nike that helps design external collaborations.] The boutique aimed to make something distinct, hence the chopped down shoe that will be releasing. “It’s the Social Status Dunk. It only exists for us. This Dunk [shape] will not show up anywhere else. It’s only built for us. There’s a million Dunks with different colors on them. The Social Status Dunk only exists for this.”
The details have been straightened out since, but the “Free Lunch” Dunk had a rather unceremonious introduction that was out of Social Status’ control. Like many high profile sneakers, a random social media leak did the honors. A Dunk Low that will only be released in toddler and PS sizing (production timelines prevented the smaller sizes from also sporting the special Social Status shape) was the internet’s first glimpse at the project back in June 2021. Along with the wrong photos, blogs also ran with the wrong inspiration: doughnuts. They believed the pink and brown pairs represented strawberry and chocolate frosted varieties of the sugary dessert. Social Status takes a playful jab at this in the short film when a character says, “Donuts? Ain’t no donuts at free lunch!” Whitner says he understands leaks are part of the equation these days, for better or worse, but wasn’t exactly pleased with how everything unfolded.
“We got a whole thing built here and y’all giving it a narrative? Y’all grabbed the toddler shoe and created a name for it,” says Whitner, discussing his reaction to the initial leaks.
This actual story is strong, though. There’s something whimsical about Social Status’ execution of the chocolate and strawberry variations of the “Free Lunch” Dunk. It’s something that feels like it was pulled from the Nike SB archive. The sub-label is known for its colorful and intricate concepts that were much more ambitious than the clean, collegiate colorblocking usually associated with Nike Sportswear’s leather Dunks. While Social Status’ collab is not affiliated with SB at all, the more playful take was intentional, according to Whitner. He was trying to channel the SB ethos that he says he admires so much.
“When you start working on a Dunk, you start thinking about sneaker history and the most important Dunks are all SBs,” says Whitner. “So, we wanted to do something that was nostalgic. The thing that SB does such an amazing job of is that they really flesh out the stories and connect to that culture. We’re not supposed to tell interesting stories on the Nike Sportswear side? Kobe watched MJ play. MJ was the greatest player and he used some of MJ’s moves on his own. Nike SB is notoriously great at Dunks. Why wouldn’t I look at what they do well in connecting story and product?”
Whitner hopes the release is able to give people who may be unaware of something like the free lunch program a glimpse into the upbringing of so many individuals, including himself. On the surface, most can relate to school lunch in the cafeteria. Some customers will see that. Others will immediately connect to the deeper story. But the story being told at all in this capacity is what Whitner says is most important.
“[Black] culture drives and informs a lot of things, but there’s no stories that stick on product that well. I wanted to make sure we had an authentic moment that stuck to product really well. With free lunch, I looked at what percentage of America lived in poverty. Everyone I knew growing up was poor. We all shared this story.”
The upcoming “Free Lunch” Dunks will be Whitner’s second big collab of 2021, the other being the Air Jordan 3 from other Whitaker Group store A Ma Maniére. While both brands cater to different crowds, Whitner says the general goal remains the same with any of his releases––to make sure the shoes are actually getting into the hands of people who appreciate them.
“Resale is inevitable. We can’t control what somebody does with their shoe once they get it. But the thing that we’re trying to avoid is that picture on Instagram where one person got 50 [pairs],” says Whitner. “If it goes into the hands of a person, we’ve done our job. The community has to get a chance to have an opportunity to wear or to sell. It’s not my decision to make for them, but my job is to get them into an individual’s hands.”
The various brand voices under the Whitaker Group umbrella also mean that each can deliver its own unique messages and stories with their respective launches. Some creators may worry about the fatigue of continuous projects. Whitner’s mindset is different because he is bringing more to the table each time than just a new sneaker.
“I think you can get product fatigue,” he says. “I don’t think you can get story fatigue. I don’t think Nike wants to partner with the Whitaker Group as an agency. I think they want to partner with us to change the world. I think we’re an amazing retailer. We do a ton of good things as a retailer. What our superpower is, is being a change agent. The product allows us to get that change into the world.”
That change comes from things like beSocial, a community space created by Whitner that is rooted in his home city of Pittsburgh, the nonprofit leg of the Whitaker Group, or even something as simple as a kid watching the “Free Lunch” short film and feeling seen when he sees a retailer honing in on something he can personally connect with. Whitner wants all of his creations to have meaning that goes beyond just aesthetics. That extra attention to detail is how he hopes to achieve that legacy.
“Every meaningful footwear drop has a strong story and a product that connects to that story,” says Whitner. “If we’ve done our job, people will be talking about the ‘Free Lunch’ Dunk 20 years from now.”