Chicago’s Notre and Grand Rapids’ Premier are bound by the Dunk. As Notre co-founder and Grand Rapids native MJ Jaworowski tells it, it was catching a glimpse of a pair of SBs at a hockey game that got him hooked on sneakers and lead him to a job at Premier working for co-founder Eric Blanding. Now, we’re closing the loop to jointly launch the Michigan and Michigan State Dunk Highs, dropping this Friday 9/18. To celebrate the re-release of these classic styles, Premier and Notre have linked on a set of projects telling our shared story and spotlighting the state of Michigan that we’ll be rolling out throughout the week leading up the sneakers’ release, including a risograph zine printed by Grand Rapids’ Issue Press, a special commission from Detroit art collective Hamtramck Ceramck, a skate video produced by the Premier crew, and more.
First up: a conversation between Premier co-founder Eric Blanding and Notre co-founders MJ Jaworowski and Jose Villanueva. The trio caught up earlier this summer to talk about the origins of their respective shops, the importance of the Dunk, and the potential of the Midwest.
EB: MJ, let’s start with you. Where are you from and how did you get into the world of sneakers, skateboarding, streetwear?
MJ: I grew up in the Creston district of Grand Rapids, Michigan, went to school at City High and Community College at GRCC. My life was sports growing up, but during my senior year of school I broke my wrist in a hockey game and that sidelined me from sports for a handful of months. That winter we went to see the local hockey team play and while taking the escalator into the arena, I saw some kid wearing these crazy bright red and silver shoes with a clear sole. I had never seen a pair of shoes like that before, my mind was pretty blown. After I got home from the game, I immediately jumped online to try and find the shoes I had seen and I discovered they were the Nike SB Mork & Mindys. That search also brought me to blogs like Hypebeast, THE BRILLIANCE!!!, jjjjound, nikesb.org, niketalk, etc., and I was hooked. I discovered Premier and emailed you asking if I could intern. I just wanted to be part of the team and have the opportunity to be around the shop atmosphere and sneakers non-stop.
Present day Premier.
EB: I’ve never actually put out a hiring notice. People send us resumes and stuff, but half the time we end up hiring the skate kid that works at Jimmy John’s, you know?
MJ: Or some weird kid like me.
EB: Hell yeah.
MJ: I think I told you I wanted to work there for free.
EB: I remember you worked for a few days and organized all the inventory super tight. We didn’t know what to do with this kid that just kept coming in and working, and I remember thinking, “I don’t know, he’s kind of crushing it. He’s doing shit none of our other employees are doing, so we should probably pay him.”
MJ: I feel like I would sit in the stock room and just make sure everything was stacked at perfect 90-degree angles. How about you, Eric? Where are you from? How’d you end up opening Premier?
EB: I’m from Grand Rapids, too. Grew up skateboarding in the 90s and was always skating in random classic sneakers, so that’s my connection to shoes. Even if we were skating in shoes from skate specific brands we were always wearing stuff like Air Maxes on the side. We started Premier because my co-founder Josh and myself were living in San Francisco during the late 90s, working and skating. We went out there just because that was the skate headquarters in the 90s—it was just the place. Josh was working for Deluxe, which is still one of the biggest skate distributors. After a couple years of seeing different shops and ideas out there we decided to come back home and open something that wasn’t being done in Michigan. We wanted to have a team that rode for the shop, make videos, make private label tees, whatever. We felt like we had a good knowledge of the right brands to carry and the right way to go about promoting the shop.
Early days at Notre.
EB: How did you and Jose meet?
JV: MJ and I met at a shop called Haberdash. I was getting interviewed for a job there, and he just sat in on the interview and asked a few questions. He told me he was the buyer, and asked me, “What’s your goal here long-term?” I was like, “Well, not to be a dick or anything, but I want your job as a buyer.” I said I was willing to start in the warehouse, do whatever it takes to work my way up, but long-term, I wanted to start a shop of my own.
"I was willing to start in the warehouse, do whatever it takes to work, my way up, but long-term, I wanted to start a shop of my own."
MJ: Jose came on as warehouse manager, and we clicked really quickly. Jose is a guy that you can say anything to, that you can trust. I had no interest in wanting to open up a store until I met Jose and he expressed interest.
JV: I just remember the first or second week at Haberdash, MJ was showing me the ropes, and we started going to lunch and had a couple of conversations like, “If you did run a store, what kind of brands would you carry? Would it be in Chicago? Would it be somewhere else?” We clicked on most things—what kind of product you would need, how you would engage with customers and vendors. I worked at Haberdash for maybe three months, and we started building a business plan, hanging out after work. Then, we had this opportunity in DC to manage a shop called Denim Bar. And we just were like, “Fuck it.” I was 25 years old, I was single. It’s probably the only opportunity I’m going to have right now, why not take it? MJ had been at Haberdash for two or three years, I think—
MJ: No, over four years.
JV: We went out to DC and sales at that shop picked up real quick. I would say after two months of being there, MJ and I had doubled or tripled their sales, just by buying better product and using the internet to try to market the store a little bit. That’s what gave us the confidence to open Notre.
Neon signage for Notre.
MJ: I felt like I learned so many of the positives about how to be a good, ethical business, to try and take care of people, from Eric. That’s something that Jose and I talk about frequently—just trying to make sure that we don’t make the same mistakes that we’ve seen other people make.
EB: You can’t really have that attitude of not paying people, or whatever. A lot of these people you’ve hung out with over the years at trade shows—it’s almost like a family, not just a brand.
"I felt like I learned so many of the positives about how to be a good,, ethical business, to try and take care of people, from Eric."
MJ: Absolutely. That’s half the fun of this industry, the relationships that you build with vendors. What have you enjoyed most about building Premier, Eric?
EB: Helping to build a community of skaters in our area was the most fun part. Like I said, nothing was being done in Grand Rapids, so we got a team together, started making videos and organically promoting the store. Our whole store was built by friends, so those early days were fun, just hanging out every day with no real responsibilities or plan. I guess just being young is fun. It was definitely stressful, too, because we didn’t really know what we were doing. It was like, “All right, we gotta pay these guys—if we write the check now by the time it gets to California, it should cash.”
Photo studio at Notre's first location.
MJ: Jose and I lived together in an apartment above our original shop location on the northside of Chicago. Our photo studio took over the living room, and eventually the whole place became a stock room. The business has had some awesome moments—from the day we opened our doors, to our first buying trip in Paris, hosting Carlo Rivetti from Stone Island for one of our Notre Talks events, and of course the recent sneaker donation raffle we did with Virgil where we raised over $180,000 for a community organization called HugsNoSlugs. For me, though, some of my favorite memories are just the times when Jose and I would pick up a pizza from across the street and I would work on my laptop while Jose played FIFA until late into the morning. One of the best things about this industry are the relationships you build along the way, and the best relationship has been the one I’ve had with Jose as we’ve grown together through lows and highs in our personal lives and the business.
JV: Something I’ve really enjoyed is peeling back the layers of some of these brands. You know what I mean? Meeting the people behind them, getting to know them a little bit more, building those relationships that we still have now. Some of these brands I liked even before we started the shop. You see their website, and it’s very clean from the outside, and then you meet everybody and it’s a five-person team. That made me more confident. Okay, they could do that with five people, so we can do something, too.
Notre's first location in Andersonville, IL. Illustration by Ben Chlapek.
EB: Besides you and Jose, who were the original crew at Notre?
MJ: Ownership consists of myself, Jose, AJ, and AJ’s brother Charlie, who joined us our first year. We’ve been fortunate to have a great team and had some really talented people come and go over the years. I guess the OG crew would consist of our close friend Rob Wilce who helped us open and manage the shop in our first year. A couple other friends like Andrew Blackwell chipped in and Joe Razza helped with the first website. Our first true employee was Chris Leh who has been our e-commerce photographer since day one, and shortly after that we hired Reed Schmidt who has helped lead and grow our creative photography and special projects.
Premier inside and out.
MJ: How about at Premier?
EB: Our original crew was just the two of us, Josh and I, with a couple friends that worked part time when we needed them. We both worked side jobs for a couple years to pay our personal bills because the store didn’t really turn a profit at that time. Our current team is still small but way different. Now we have two or three people whose main job is just creating creative content for the store and brand, people dedicated to shipping orders and working the sales floor. We’re still less than 10 people total, but the people we have on the team kill it at their jobs and are insanely efficient.
Premier throughout the years.
MJ: I mentioned earlier the first Dunks that I fell in love with were the Mork and Mindy Dunks. What are some of your favorites, Eric? What was Premier’s introduction to the Dunk?
EB: One of my favorites Dunks has always been the Paris Dunk Low, even though I’ve never been able to own a pair. Another favorite from when we started carrying SB was the Futura Dunk Low. The colors were so good on that shoe, we actually used it for inspiration for our first collaboration with SB. Our relationship with Nike SB is really where we were introduced to the Dunk. The first delivery we received were the Flash, Loden, Gino I, and Gino II. We got them in and people were calling us asking to buy them all, and we had no idea why or what was going on. People calling us from New York asking if they can buy the inventory. After that we were pretty much getting all the new releases—I think our first quickstrike was the Unkle Dunk High. Eventually we ventured into other Nike product, so had a bunch of non-SB Dunks, as well. It’s hard to believe that we’ve been selling this one style for that many years. I can’t even imagine how many different Dunks have passed through our doors.
"It’s hard to believe that we’ve been selling this one style for that many years. I can’t even imagine how many different Dunks have passed through our doors."
EB: What are some of your favorites?
JV: Personally, the Stussy Cherries. It’s crazy, though, how this all kind of came together, because, for me, that Michigan Dunk, is iconic because I associate it not only with MJ but MJ’s time working at Premier. And now we’re sitting here doing a project based on that one shoe, that tattered Dunk that I saw on his shoe rack that he wore every now and then.
MJ: When we started doing our Dunk project, that was the first pair I grabbed. I love the classic Be True To Your School colorways like the Michigans and UNLVs. We started trying to play with classic colorways and we ended up on a Georgetown-esque colorway for our first pair.
I’m where I am today because I fell in love with the Dunk, which led me to Premier where I had the opportunity to learn from a great business person. Ever since we opened Notre, we’ve wanted to partner with you and Premier. I have a lot of respect for how you operate and just thought it would be cool to share with the public a little bit of Notre’s history and why it was meaningful to me that Notre was offered the opportunity to have our own collab on the Dunk model. Hopefully this project leads to future work together. It’s been fun working with you again and bringing our creative teams together to build this project. Maybe we’ll open new store locations together in a new market. I would love to collaborate with some other shops that we respect like Union LA, Haven, Bodega, etc to name a few, too. Would be cool to see more of this happen in our industry.
Signage at Premier.
EB: I’ve thought about that, dude. I thought about another city, doing kind of like a dual store, side-by-side thing. I think it’s amazing any time a retailer can partner with another retailer that both have the same small business goals in mind. I have a non-stop text thread with shops all over sharing ideas and trying to help each other out.
MJ: They all inspire us, too. When Jose and I went to Vancouver and we saw Haven and Roden Gray for the first time, Chicago didn’t have that. Chicago was missing that level of shopping experience we got. That’s why we kept investing in our shop space. We knew we had to be downtown to actually mean something in the Chicago market, and that if we didn’t do it, someone else was going to come into Chicago and do it. Fashion brands want to be in the best looking stores, and we wanted to be able to offer that for the sneaker brands, too.
EB: There’s so many great things in the Midwest, too, that get overlooked. And especially now I think more people are sticking around the Midwest instead of fleeing as fast as they can for LA or New York. The Midwest just has its arms open like, “Just come here. We’re waiting for you.”