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Student-inspired ‘Wings’ Air Jordan 5s take flight — and change lives

Chicago high schoolers see their stories, and their artwork, immortalized

Lundyn Bowman couldn’t help but show off the shoes. She passed the box around to her dad, his friends and anyone else who wanted to take a peek inside. And at the sight of a fresh new pair of the “Wings” Air Jordan 5s, embossed with vibrant, hand-drawn illustrations, folks began making offers to buy them from the 12th-grader.

“Everybody kept throwing out prices,” Bowman said. “They kept saying, ‘Yeah … I’ll buy those from you for $500.’ … ‘You don’t know the value of them.’ ”

But she does. The sneakers, which Bowman has worn only once, mean the world to her because she’s one of 19 students from Chicago’s Little Black Pearl Art & Design Academy responsible for the drawings that sprawl across the sneakers. “People didn’t believe that I helped design the shoe,” Bowman said of the limited-edition Wings 5s, which dropped in late September for $200 a pair and sold out within minutes on Nike’s SNKRS App. And they have skyrocketed in value, reselling for as much as $450 on the popular sneaker marketplace GOAT.

Courtesy of Jordan Brand

It’s a shoe unlike anything the Jordan Brand has ever produced — and anything sneaker culture has ever seen. The shoes feature wing-patterned side panels and a winged lace toggle, all of which are teal in the light and glow in the dark. But most notable are the multicolored illustrations on each shoe that come together harmoniously to make every pair feel more like a painting you’d put on display than something you’d wear on your feet. The students at Little Black Pearl are the inspiration behind those illustrations.

“I never thought I’d have something I’d drawn on a shoe. When I got home, I didn’t take the shoes off. I couldn’t take the shoes off.” — Laquesha Clemons

“It truly is art,” said David Creech, Jordan Brand’s vice president of design. “There’s a story painted … through the lens of the city of Chicago, the community and Little Black Pearl’s students that no one … could’ve created but them. We were just a canvas; they were the storytellers. They’re the ones that bring the emotion to what this is about.”

The shoe is a tangible representation of Jordan Brand’s Wings program, a community outreach initiative inspired by Michael Jordan’s ongoing commitment to education. Since 2015, the brand has provided more than 225 students, many of whom come from low-income family backgrounds, with full academic college scholarships. And in each of the past three years, Jordan has released a different pair of Wings-inspired sneakers. The first two were crafted solely by the brand’s team of professional designers. In April 2016, there were the Wings Air Jordan 12s, limited to an exclusive release of 12,000 pairs. The shoes resemble the “Playoffs” colorway of the silhouette, but they incorporate gold accents and a sleek graphical wings pattern printed on the insoles and laid beneath the translucent outer soles. A year later, 19,400 pairs of Wings Air Jordan 1s dropped. Distressed leather construction gives the shoes an aged copper finish — and had at least one YouTuber asking his subscribers if they were the best pair of 1s ever.

Yet, of all the Wings sneakers, the new Air Jordan 5s are, without question, the most meaningful. For the first time, students such as Bowman contributed to the design. The idea came from Jordan Brand vice president Howard White, who pushed for this year’s Wings shoe to be completed using the Air Jordan 5 silhouette, which debuted in 1990 and was made famous by the timeless “It’s Gotta Be the Shoes” ads featuring Michael Jordan and Mars Blackmon, the fictional Air Jordan fanatic from Brooklyn, New York, portrayed by Spike Lee.

“The Jordan 5 … everybody recognizes that shoe, no matter where you are on this planet,” said Joshua Muhammad, a senior at the tuition-free Little Black Pearl, which serves 150 students from Chicago communities. “The fact that Jordan put something we did on such an iconic model really stands out. It hasn’t set in all the way.”

Courtesy of Jordan Brand

The illustrations for the Wings 5s came to life in Chicago at the city’s flagship Jordan Brand store on South State Street, where a select cohort of Black Pearl students, as part of the Jordan Designers program, spent Saturdays learning about the apparel and footwear industry. Students received the full product-creation experience. They were split into groups and presented with prompts such as: What does the city of Chicago mean to you? What are your hopes and aspirations for Chicago? How would you like to see Chicago in the future? They were then required to respond to each brief in the form of drawings and pitch the finished products back to brand employees as a way of developing their public speaking skills. The extensive program also includes in-store product placement, writing copy to describe inspiration for designs, and packaging.

Workshops yielded friendly competitions between groups, and some illustrations were chosen to be printed on T-shirts that were sold in the store. Eventually, the 16-week seminar became a yearslong journey for many of Little Black Pearl’s students. The experience became about much more than waking up early on the weekend, making long commutes to the Jordan store and experimenting with markers and colored pencils. Muhammad Holmes says he once had no clue what career path he’d pursue — but now he knows it’s design. Kamaria Grayson admitted she still can’t draw that well, but she discovered the value of product ideation. She’s still several months removed from high school graduation but has already selected her college major: marketing.

“We learned about storytelling. … Basically, nothing Jordan puts out doesn’t have a story behind it,” said Grayson, another senior at Little Black Pearl. In three years, 15 of the school’s students who participated in the designers program have received full, four-year Wings scholarships. The brand already plans to expand the designers program to Los Angeles, New York and Charlotte, North Carolina. But it all began in 2015 with Chicago.

“Everything we make,” Grayson added, “has to have a story behind it that either affects us or affects the people around us.”

To the shock of many of the Little Black Pearl students, the story behind the Wings 5s was theirs. They had no clue that drawings they sketched would one day make it onto a pair of Air Jordans. It wasn’t until a leaked image of the shoe surfaced this summer that the students realized what was happening. Then, during opening week of the NBA regular season, the brand commissioned one of its athletes, newly signed Bulls forward and Chicago native Jabari Parker, with the job of delivering pairs of the shoes to the young designers.

High schooler Muhammad Holmes says he once had no clue what career path he’d pursue — but now he knows it’s design.

“It was a no-brainer. As soon I found out about the project and the opportunity was presented to me, I jumped on it,” said Parker, who made the trip to Little Black Pearl to surprise the students with boxes of Wings 5s. “The shoe is unique because these kids already had artistic minds. From that open-mindedness, they could just let their creative juices flow. That’s what I like so much about the shoe. It’s different. It looks good. And the story behind it makes it more appealing.”

Courtesy of Jordan Brand

Perhaps the best part about the shoe is that no two pairs are the same. The Jordan Brand wanted to ensure that every student’s hard work was reflected in the design. “To execute, we started with a collection of final artwork,” Creech said, “and allowed our [professional] designers to create different variations of the pattern to make each pair one of a kind.”

The moment the students opened up the boxes for the first time, they marveled at the sight of their own pieces of art on an Air Jordan. The pairs feature the same drawings that groups teamed up to create on Saturdays at the Jordan store: from a pair of outstretched hands holding the Chicago skyline to the iconic landmarks of the city, and even phrases such as “More than just a murder capital …”

“The fact that Jordan put something we did on such an iconic model really stands out. It hasn’t set in all the way.”
— Joshua Muhammad

“When I saw shoes, I was just shocked,” said Laquesha Clemons, a 12th-grader. “I never thought I’d have something I’d drawn on a shoe. When I got home, I didn’t take the shoes off. I couldn’t take the shoes off. I was just so excited. I even cried a little bit.”

The Wings Air Jordan 5s tell the story of youthful hope in the city of Chicago, through the eyes and creativity of Bowman, Muhammad, Grayson, Clemons, Nyla Brown, Zion Edwards, Moses Hardwick, Shaquille Holmes, Darian Johnson, Robin Miller, Gabrielle Mitchell, Jayvon Moore, Kareem Riley-Bey, Amia Smith and Ayanna Smith, Blaize Walker, Beyonce Webster, Raymond Wheeler and Erica Young.

“This shoe shines a bright light on Chicago and shows people that it isn’t such a bad place,” Grayson said. “There’s so much talent living in Chicago. And if people would take more chances on kids from here, the outcome would be amazing.”

Aaron Dodson is an associate editor at The Undefeated. Often mistaken for Aaron Dobson, formerly of the New England Patriots and Arizona Cardinals, he was one letter away from being an NFL wide receiver.