Sneakers
From the ground up

For most sneakerheads, an early weekend wake-up can mean only one thing: drop day Saturday. For Drew Hammell, however, his weekend alarm rings a calling of a whole different sort. “Our team gets to [the church] at 7am,” Hammell tells me, describing his Sunday. “And we’re there until about 7:30 at night.”

So much for sitting on your computer clicking refresh.

As Director of Operations and Volunteers at Redeemer Presbyterian’s Downtown location, Hammell is responsible for running everything that happens on Sunday at one of the largest community organizations in New York. Every week, his job takes on biblical proportions: during those 12.5 hours of services, Hammell coordinates a pool of 200 volunteers serving around 1200 worshippers at Redeemer’s Downtown Congregation. Redeemer as a whole serves 5500+ at four locations throughout New York City.

In short: his hands are far from idle.

Yet, in his time off from Redeemer, Hammell has quietly directed worship of a whole different kind. As the man behind Instagram’s @NikeStories, Hammell (and a mighty collection of sneaker memorabilia accrued over a lifetime of devotion) runs one of the most impactful sneaker blogs currently active. Equal parts archive and museum, @NikeStories is a guided tour through the individual people and moments that, together, weave the company’s fabled past. Make no mistake: Hammell’s blog is for hardcore fans. A typical post may include rare athlete photos, vintage Eastbay catalogs (Hammell owns hundreds), or heavily-researched captions that are more “lab note” than “#kotd.”

Is @NikeStories inaccessible? Not even close. However, Hammell’s thoughtful curation has made his blog inherently less scalable than your average hype-driven sneaker rag. Whether by chance or design, this slightly-esoteric approach to the sneaker ‘gram has rendered @NikeStories a best-kept secret among industry leaders – a mountaintop monastery, not a Vegas chapel. Among the account’s 46,000-strong flock: Danny Nunez, Ronnie Fieg, Emily Oberg, Ben Kirschner, and half of the A$AP Mob.

“Impactful,” indeed.

Church leader by day; Oracle of Nike by night. It’s almost enough to make you forget about that 7:00am alarm. With July sun glinting off the Hudson, we sat down with Drew Hammell to talk sneakers, Instagram, and everything Swoosh.

So tell me a bit about yourself in your own words.

I started working at Redeemer Presbyterian Church about five years ago as the Director of Operations and Volunteers. Basically, it’s my job to make sure everything runs smoothly every Sunday. I love operations, I love leading people, and I love my church.

We help a lot of people in the city through Redeemer. I was a deacon for three years, and just heard so many heartbreaking stories of people in need. Thankfully, as a large organization, we’re able to serve a lot of those folks. There are currently four locations throughout New York City, and I manage about 200 volunteers every Sunday plus my own Operations team. Sundays are very long days – our team gets there at 7am, and we’re there until 7:30 at night. Each service, we get around 600 people, [meaning] Redeemer as a whole gets about 6,000 every Sunday between the four sites.

At church, I use my shoes as a conversation starter. I’m in there, meeting a lot of new people every Sunday, and if there’s nothing to talk about, they might say, “hey, cool shoes” and then we start talking. “Oh, these are the Air Jordan XI – Jordan first wore them against the Magic in 1995, and actually lost that series”

So how did you develop such a love for shoes?

Growing up in South Jersey, I loved Jordan and loved sports but didn’t really have the opportunity to get the shoes that I wanted. Then, on the court, I was always trying to play like Jordan, and Scottie Pippen, and John Paxson. So there you have me: I didn’t have the money for their shoes, but at least I could try to play like [those icons] on the court.

I always had this obsession with sneakers. I can’t explain it. Maybe it’s the “art of the shoe,” or the design and creativity of every pair, but I was drawn to it all. I think there’s a lot of people just like me out there – seeing other kids wearing the Air Jordan VII “Bordeaux” to class, I would just stare at them like, “man, I wish I could have those.”

When did you first start collecting Eastbay catalogs?

I’ll never forget this. In middle school, my buddy came in with an Eastbay catalog and, well, it had everything. It had every single shoe, with release dates. It had pictures of Jordan, of Penny Hardaway. Eastbay was the source back then.

I also had a subscription to Sports Illustrated and then got a subscription to Slam Magazine. Now, my mom is a collector – she loves antiques, she loves fashion, and she has literally every single Vogue printed since the 1980s – so she pushed me to save every magazine and catalog I was getting. That’s how it started.

You know, life was a lot simpler. There was no real internet [shopping] in the mid-90’s. People weren’t ordering stuff online – they were calling up a number and placing an order.

So you guys would actually bring the catalogs into school and just pore over them at lunch?

Oh yeah. We’re all sittin’ around, lookin’ at em, like “Oh, I want this one, I want that, I want that,” circling stuff. That was the culture back then.

Were you the “influencer” back then, too? Like, what Drew thought was the cool shoe was the cool shoe?

I wasn’t a cool kid in high school, definitely not. We had a group that was just kinda normal. We were just all hanging out together on the weekends, watching TV, but also playing a lot of sports.

So to answer your question, no. My friends had all the cool stuff. In 10th grade, my buddies were all getting Air Max 95s and the Air Zoom Flight, Jason Kidd-like models, but it wasn’t until I started working at Athlete’s Foot then Foot Locker [later in high school] that I could get stuff for cheap enough to wear it, like the Air Max Plus runners that came out in the late 90’s.

What was your first “big” pair of shoes?

Personally? In 2000, when the Air Jordan XI “Concord” retro’d for the first time.

I was a freshman at Rutgers and still had friends at Foot Locker, so I had a friend that set aside a pair for me. I didn’t have any money, but I paid for those, and I still have that pair today. I wore ‘em into the ground, but they’re still in pretty good shape.

But yeah, my mom is the reason all that stuff sat in my bedroom for about 15-18 years, untouched.

How often would you go back and reference it?

Not often – I never really went home. I live in Jersey City, and before that was in New Brunswick, so everything in South Jersey just sat there since 2000. Now, fast forward to 2014, and Instagram was taking off. I started seeing people like Nick Wooster and The Sartorialist using it, and those guys are my heroes for fashion, so I started my own account.

You know how it goes: you post once, a few friends like it, it’s kinda fun, but I thought there was a lot of power in [the platform] because it was so easy to use and connected you with so many people. So, I started a new account and started posting pictures of my shoe collection, plus, some old images that I had. Very quickly, it started to grow.

The funny thing is, one of my first big posts was me going to the Famous Footwear on 14th Street, putting on a pair of Air Monarchs, snapping a selfie, and then putting them up with a caption like “Just so you know, this shoe is Nike’s bestseller.” People loved it. Team Monarch reposted it, then Complex reposted it, and that helped me take off.

I had a few Eastbays with me that I would take pictures of, and people seemed to really like that, so I asked my mom: “hey, do you still have all my stuff?” She had kept it, so I brought up about four boxes of magazines and catalogs, then one-by-one, I started scanning them, and posting them, and explaining each sneaker and the history behind it. It really started to take off from there.

That’s really the story behind @NikeStories: an appreciation for what Instagram is and what it can be used for. And yeah, getting likes is fun, but I really love the comments, and seeing people give their own story about when they had this one specific retro sneaker in 7th grade, or whatever. That’s what I really enjoy: telling stories about the past, and sharing that history.

That’s kinda crazy – that “archival” feeling when someone encounters something that’s new to them, but is also old. A lot of kids just getting into the game don’t have the perspective yet to really understand the stories behind certain shoes.

This was before @NikeStories, but I was wearing my 2000 Jordan XI Concords around the city one day in like 2013, in the rain, and I walked into Flight 23 on 34th Street. I realized everyone in there’s just looking at me. Finally someone says, “where did you get those? How old are they?” I told them they were from 2000, and the next thing they want to know is how I still even have them. There was this respect and desire to see stuff that’s still around from 15, 20 years ago.

That’s why I always ask people who are younger about what shoes they like mean to them. I asked a 13 year old on the train once who had a pair of Jordans on: “why do you care about these Air Jordan IVs? You never saw Jordan play.” And he told me with a straight face, in complete seriousness: “There are no other shoes designed like Air Jordans.”

When, in your mind, was peak Nike? Have we hit that point yet?

Obviously, late ’80s into the ’90s was the golden age for Jordan and then Nike Basketball, with the introduction of Zoom Air plus the full-length “Visible Air” soles. There were just so many star basketball players wearing Nike – Kevin Garnett, Gary Peyton, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, David Robinson, even Tim Duncan at the beginning of his career.

It’s agreed that that’s the golden age, but “peak Nike”? Nike filed more patents last year than ever before. They’ve got more patents than Lockheed Martin, Ford, and Pfizer. Nike is always innovating, and there’s a lot more to be seen in terms of cushioning and automatic lacing.

In some ways, yes, maybe adidas is catching up a bit – but that’s fine. I love seeing the competition. I want adidas to succeed; I want Big Baller Brand to succeed! I’d like to see everyone improving and innovating because it’s good for Nike to have that competition. They’ve got this rich history of competing with other brands – especially with advertising, but also with some of these other technologies that the other brands just don’t have.

Another reason I don’t think Nike’s seen its peak is that at heart of it, Nike is all about the athlete. It’s about fitness, and that’s not gonna change. People aren’t going to stop working out. It’s something that I think is going to resonate forever. So no, I don’t think we’ve seen the peak yet.

It seems like the account has gained a lot of notability with people from Nike. What’s the back and forth like between you and the Swoosh?

I started the account without knowing anyone at Nike, and now I would say I speak to somebody there about every day – either in design, or marketing, or communications.

I write for Finish Line, too, so I’ll message people like Ben Kirschner, who designed the SF-AF1, and ask them about getting pictures or drawings for an article. Sometimes they say “I’ll look into it,” sometimes they have something available, but they’re all really cool and laid-back. It’s fun. It’s an evolving relationship.

Nike has an archive in Oregon, and they have, as far as I know, every ad, everything, in that collection, but I think that – for whatever reason – Nike isn’t always authorized to post things again. But man, if I was Nike, I’d be bringing all these old commercials back from the ’90s! It was such a golden age for advertising. All those ads for the IVs and Vs by Spike Lee. But they don’t do it, so I’m free to post whatever I want!

All those “Mars Blackmon” ads, right? They just had the pulse of an entire era. Plus, they gave us the greatest shoe commercial slogan ever: “It’s gotta be the shoes!”

Oh, it’s gotta be the shoes.

I saw Spike Lee once on the Upper East Side in a Hale and Hearty [soup restaurant].

That does not seem like a very Spike Lee joint.

He was in there, just buyin’ soup. I think he lives up there.

So as the guy who live and breathes retro Nike: what’s your take on the SF-AF1?

The one that came out last year? I love them. I love what they did to [the Air Force 1] – making it super high, the straps, the durable canvas material. Now, there’s a mid-top out, too, that has double zips on the back but also a strap.

I love what they’re doing to reinvent the model without taking too much away from it. You still know what you’re looking at – it’s still an Air Force 1 – you’re just looking at an updated version.

If you could choose one pair of shoes to wear for the rest of your life, what would it be?

The Air Max 95 runner with the OG Neon Green colorway. To me, it was such a groundbreaking shoe because it had Visible Air in the heel and the forefoot. We knew full-length Visible Air was coming next, but just to see how [the AM95] was put together and how it was designed is beautiful, with the different layers of gray and the neon green bubbles.

It’s also very functional. I run around the city all day for work, and I’ve also got a baby daughter who just turned 15 months, so there’s a lot of running around in my life right now. It’s just a great shoe to throw on.

Finally: what’s the craziest pair you’ve ever worn to the church?

The 2012 Air Max Hyperposite “Christmas Day.” Rajon Rondo wore those on Christmas Day, and then Nike brought them out about six months later. The green is called something like “Arctic Green,” and it’s just gorgeous. I break ‘em out every Christmas for services.

The above interview has been edited for clarity. Special thanks to Drew Hammell and Zachary Whitford for making this article possible.

Now see Highsnobiety’s very own ranking of the best Nike sneakers of the year so far.

  • Photography: Andrew Dizon / Highsnobiety.com

Alex Rakestraw is a writer and strategist working in sneakers, outerwear, and advertising. In his downtime, Alex enjoys reading, cooking, and the outdoors. He once had a nightmare about losing a coat.

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