A yellow top at the back tells most of the story. After years of jostling, having made the unlikely rise from janitor to Nike shoe developer, Ian Williams took stock of his life and wanted more.
He opened a cafe.
Most regulars at Deadstock Coffee and Sneaker Gallery know the story. When Williams was still a janitor, he persuaded Nike to release the yellow shoe he had designed. Deadstock regulars also know that what matters most to the 29-year-old entrepreneur is what he’s built now: a place for black men to hang out. White women too. Where businessmen rub shoulders with teenagers and retirees smile at sneakerheads.
Inside Deadstock, Portland doesn’t look like the whitest big city in America. Although gentrification had reshaped the city’s historically African-American neighborhoods, Williams and other black entrepreneurs created various social hubs in the metropolitan area. At the Williams store in Chinatown, young black men bond over sneakers and a shared vision of success.
Late one August afternoon, as customers lingered after closing time, Williams brought out the yellow shoe once more.
“Here’s my story, but my story doesn’t matter,” he told a teenage nephew who worked the counter. “You have the power to do whatever you want.”
Growing up, Williams was given one pair of functional shoes a year. The stylish sneakers were for the other kids, the people who had money. Then, when Williams was around 8 years old, basketball star Allen Iverson released his first signature shoe, a red and white Reebok. They didn’t match Williams’ school uniform, but he begged his mother for a pair.
“Iverson was just a guy who wanted to play basketball, who wanted to get his family out of the situation they were in, and who approached everything with all his heart,” Williams said. “I saw raw courage, an attitude of doing what you want.”
Her mother agreed, and Williams built a collection, one pair of sneakers a year. Her high school art teacher, Valérie Sjodin, remembers telling the students to bring an important object to draw. Williams brought Reeboks.
Top 5 favorite sneakers
Nike Air Jordan XVI (without the shroud)
Nike KD 4
Reebok Response IV
Nike Dunk SB
“He lovingly took them out of the box,” said Sjodin, who taught at Heritage Christian School in Hillsboro. “He said how beautiful they were. His friends were just laughing. He was teased a lot by the athletes in class.”
Sjodin called Williams the “highlight” of her teaching career, one of her most passionate and creative students. But by the end of high school, Williams felt lost.
“A lot of the kids I went to school with had tons of money, so their college was pretty much paid for or they were on grants,” Williams said. “No school was watching me. I didn’t have good grades.”
He enrolled at Portland Community College and worked odd jobs to pay for his sneaker habit. He detailed cars, answered the phone in an office and ran a pay station in a parking lot. A job at the Nike airbag factory inspired him to pursue what he really wanted: a career in shoe design.
By age 19, Williams had collected over 100 size 12.5 pairs. But he didn’t have the design experience to land a real job at Nike. He decided to network instead.
“What’s the easiest way to be seen?” he wondered. “Working on campus. What’s the easiest way in? Concierge.”
He spent three years cleaning floors and taking out trash, smiling and striking up conversations with corporate bigwigs. Nike staff couldn’t resist talking to him, former colleagues said. He has a big contagious smile and a cheerful nature.
“He connects really well with people,” said Todd Carlson, head of development at Nike. “He always laughs. He just has this energy that draws people in.”
His concierge service was from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., so Williams came by at 9 a.m. to watch the designers at work. He volunteered to organize sample closets. He stepped in with advice on new colorways.
Finally, in 2008, he presented the Nike skateboarding team with a shoe model of his own. He called it the wet floor. Inspired by yellow warning signs, Williams’ high top was almost entirely yellow with a white patent toe and perforated side. A black swoosh and red details complete the look.
Nike released Wet Floor and the yellow shoe led Williams to shoe development work.
“We always talk about the harder you work, the more relationships you build, the more ability you have to succeed,” said Jarrod Hale, Nike product line manager who worked with Williams. “Ian was and still is the epitome of that.”
Williams’ work ethic and creativity were unparalleled, Hale said. He lingered long after quitting time, trying to find ways to provide cooler shoes for the neediest kids.
He studied painting and pop songs for inspiration. When it came time to name a new edition of the Nike Air Max, Williams refused to go the traditional route. Other editions had been the Air Max 2 and the Air Max 360. Williams, instead, named it after Allen Iverson’s signature crossover move.
“It’s not just the crossover,” Williams told Hale. “It’s his hesitation, his stuttering step before he crosses.”
Nike is still selling the Air Max Stutter Step today.
After five years of making sneakers, Williams wanted a job focused on building a more diverse community.
“Cafes are one of the only businesses that bring in the same customer every day,” Williams said. “It can reach tons of people in different demographics.”
In 2014, he left Nike in hopes of opening a store. The coffee industry, he found, was harder to break into.
“It’s not very appealing to people who dress and act and look like me,” he said.
At trade shows, he said, distributors would spend half an hour touting their cups or bags of coffee to white shoppers. But when Williams approached, those same distributors would get curt.
“I would say, ‘Tell me about your mugs. They were like, ‘Those are mugs,'” he said. “I would be like, ‘What’s the minimum on your order? ‘Raised.'”
Northeast Portland once had thriving black-owned coffeehouses. As gentrification reshaped downtown, driving out many African Americans, stores such as Reflections Coffee closed.
Williams considered moving to Chinatown. A hundred years ago, the Northwest Portland neighborhood was home to Portland’s first black entrepreneurs and social hubs such as the Golden West Hotel.
He opened Deadstock, on Northwest Fifth Avenue, in February. The store is next to the black-owned Pensole Footwear Design Academy, and a few blocks from the building that once housed the Golden West.
Today, Chinatown is on the verge of a radical renovation. In the past year, developers have purchased almost every abandoned building on Northwest Third and Fourth Avenues. Construction began this spring on a nine-story boutique hotel. Williams wants African American entrepreneurs to help shape the redevelopment.
Deadstock Drink Inspirations
The Atlanta rapper inspired this sparkling lavender lemonade, a purple drink served in a polystyrene cup.
Half coffee, half sweet tea, the name of this drink is an ode to Damian Lillard’s jersey number.
Part Arnold Palmer, part coffee, this drink takes its name from a Nike floral print.
Deadstock is unlike any other cafe. Basketball posters and high-top sneakers line the walls. The stools are BikeTown orange.
The mugs are white with hand painted sneaker prints by Nike designers. The goggles are vintage Trail Blazers memorabilia. For latte art, he draws high-top sneakers in the foam.
Williams does not publish a menu. He prefers that customers talk to him or talk to each other to get ideas. His concoctions are unusual — chocolate syrup mixed with matcha tea, for example — but delicious, customers say.
On a recent August afternoon, a group of white professionals interviewed an applicant for an outside job. And Walter Robinson II, political liaison for Multnomah County Commissioner Jules Bailey, came in for a drink before a conference call.
“When this cafe opened, it changed my meeting game,” Robinson said. “I’m one of those people who likes to support black businesses. I had a meeting at Starbucks near my office. Now I’m like, ‘No. Meet me here.”
Robinson ordered a LeBronald Palmer — a mix of sweet tea, coffee and lemonade, named after a tropical-print Nike sneaker — and rocked his body to sit on the counter.
“Hi,” Williams said. “Why are you sitting on my counter?
“It’s your space,” Robinson said. “But you turned it into our space.”
Robinson smiled and slid down. He asked Williams to speak to a group of black teenagers the next morning about alternative paths to success.
“His story is not rooted in the traditional way,” Robinson told others in the shop. “People say you should go to school. But school isn’t for everyone. academy system. He’s a champion. He has that history.”
: “The guy plays in Air Force Ones. It was new technology in 1982. In 2002, the man is there beating people in it. It doesn’t matter the shoe. Some people are so good that they can play in anything.”
Closing time had passed half an hour before, but Williams was staying late to teach his nephew the trade. As they listened to Chance the Rapper, Williams pondered what he would say to teenagers the next morning.
“There are other opportunities there,” he said. “Do you like candy? Have you ever thought of making candy for a living?”
Williams hid in a back room and reappeared with the yellow shoe, still wrapped in plastic. Inspiration, perhaps, for the teens who will inherit the town Williams helps shape.