It’s 7 p.m. and Roland Coit and his staff at Two 18 are shutting the store down for the night. The cash drawer is being counted, the floor is being swept, hoodies and T-shirts are being folded and hung.
The store is a carefully curated sneaker boutique that opened earlier this year, posted on the corner of Russell Street and the East Fisher Service Drive in Detroit’s Eastern Market district. These days, sneaker stores are much more than just a place to buy a pair of shoes — they’re a consumer compass for sneaker and fashion trends. Along with its sister store Burn Rubber in Royal Oak, Two 18 has evolved into Detroit’s flagship for freshness.
“In the fashion sneakers business world, dope is dope and fresh is fresh,” says Coit.
And now, the two brands are being recognized by sneaker giant Nike. Later this month, Two 18 and Burn Rubber will be among the retail stores to exclusively sell a new Air Jordan 2 that Nike invited Coit and his team to design.
Coit has been passionate about sneakers for as long as he can remember. “Some of my oldest memories involve sneakers,” he says. “When I think back to when I was 6 or 7 years old, it was me doing chores around the house to get a pair of sneakers. I kind of developed this reputation of being the first guy with whatever the shoe was. It could have been Deion Sanders or Barry Sanders Nikes or whatever.”
He adds with a laugh, “But with me, I would wear them out the store.”
The Nike Air Jordan 1 sneaker was first released in 1985, but it took several years for the shoe (and the brand) to make a significant impact in Detroit due to the Motor City’s own diverse shoe culture. Detroiters have always been trendsetters, not followers: In the ’80s a crew of hustlers called Pony Down popularized Pony sneakers, while Adidas Forums and Top Tens were exclusively worn by many teens. Fila sneakers were also hot in the mid ’80s and again in the ’90s (sparked by Piston Grant Hill). And on the Notorious B.I.G.’s 1997 song, “Hypnotize,” he rapped “...stink pink gators, my Detroit players,” a nod to Detroit’s exotic skin shoe-wearers.
But by the early 2000s “streetwear” was starting to evolve into the most dominant force in urban fashion, and for many enthusiasts their wardrobe had to be built around a pair of Air Jordan sneakers.
“Detroit has always curved fashion, and once sneakers came along the street sense of it just made it even better,” says celebrity stylist Marv Neal. “We know how to match the color way perfectly to the perfect tee or jersey or hoodie. When Detroiters move or visit other cities, they see how we rock and they adopt our style.”
“I think it’s the way we rock our clothes, period,” says Coit. “What we rock them with and the diversity in it. I know so many people from the east side of Pontiac that had never purchased anything but Adidas. I think it ties into what Detroit is. It’s a mixing pot, it’s a jambalaya of these amazing fresh things.”
Like other kids, Coit had college hoop dreams and musical aspirations, but he never stopped loving sneakers. While attending Eastern Michigan University, he worked at Puffer Reds, an established Black-owned sneaker and apparel store. “Seeing [owners] Eric and Tandra, it was the first time I saw a successful Black man and woman that owned something I was into,” he says. “It kind of made me see like, wow, this was a regular guy that pulled himself up and he’d been there for 20 or 30 years.”
During this same time Coit went into his first entrepreneurial foray as a sneaker reseller. He had fallen in love with Bapesta sneakers and started taking trips to New York to buy a pair for himself and another pair to sell. His motivation was not driven by profit, he says, but rather as a way to cover his expenses to and from New York.
“All I was trying to do was get my pair for free,” he says. “It just became a way of life.”
The trips to New York and working at Puffer Reds had lit a fire within him. In 2004 he wrote a comprehensive business proposal detailing a sneaker store he wanted to open. At first he called it “Sneaker Heaven,” but changed it to “Burn Rubber.” However, his dreams were temporarily deferred when his then-girlfriend (now wife) stumbled on a sneaker store in Royal Oak with the exact same name.
“She called me like, ‘You’re not gonna believe this,’ and I was crushed,” he says. “I wanted to be the first person, the first independent boutique in this area, to really do that. My dream was crushed. I put my business plan in the closet.”
Coit shifted the focus back to his music career, where he met fellow sneaker enthusiast Rick Williams in a band they were both in. Coit (who goes by the moniker Ro Spit when he’s behind the mic) was the lead emcee, Williams was the tap dancer, and they both had a shared passion for sneakers and fashion. Eventually, Williams took an internship-type position at Burn Rubber, and when the owners decided to sell, he had put himself and Coit in a prime position to capitalize on the opportunity to buy it.
“Rick reached out to me because he knew I already had a business proposal,” Coit says. “The first couple of people that wanted to buy it fell through, and next it came to us. We went for it, we signed on the dotted line February, Valentines Day, 2007.”
Once they had the keys to Burn Rubber in their hands, they took to the business of sneaker-selling at a scorched-earth pace. The timing was impeccable: The sneaker industry was starting to see the emergence of “hypebeasts,” or fans who always buy the newest and most hyped sneakers, no matter the cost. Then there are the sneakerheads, collectors who own copious amounts of sneakers and have an equal amount of sneaker knowledge. Throw in the rise of social media sneaker pages and sneaker influencers, and things couldn’t have worked out better.
Burn Rubber outgrew its location twice, had their own reality show called Detroit Rubber (which was produced by Eminen’s Shady Films), and then established the Two 18 brand in 2013, opening a Two 18 storefront in Eastern Market this past February. (The name “Two 18” is a nod to Burn Rubber; the “two” is because the letter “B” in “Burn” is the second letter in the alphabet, and “18” is because the letter “R” in “Rubber” is the 18th letter.)
“We put a flag and a stake in doing good business,” Coit says. “Over the years we’ve done 17 to 20 collabs with Reebok, with Puma, New Balance, to name a few. They’ve all been successful and we’ve always tried to tell a story that put Detroit in a positive light, because we knew the shoes were going to the world.”
Amid the pandemic in 2020, Coit received a call from his Nike rep informing him that the Jordan brand would like to collaborate with Coit and Two 18 to redesign the Air Jordan 2 colorway.
“I hung up on him, but at the time I didn’t realize I hung up on him!” Coit says. “He called back and said, ‘I’m serious, you put the work in. You’ve earned this.’ He was just as proud as I was.”
For those unfamiliar with sneaker culture, it can be hard to wrap one’s head around the magnitude of this. To put it in more familiar terms, it’s the equivalent of your local Chevy dealership getting a call from GM’s executive office to redesign the new Corvette, or Bill Ford Jr. letting a crew of local gearheads redesign a Ford Mustang. Nike rarely does collabs with independent storefronts, as there have been less than five so far. Most high-profile collaborations involve a rockstar designer from the fashion world, an athlete, other fashion brands, or a pop star.
“Here I am driving to Meijer to pick up much-needed ingredients for smoothies when I get a FaceTime call from Ro,” says Mario “Rio” Butterfield, creative director for Burn Rubber and Two 18. “He was like, ‘Nigga, are you sitting down?’ Once he was actually able to get it out … I felt this childlike excitement, and it remained for the duration of the process.”
“Rio is a Detroit legend who doesn’t get the credit he deserves,” Coit says. “His lineage in Detroit fashion goes back to Maurice Malone. He worked at the Hip-Hop Shop and helped with designs. He was Big Proof’s hype man, he toured with D-12.”
Along with Butterfield, Coit pulled in Alex Collins and Jay John Henry from his Burn Rubber and Two 18 team. “We kind of got on a call and started spitballing, just brainstorming, really,” Coit says. “The first thing I wanted to convey to people was that, yes, this is a Burn Rubber/Two 18 shoe, but more importantly, it’s a Detroit shoe.”
Designing the colorway for the Air Jordan 2 was a lot more intricate than logging onto the Nike website and customizing a pair of Air Force 1s by slapping your favorite colors on it. The first step was obtaining an AutoCAD file, or the software used to create digital diagrams, of the Air Jordan 2 from Nike.
“Rio was so excited he couldn’t wait for Nike to send it, he found pics online and made his own CAD,” Coit says.
Coit also decided he wanted the shoes to be functional and not so much of a trophy shoe that buyers would be afraid to wear them. Next were the colors.
“We setted on three different colors — black, white, and brown,” Coit says. “It was extremely close. To me the fire one was the black one. I’m just looking at the suede on it, it was just perfect, but the white one almost looked like a Bally shoe or a high-end fashion shoe. And then there was this brown one. Jay John and even the people at Jordan liked the brown one.”
Eventually, the brown colorway was declared the winner and the Two 18 team started adding small design elements, which are odes to Michigan.
“The insole is a picture of a map of Southeastern Michigan,” says Coit. “It goes from Flint to Detroit. It has a heart around Flint, lines under Pontiac, a circle around Detroit. I tried to take [places] on that map like Southwest Detroit, Oak Park, Inkster, Southfield, so that kid that has never seen his city on a map now sees it on a pair of Jordans.” The shoe also features red and blue stripes, an echo of Two 18’s logo.
This is not the first time Nike has reached out to a Detroiter for a shoe collab. In 2005 Nike teamed up with Eminem to release the Eminem x Jordan 4 “Encore,” then the Jordan 2 Eminem “The Way I Am” in 2008, and then Jordan 4 Eminem x Carhartt in 2015. Although the Eminem-inspired sneakers were some of the first collabs that Nike had done with celebrities outside of athletes, they were Eminem-inspired sneakers, not Detroit-inspired sneakers. Also you have to throw in the fact that the Eminem-themed Jordans were close to impossible to purchase. (A size 9 for the Eminem x Carhartt 4 currently has an asking price of $67,452 on StockX, the sneaker resale company co-founded by local billionaire Dan Gilbert, whose son is a sneaker collector.)
“The insole is a picture of a map of Southeastern Michigan. It goes from Flint to Detroit. It has a heart around Flint, lines under Pontiac, a circle around Detroit ... so that kid that has never seen his city on a map now sees it on a pair of Jordans.”
In fact, over the last several years, many other Jordan releases have been impossible to purchase at their standard retail price (between $190-$200) because they either aren’t available at a physical store or they get gobbled up by resellers. It’s led to buying sneakers at inflated resale prices to become commonplace, which has left a bad taste in many fans’ mouths toward a company that makes billions a year and has doubled its revenue over the last decade.
“Off-White Jordans don’t come to Michigan,” says Coit. “If you’re here you have to go to Chicago to get it. So just talking to the sneaker community here, they feel like, ‘Does that brand I put all my time and energy into even care about me?’”
Nike is allowing Coit to start selling the shoes on Friday, Oct. 14 at 2:18 p.m. at Two 18 in Detroit and at 7 p.m. at Burn Rubber and online (one week before the Oct. 21 national release). Coit is confident that there will be plenty of shoes for everyone who wants a pair.
“This is an SMU (or “Special Make Up”), everyone will be able to get a pair,” he adds. “This is our shoe, it’s for Detroit, it’s for us. We’re going to have thousands of pairs. … There’s going to be some really special things going on in the city of Detroit for this release, community-based stuff, teachable moments, giving back.”
‘A monumental time for the city’
Ultimately, the Two 18 x Air Jordan 2 arrives at a time where Detroit’s creatives have been on an unparalleled winning streak lately. Detroit’s culture is being told through the voices of its very own filmmakers, hip-hop artists, and fashion designers. They’ve all received more national notoriety than they have in years past, and have helped Detroit evolve from being a destination where other artists came to profit to Detroit influencing every aspect in art, music, and fashion.
“For a Detroit native, Puritan Avenue, to be exact, it’s so much larger than a shoe,” says Henry. “Just to be represented, to be seen, and for something highlighting the creativity that I know we’re known for is beyond what I am able to put into words.”
“I love to see Detroit get a specific release or colorway, because stylistically it’s deserving,” adds Neal.
Along with the sneakers there are T-shirts with the same Michigan map that’s inside the insoles of the sneakers. There are also hoodies, shorts, and sweatpants that accompany the collection.
The lasting impact of the Two 18 x Air Jordan 2 will be heavier than sneakers and hoodies, says Collins. It will be with the youth who get to grow up with the memory of opening their first box of a Detroit-themed Jordans.
“This will be a monumental time for the city,” Collins says. “I think Detroit has always been in the forefront, but for some reason the city has been overlooked, and that will always baffle me. Think about music with the historic Motown artists, to some of the biggest rappers in hip-hop history, sports with the Red Wings and Pistons, even style, fashion, etc. The city of Detroit has always been here. I think it will be an historic day that no one will ever forget, and something the city will take pride in.”
Although Coit’s focus is sneakers, he has not totally abandoned music. You can often catch him spinning at one of his many DJing gigs, and this past April he collaborated with superstar producer Nick Speed to release the album Coney Island.
“Burn Rubber is the bottom line, though,” Coit says. “I was going to be whatever I was going to be musically. Whether that’s this local hero or this local legend, it’s a level better than some people, but not a major level. … But I’m here for it. I’m an open book, I want the world to know my story, I want the world to know where I come from, and I want the world to know why I haven’t left Detroit.”