Suite Nation Founder and Cultural Architect Ian Callender Credit: Laura Hayes

When you first spot Ian Callender, you’re tempted to shift your gaze away from his brown eyes down to the floor instead. It feels a bit rude, but everyone wants to know what’s on his feet. He’s been a sneakerhead since he was a student at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville in the 1990s. Back then he didn’t have an iPhone to access the reseller’s haven that is now the internet. He had to wait in line for sneaker drops at stores, sometimes for hours without food or water. 

Callender had to let go of some shoes in 2003 while he was studying computer engineering and Information Systems & Technology at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He says he had every single Nike SB shoe released at that time, including these Reese Forbes Nike denim SBs. He was home in the D.C. area when his parents took a trip to Hawaii.

“I took their car—typical movie shit—me and my cousin and our two friends were on Connecticut Avenue getting on the Beltway and went around that treacherous S-curve, hit a puddle, spun around, and hit the median,” he says. It was a single-car accident and Callender didn’t want to report it. He sold a few of his rare sneakers on eBay for “dirt cheap” to cover the $4,000 in damages. His parents found out anyway. They always do. 

But Callender’s sneaker infatuation has never been about cashing in on his collection. “It’s always been about the ability to be different,” he explains. “I remember going to PG Plaza and scouring the clearance rack for things people always overlooked. I knew if I had them, I’d be the only one with them.” 

Today, the 39-year-old Southwest Waterfront resident calls himself a cultural architect. He applies his same drive to make hidden gems stand out to his work awakening empty buildings and lots awaiting development by converting them into places that bring Washingtonians together to appreciate art, music, culture, and cocktails. 

He made an early splash reimagining the Historic Friendship Baptist Church at 700 Delaware Ave. SW as a technicolor community space known until recently as Blind Whino and now called Culture House DC. Even Diddy hosted an event there to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Bad Boy with a clothing pop-up in 2016.

Lately, Callender has been focused on growing his Sandlot brand. The container-based bar across from Nationals Park should soft open on April 1. And if all goes to plan, there could be Sandlots up and running in Georgetown, Tysons Corner, and Anacostia later this year. 

Photo of LeGreg (The Museum), Sean Diddy Combs, and Ian Callender at Blind Whino by Tiffanie Maye

Callender’s career kicked off in 2005 when he founded Sneaker Suite after a successful sneaker-themed birthday bash at Eye Bar. “We were working with club owners who saw value in how we were introducing wearing sneakers,” he says. “Back then it was not a part of the dress code. They’d say, ‘It’s thuggish,’ or, ‘We don’t want that type of riffraff in our club.’” 

Club owners like Marc Barnes of Park at 14th changed their views, according to Callender. “They were like, ‘I’m buying sneaks from Ian for my kids, let me go ahead and let him do one party where people can wear sneakers and it be allowed,’’ he recalls. “That started to change the landscape of how people looked at dress codes in the club scene. It became a whole different vibe.” 

From there, Callender began partnering with companies like Scion that wanted to sponsor parties and events in D.C. during what he describes as the golden years of clubbing from 2000 to 2015. Liquor companies wanted a taste, too. That’s when he saw an opportunity to branch out beyond Sneaker Suite to found Suite Nation in 2009. The company describes itself as a “full-service, event design agency serving clients outside the sneaker realm in genres such as automotive, wine and spirits, urban apparel, brick and mortar, real estate development, and more.”

“My route to capital has been through corporate partnerships,” Callender explains. Black entrepreneurs don’t always have the same opportunities to borrow from banks or investors to get their businesses off the ground. “We’re not cut from the same cloth, but our drive is different. That makes us hustle more. That’s what Black folk do. We hustle. We’ve been hustling all our lives.” 

For one of Suite Nation’s first hits, Callender teamed up with vitaminwater, Art Whino, and Brightest Young Things to take over two floors of an empty government building at 14th Street and Florida Avenue NW in 2011. He signed a 90-day, rent-free lease and Washingtonians showed up in droves to hear live music, peruse art, and hit the bar. “It was ahead of its time, but still relevant today on how you can reclaim dilapidated, blighted properties to beautify them for social enhancement,” Callender says. 

He prefers projects that aren’t one-off events so they can have greater impact. He looks to ink tenant-friendly leases from landlords who recognize the value of bringing underutilized spaces to life either permanently or until it’s time to break ground. His ultimate goal is to create more equitable opportunities to shape and preserve D.C. culture.

“I don’t want to go anywhere but here,” Callender says. “You hear so many stories about people who didn’t get love from the city so they went somewhere else and had a huge impact. I don’t want that to be my story. There are plenty of places where we can do some amazing things with amazing people and have a share of the pie.” 

Through Suite Nation, Callender is also involved with Arena Social Arts Club on Barracks Row, and The Nicholson Project in Fairlawn. But, the opening of Sandlot Southwest on Buzzard Point marked Callender’s first foray into being a bar owner. He teamed up with Kevin “Scooty” Hallums, his friend of 30 years, and pushed to launch the first Sandlot by the MLB All-Star Game in July 2018. They ultimately couldn’t bring it to fruition until March 2019.

Callender and Hallums played on the same church basketball team in Prince George’s County when they were kids and kept pushing each other to achieve their dreams well into adulthood after reconnecting over sneakers. Washingtonians know Hallums for his clothing line and former 14th Street NW bar Diet Starts Monday as well as Rock Creek Social Club. He’s about to launch a new clothing line called ReUnion. 

Dope is the word Hallums uses to describe Callender’s work as a cultural architect. “It’s a space that was always meant for him,” he says. “He’s gotten more comfortable and now opportunities are starting to open up for him. I like to say Ian is an extremely genuine person. When we decided to do this, this is for life. That’s my brother.” 

“Me and Scooty kept pushing the idea of creating a Black-owned outdoors space where our folk could assemble and not feel tension about being themselves,” Callender says. “We had a hell of a year right across from Audi Field doing tailgates. We could do multiple events in one day.”

“The foundation that D.C. is built on is its diversity,” Hallums adds. “That’s what has always driven us.”

When property owner Marty Chernoff died, it expedited the sale of the strip of land on Buzzard Point, leaving Hallums and Callender in need of a new home for Sandlot near the ballpark. They found one next to the Maren DC building in Navy Yard at 71 Potomac Ave. SE through MRP Realty. The company billed the Sandlot as a part of its amenity offerings, along with a dog park. Sandlot Southeast opened for two months in October 2020 before closing for the winter. 

Patrons were able to gather outdoors and enjoy juice cocktails in five colors from Black-owned Turning Natural, snacks, and catering platters from B.Lin Catering. They held paint-and-sip events and bike rides that wound up at Sandlot. “Compare this to the other side of the building,” Callender says. “We’re not Dacha. This is not a place to get plastered.” 

Photo of Sandlot Southeast lead team member Kamarah by Robert Young for Sandlot Southeast

When it reopens next month, Sandlot will be able to offer a range of food options from Black-ownded businesses with the support of Uber Eats. The third-party delivery service is funding rent-free access to a catering kitchen inside the Maren DC building and a floating Food Truck provided in partnership by Horace and Dickies that will pop up at Sandlot Southeast and other locations that Callender says lack cultural diversity. Soultarian, Dogs on the Curb, Sweet Bazil, Takoma Station Wingery, and Grub Rockstar are in the April cohort.

“The Sandlot seems to be a pretty strong brand,” Callender says. “So we’re expanding to Tysons Corner, Georgetown, and Anacostia.” Georgetown should open first this spring. EastBanc founder Anthony Lanier has a parcel of land at 2715 Pennsylvania Ave. NW that he’s waiting to break ground on and there’s been pandemic-related delays. 

“The idea that we’re activating a lot is correct,” the developer says. “We’re trying to do something with a lot instead of letting it sit there.” He’s excited about Callender’s vision. “He has a good grasp of the environment that plays towards innovative, flexible, and resourceful solutions at a time when there are no obvious ones.” 

“Most of these spaces, people that own these properties or footprints of land will sit on it for five or 10 years and not do anything with it,” Hallums chimes in. “It’s an opportunity for us to take advantage and give something back to the city.” 

Callender jokes that he’s “the most known unknown” changemaker in D.C. even though he was recognized in 2019 when he earned the Mayor’s Arts Award for Excellence in the Creative Industries. While no one would turn down additional recognition, he also invites copycats. The more people working to reimagine properties for the greater social good, the better. 

“I try to give people the blueprint,” Callender says. “I don’t want to be the only one doing this. I try to vocalize the successes that I’ve had because the more mes there are out there, the better our city turns out to be.” 

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