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Designing opportunity: Nike design alum D’Wayne Edwards is creating equity for the next generation of Black footwear designers

November 16, 2021, 1:00 PM UTC

Around the time D’Wayne Edwards was graduating high school in Inglewood, CA in the 1980’s, Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles and Parsons School of Design in New York offered a joint program in apparel design. Edwards, the youngest of six kids, had quiet aspirations of designing shoes and the Otis/Parson program wasn’t far from where he grew up. But design school, or any form of college, really, wasn’t on his radar. He couldn’t afford tuition and he needed a job.

In July 1988, Edwards took a temp job as a file clerk in accounts payable at then popular footwear brand, L.A. Gear. Every department in the building housed a small wooden suggestion box. “Anything you wanted to put in there, you could; ways to improve the company or morale,” he recalls. “I have always drawn sneakers. I drew on 3 x 5 index cards. I did it every day for six months and dropped them in the box.” One morning in January 1989, Edwards was paged over the company’s loudspeaker system, asked to report to company president, Robert Greenberg’s office. “I knew it was bad news,” says Edwards. “I walked in slowly and he said, ‘Have a seat.’ He had 180 of my sketches sitting on his desk. He said, ‘Are you the one who has been doing this to my suggestion box?’”

As Edwards recounts the conversation, Greenberg eventually uncovered that Edwards had no formal design training and offered him an entry level job as assistant footwear designer, anyway. What came next for Edwards (in an incredibly oversimplified timeline) was a short move to Detroit to work for a small footwear company called MVP Footwear/Movade Footwear in October 1991. A year later, Greenberg was now owner of Skechers and secured the licensing rights to Cross Colours and Karl Kani Footwear and asked Edwards to move back to L.A. to take on the role of head designer. After seven years, he launched his own brand, called SITY, under the Skechers corporate umbrella. (In 2000, Sporting Goods Business ranked SITY the No. 2 brand to lookout for behind Jordan.) After Skechers divested SITY in 2000, Edwards joined Nike as a senior designer, and in 2001 joined Jordan as design director.

These days, you’ll find him at the helm of PENSOLE Footwear Design Academy, a design school he launched while on sabbatical from Nike in 2010 to train and inspire the next generation of designers in his industry. “In 1989, I was only the second Black footwear designer in the industry,” says Edwards, who has been at PENSOLE full-time since 2011. “In my whole 23 years professionally, that number grew to 75. Today, it’s about 180 or 190 Black footwear designers.”

Creating greater equity across apparel and textile design careers has been a big part of Edwards’ focus, and it is what drove him to his most recent endeavor: reopening an HBCU (historically Black college and university) in Detroit with a curriculum centered in design and business. Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design is the first HBCU in the country to focus on design. I caught up with Edwards to talk about his path in design, the value of learning on the job, his passion for education, and what it means to create meaningful equity in the design world.

Fortune: How would you characterize your career path?

D’Wayne Edwards: I am pinching myself daily. Growing up in Inglewood, the chances of me getting to 18 was a win. I didn’t go to college, and the chances of being successful are rare, on top of being a Black man in the city. You’re beating the odds when you are able to leave the city and go back with opportunity. I’m still beating the odds and I’m 51.

Fortune: What did you learn from your time at L.A. Gear?

DE: I noticed Robert was in early before everyone else. One day I decided I was going to beat him to work. I got in at 7:30 a.m., he was there. I got in at 7, he was there. At 6 a.m., he was there. Finally, at 5:45 a.m. I beat him. I’m sitting outside the building, because it is closed, and he pulls up. I say, “I want to understand what you do when you’re here so early.” I sat with him and saw his daily routine. That was what success looked like.

Fortune: So, what does that look like for you?

DE: I pray. I meditate. I write down on a Post-It note what I’m going to do that day. If you don’t see it, it isn’t real. It helps me appreciate the day instead of jumping too far ahead. My job is to see the future, so I need a grounded routine to keep me focused.

Fortune: How did you land at Nike?

DE: Paul Wilkinson worked at Adidas. He said Nike was looking for someone to compete against Timberland. I started there in 2000. I was at Nike in 200 and then Jordan in 2001. They are like Toyota and Lexus. My biggest learning there was from Michael.

Fortune: What did he teach you?

DE: We were talking one day about his career and a show I was presenting to him. He said he never set out to do anything great. But when he played and he was on the floor, he wanted to be the best. He couldn’t short change the game because there was someone in that arena watching him play for the first time. His goal was always to be the best when he was on the floor. What I took from that is that when I’m going to design anything my goal is not to short change it. It is to make sure I’m focused and committed to what I have ahead of me. I always stay present.

Fortune: Do you have a mantra?

DE: It’s a Bruce Lee quote. “To hell with circumstances, I create opportunities.” I never let my circumstances get in the way of me trying to do something. When my high school counselor told me no Black kids from Inglewood would become a footwear designer, I could have easily packed it up and went into my little hole. I used those circumstances as energy.

Fortune: What was it like to work at Jordan?

DE: I was a fan of the brand before I became an employee. I put pressure on myself and we were always the underdog. We were always understaffed and overlooked. When I started at Jordan, we were a $275 million brand, and we had four designers. We grew it to $1.3 billion, and got one more designer. That was stressful. We didn’t realize we were killing ourselves. I call it the trap of doing something you love. It doesn’t seem like work, but it can overcome you at some point.

Fortune: Tell me about PENSOLE. How did it evolve?

DE: PENSOLE is a school I wish I was able to attend. And, it is one I would hire from. I never went to college. When I was at Nike and Jordan, it was easy to figure out my email address. These kids would email me their designs and ask me for help. I realized these kids were me; They just had the internet. I started training kids on the side so I would have a good intern pool. It became more of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I took eight weeks off. I wanted to test the idea of a footwear school. I paid for 40 kids to be a part of the program and I taught the kids the same way I learned, for two weeks, 14 hours every day at the University of Oregon. Thirty-five of those 40 kids are now working professionals.

Fortune: What did you do next?

DE: Art Center in Pasadena called. They asked if I could teach there. MIT also called. So, here I am the kid who never went to college, teaching at some of the best design schools in the world. I left Jordan in 2011 to focus solely on teaching. It made me fall back in love with design again. Since April 2011, I’ve been 100 percent focused on PENSOLE. The other reason I left is because I felt the industry wasn’t telling the complete story.

Fortune: What’s the complete story?

DE: When I was growing up in the ‘80s, success looked like a drug dealer, an athlete or a rapper. Fast forward to 2021 and success still looks like a glorified drug dealer or hustler, an athlete or an entertainer. I know we have a lot of successful business people, but that’s not the information consumer goods companies are feeding our kids. Consumer goods companies that have a Black consumer, they only tell that Black consumer that success looks like run, jump, dunk or mic in hand. This is 2021. The companies that market to Black people, it’s easily in the 100 billion range… less than five percent of the designers in these industries are Black. The math doesn’t add up. 

In education in inner city high schools, art is gone. Kids go through middle school and high school with no vision of what college looks like for an artistic career. Some of these companies spend a lot of money talking to Black middle and high school kids. They aren’t having the right conversation. The conversation is, “Buy my product from this celebrity.” They need to change the narrative and say, “You can have this job, this job or this job.”

Fortune: How will the curriculum at your HBCU, Pensole Lewis College, be unique?

DE: We’ll be the first one focused on design and business. None of them have that clear focus and delineation. We are trying to change the education system around the length of programming and trying to bridge the gap between corporate America and education.

Fortune: What’s that bridge look like?

DE: Since 2010, PENSOLE was created to bridge the gap between industry and education. Now as Pensole Lewis, we will build on those previous 11 years by expanding career education options traditionally not found at other colleges and universities. And this expansion will allow us to provide more job opportunities in design to more diverse future professionals who otherwise might not have considered design as a career.

When we work with brands, we co-create the curriculum according to how they run their product creation departments. We then decide the outcome, which ranges from a product being sold at retail, paid internships or even full-time employment. Once we have the brand-certified program created, we then do a global outreach and present the brand a curated list of students for them to select for their class. We highly encourage the brands to make their employees available to participate in their program as much as they are able. In the end for the brands the programs we do together become an extended job interview to validate their creative ability and we provide them the rest of the story of who they are as a person to predict who they will be professionally.

The students are the ones who benefit the most because they are being taught by a diverse mix of industry legends, influencers, and leaders. They will be mentored and guided through the professional product creation process that has a balance of personal and professional development. All our certified brand programs are as close to having an internship without actually having one that will prepare them for a future in our industry.

Fortune: How do you see the narrative between consumer products and the Black designer and even Black consumer playing out differently at Pensole Lewis?

DE: My goal is to reach more kids. We try to reach them where they are. If they are on footlocker.com and all of a sudden you see a program with Foot Locker to design sneakers? Same for the parents. I’m a father. You want your kids choosing a stable career path. They think design equals broke. It’s about being able to show them people who look like them and have gone on to have successful design careers. That will spark something. That’s our goal: to uncover people hiding in plain sight. People don’t even know they exist. Brian Thompson. He designed the $100 bill. He’s Black. It can inspire you. Or it can inspire the parent to inspire the kid.

Nicole Gull McElroy

nicolegull@gmail.com

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THE MUSE

 
Rules of the Rubber Red Ball by Kevin Carroll

"This book inspired me to rediscover what object helped me pursue my passion. And, that object was a N0. 2 pencil. A No. 2 pencil designed my life." - D'Wayne Edwards

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