D’Wayne Edwards is a footwear designer in Portland. He holds 30 patents and has produced more than 500 designs, mostly sneakers, including those created for star athletes like Carmelo Anthony and Derek Jeter. He is one of a handful of people ever to design an Air Jordan. His cumulative sales total, spanning a 26 year career, adds up to $1 billion.
In 2011 and at the peak of his career, Edwards left his position as design director at Nike’s Jordan Brand, and began training aspiring designers through his PENSOLE Footwear Design Academy in Old Town Portland. It was his personal quest to break down the socioeconomic barriers that have kept many talented artists out of the design business.
The motivations for his mid-stream career change and the launch of PENSOLE come from his own personal experience as a poor black kid from South Los Angeles.
“All young people have to see who they want to become.”
The roots of an artist
Edwards was the youngest of six children, raised by a single mother in Inglewood, California during the 1980’s. He began drawing sports figures when very young but by age 12, he focused on the shoes because, “they were the most challenging thing to draw.” He had support at home—his mother and brothers were artistic too. But no one believed there was a future for a him in the design industry.
Throughout high school, Edwards continued to draw—always shoes. He had a job at McDonalds and was told he could one day become a store manager and earn a good living–$40K a year. His school guidance counselor suggested he join the military.
Noticing a small ad in the LA Times, Edwards entered a design competition sponsored by Reebok. He submitted a drawing and won. Reebok withheld the prize–a job with the company–because Edwards was only 17. They suggested he come back after he finished college.
Even if he’d had the money to attend, there were no design schools at the time with specific curriculum for footwear design.
After high school Edwards attended Santa Monica Community College, studying business management and advertising. Working at a temp agency, he was assigned to LA Gear as a file clerk. Noticing suggestion boxes placed around the office, Edwards put a hand-drawn sketch of a different sneaker in the box every day, suggesting they hire him. It took six months, but the owner of the company finally called Edwards in and decided to give him a shot.
When Edwards was hired as a designer at LA Gear in 1989, he was 19 years old and one of two African American athletic footwear designers in the US.
Edwards eventually left LA Gear and went on to Nike, and by 2008 Edwards was designing for Jordan. He began reflecting on the industry and his role within it, recalling, “At this time kids are getting killed for shoes that I’ve designed and/or worked on…It was difficult for me…I was making the product–even though I wasn’t the owner of the company–but I was associated with the idea.”
Changing the conversation and industry
Sensing a need to find a better path, in 2010 while still at Nike, Edwards taught the first PENSOLE class in partnership with University of Oregon. He asked friends with sneaker websites to post bulletins, getting applicants to submit drawings. Edwards funded the first session, paying for 40 students to attend. In the end, “That just felt better to me than creating new products and new shoes for people. Even though I loved what I did, I found more satisfaction in helping people.” In 2011 Edwards resigned from Nike to devote himself to the academy.
PENSOLE Footwear Design Academy is a lofted, creative-classroom space. It’s modern, bright, and suited to collaboration. The large, high-ceilinged room is defined by a few low walls to allow clusters of students to work. In the foyer, small-scale shoe boxes line the wall, representing students that have been placed with a brand after graduating. On the opposite wall is a suggestion box.
Beside that are photos of students who have arrived late to class and suffered the consequences–10 push-ups for every minute of tardiness. An over-sized, clear vase sits on a shelf nearby, full of pencil shavings accumulated during each month-long, intensive course—mounting evidence of the energy expended during the 14 hour days that students typically work.
The only way to attend PENSOLE is to earn a place in the academy by submitting one drawing of a sneaker, sketched by hand in pencil. Edwards receives an average of 500 drawings during each application period from which he will select 18 -25 students, based solely on their drawing. He makes sure that no two students in any class come from the same place. Selected applicants must be 18 and pay their own way to Portland. But the competitive, merit-based program covers the cost of tuition, housing, and supplies, removing socioeconomic barriers. So far, students from 35 different countries have attended the academy.
PENSOLE Academy is a mix of old-school rigor and innovative classroom experience. Edwards insists students use their hands and draw with pencil, a process that helps them tap into their creativity and connect to themselves as individuals. Computers, in his view, are limiting.
Stenciled on the walls and tables are memorable quotes from authors that range from Shakespeare to Bruce Lee. He starts each morning with a quote, a website, and discussion of a historical figure, all aimed at helping students develop their potential. He also assigns daily readings from the classroom library with content ranging from business to motivational topics
“I don’t have a set curriculum,” says Edwards, who doesn’t tolerate laziness. “You can’t skip one day…Part of it is getting [students] to be present so they can understand when they come here they need to be ready to work. The more you can prepare for the unexpected, the better off you’re going to be when it’s time to adapt in the professional environment…We’re training you the way you’re going to work.”
A community of more than 70 adjunct footwear designers, along with Edwards, comprise the faculty. PENSOLE’s materials lab offers the same selections available to major footwear brands. All facets of the business are taught, including consumer profiling, storytelling, terminologies, palette development, strategic thinking, and marketing plans, while at the same time cultivating leadership skills.
Edwards sets a very high standard for students to meet. “I treat them the way they want to become, which is a professional. So if you want to become a professional one day, this is what it’s going to take to get there.”
PENSOLE has attracted the attention of top design schools, including The Art Center in Pasadena, California and Parsons The New School for Design, in New York. Edwards established partnerships with these institutions and others, traveling to teach the PENSOLE curriculum at their campuses. These institutions realize that the classic business and dress shoes are designed and manufactured much as they have been for decades, but the radical innovation in the industry comes from athletic footwear. (Edwards discusses the impact of the sneaker on Science Friday).
The Academy is supported by a network private donations, school scholarships, and corporate sponsors, including adidas, Nike, Foot Locker, ASICS and many others. In exchange, brand partners that sponsor classes may own the student design product, which they can choose to manufacture and sell, compensating the student for their work. (This PENSOLE graduate writes about his days at the academy)
PENSOLE itself is not an accredited institution. Its validation is grounded in results.
To date, 145 PENSOLE graduates have been placed in the footwear design industry, many of them here in Oregon. The list continues to grow, currently including Nike/Jordan, adidas, AND1, North Face, New Balance, Wolverine, Timberland, Keen, Converse, Cole Haan, Under Armour, and Stride Rite.
Still, notwithstanding this early success, many of the barriers Edwards faced as a kid nearly 30 years ago are still deeply entrenched. Today, fewer than 100 individuals, less than 5% of footwear designers in the US, are people of color. Many of those have been mentored or taught by Edwards. Looking at gender balance within the industry, the figures are similarly alarming. So few females attempt to become footwear designers that Edwards is planning to offer a PENSOLE class just for women.
Edwards remains undaunted by the task of changing an industry from within. “PENSOLE was created to service the entire footwear industry, and everything about how we operate is about community.”
In fact, the calendar for 2016 demonstrates how his vision for PENSOLE continues to expand. In addition to teaching 8 class sessions throughout the year, a new partnership was recently announced giving students an opportunity to design footwear for Levi’s. For the first time, PENSOLE will launch its own branded product.
Fans of the immensely popular World Sneaker Championship, founded by Edwards, are already participating in the current 2016 competition that was launched in February. And in responding to requests from teachers and students across the nation, a program for high school students is currently in development, to be partly funded by a community-ownership campaign called SOLEHOLDER.
D’wayne Edwards and PENSOLE will keep knocking down these walls, one by one, driven by the words of Bruce Lee on the school wall:
“To hell with circumstances; I create opportunities.”
Thanks to Davia Larson for her contributions to this story.