A conversation with D’Wayne Edwards Founder of PENSOLE Footwear Design Acadamy

 I recently had the chance to catch up with D’Wayne Edwards, the Founder of PENSOLE Footwear Design Academy, and former Design Director at Brand Jordan.  We talked about about his design background, PENSOLE, and the new Prep School class.

Hello D’Wayne, where did your love for design, specifically footwear, originate?

DE: It started back in 1981 when I was 11. That is when I drew my first shoe. It was a football cleat. I was a big Pittsburgh Steelers/Franco Harris fan, so I would draw him in action poses. From that moment on, I was drawing sneakers throughout high school.

What really made me fall in love was one day I was looking in the LA Times for a job,(No internet back then), and I saw an ad for a Reebok design competition. I entered it and won. I guess they were not expecting a 17-year old kid to come in and collect the prize, which was a job at Reebok. I was too young to work for them so they gave me a couple hundred bucks and told me to come back to see them after I finished college. I was upset that I didn’t get the job, but I did buy a pair of new Air Jordan 2’s with my Reebok prize money.

Towards the end of my high school year, I was doing my usual, sitting in my drafting class, designing my own version of Air Jordan’s. Little did I know, I would actually get the opportunity to design them and get paid for it one day… What’s even crazier is the last shoe in class was the Air Jordan 2(courtesy of Reebok) and 12 years later one of my first assignments in JORDAN was to “redesign” the Air Jordan 2(Nu’ Retro 2). To this day, I still can’t believe it.

You have a pretty interesting tale of determination; tell us about how you broke into the footwear industry.

DE: After winning the Reebok competition, that gave me the confidence to believe that I could do this for a living. I then started looking for colleges to study footwear design, but none existed. So, I went to my high school counselor for help and she told me “give up on that dream of being a footwear designer because no black kid from Inglewood would ever do something like. Your best bet is to continue working at McDonald’s or join the military.” As a teenager, that devastated me. She was my “Guidance” counselor, however, she became one of my biggest sources of motivation. I had several things working against me. One, I am the youngest of 6 and there was no money to send me to college, let alone design school. Two, I started my college search late so I couldn’t get into any schools and I didn’t even know what a portfolio was.

I soon gave up on my dream of being a footwear designer and decided to go to community college at night studying Business while working at McDonald’s in the day. One day, a friend convinced me to quit Mickey D’s and work at his aunts Temp agency as a file clerk. Two weeks into the agency, I was assigned a file clerk position at one of the hottest footwear companies at that time, LA Gear. I know everyone reading this probably never heard of LA Gear, but trust me they were BIG in the 90’s.

Here I am, a few months out of high school and I am working at a footwear company. Yes, I am filing papers, but I am at a FOOTWEAR company and this close to my dream. One day the company announced that they wanted ideas from employees on ways to make the company better. They put wooden suggestion boxes in every department. This was 1988 and still no internet. For the next 6 months, my suggestions came everyday in the form of a new LA Gear shoe design, that I put in the box until the owner of the company Robert Greenberg (Chairman of Skechers, today) took notice. Then one day over the intercom I heard D’Wayne Edwards come to Robert’s office. Nervous and trying to figure out what I did wrong, I went to his office.  Sitting on his desk was all 180 of my designs. We talked for a few minutes and then he offered me an entry-level footwear design position. One month after my 19th birthday I was a professional footwear designer, making me the youngest and one of the first African American professional footwear designers in the industry.

Once in the industry you have had the opportunity to work at some great places with some incredible designers.  Tell us a little bit about your climb to the top as Design Director at Brand Jordan?

DE: From day one, I made 3 promises to myself:

#1: Make my family proud by having the career my two of my older brothers(Michael and Ronnie, who were better artists than I would ever be and who taught me how to draw) did not get a chance to have because their lives were cut short at an early age. Update: I am still working on this.

#2: Prove to Robert he did not make a mistake by taking a chance on a young black kid from Inglewood. Update: And, after all these years I still feel the same way and we still keep in contact with each other.

#3: Provide opportunities to other aspiring designers like Robert did for me.  Start a school that teaches footwear design because there are more kids out there like me. Update: I dedicated many years of my career helping others and it took me 21 years but the school is open now.  

My journey started with LA Gear in 1989. In addition to the three points I listed above, the other thing I did from day one was be a sponge. My Mother once told me “a closed mouth does not get fed” and I live by those same words to this day. Back then, it was the key to my success. I was only 19 years old working with designers that had knowledge that I needed. I did more “listening than talking”. All that listening allowed me to work my way up to Sr. Designer within four years.

I left LA Gear and moved to Detroit to work for a small footwear company called MVP Footwear. They offered me more money. That was the ONE and only time I made a move for money and it was a mistake. Professionally it was a mistake because you should never let money guide you but at the same time it was a valuable lesson for me. For all of you aspiring and established Designers out there, don’t make a move for money. Make moves that will make you a better Designer, which will increase your value.

The next stop on my journey was back to LA to work with Robert Greenberg again, but this time at his new company called Skechers, which just signed a licensing deal to produce footwear for Street fashion pioneers Cross Colours and Karl Kani. Most of you reading this are too young to know those brands, but before Sean John, Rockawear and LRG these guys started what you know today as streetwear. I was Head Designer responsible for creating what you know today as urban or street footwear. One of the highlights for me while working on these brands was being the first designer to design Designer footwear (Kani) ever to be worn in the NBA when Skechers signed Derek Fisher to his first NBA endorsement contract in 1993. The Cross Colours and Kani licensing agreement ended and in 1998 Robert gave me my own brand called SITY. I replaced the “C” with an “S” for style because during my travels around the world I discovered that footwear had different styles in every city I visited. SITY’s retail debut was a success but it was short lived and was dissolved within 2 years. I received an amazing honor by SBG (Sporting Goods Business) when they ranked SITY, the second freshest (yes, they used the word fresh back in the day) brand to look out for behind JORDAN Brand.

In April of 2000 I accepted a position at Nike.  I began working for the company whose shoes I designed while sitting in drafting class in high school. I spent the first year in ACG and the next ten years in JORDAN.

Over the course of my 22-year career, I have worked with so many great Designers. I don’t want to single out 1 or 2 because I have learned different things from all of them. To this day, I try to be better than I was yesterday and I do this by being open to learn from everyone and everything around me.

Here is one of my favorite quotes: “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless – like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” -Bruce Lee

 What made you decide to transition into education?

DE: Two things. One, I had a great career and I achieved more than I dreamed of as a Designer. As the years went by, I was more excited to see an aspiring designer that I mentored, shoes running up and down NBA floors or winning awards than my own. Second, I also always had a goal to leave this industry better than when I entered it. I figured I could do that by becoming a full-time Farmer….

Yes, a Farmer. Let me explain. One of the Farmers duties is to plants Seeds and I was planted back in 1989. Just like the Seeds you plant in the ground, I grew up to be blessed with a successful career, not for the riches or the fame but to plant more Seeds.

I am not sure how many Seeds I have planted during my career but I know they are out there and I know they have also planted their own Seeds combined with my goals for PENSOLE will make this industry better.   Be a Farmer, my friend…

 Almost 2 years ago you started PENSOLE; can you tell us about the program?

DE: PENSOLE is the third promise I made to myself on the first day of my professional career 23 years ago this month.

Instead of graduating from college after 4 years, I learned on the job and became a Senior Designer after 4 years. I “learned by doing”. Now, I say that not to say don’t go to college because if I could have afforded to go I would have gone. I say that because I learned the value of the teaching philosophy “learn by doing” which is why I designed PENSOLE to educate our students this way.

At PENSOLE we teach the fundamentals of working with your hands because during my time as a Footwear Design Director at JORDAN, I would see over 200 portfolio’s a year, full of pretty renderings, and adequate designs. I feel computers are making today’s students lazy and reducing the opportunity for them to actually think about what they are designing. Our goal is to teach you to think by designing in black and white using a N0.2 pencil until your design looks good enough to “deserve” color and a computer rendering. We just want you to think first.

I have assembled the most sought after faculty in footwear. Comprised of both young professional designers and established footwear design leaders from the Industry with over 100 years combined experience. I am proud to say that in less than two years we have over 20 former PENSOLE students that have started their professional careers at some of the industries top footwear brands; Nike, adidas, Under Armor, North Face, Wolverine, New Balance and JORDAN to name a few.

We have an exciting year planned beginning with moving into our new 4700 square foot building at the end of the month, that will eventually have everything you need to create a shoe from a pencil drawing to a handmade sample. We will have a wide range of programs from Saturday school for local Oregon students, night school for professional development, graduate programs and a full summer schedule. We are in the process of designing the new web-site which will feature a newsletter called SOLE FOOD that will feed you throughout the year on what’s going on at PENSOLE.

Email FeedMe@pensole.com to sign-up for the SOLE FOOD newsletter if you are interested in learning more about PENSOLE.

In March you will be launching a new class at PENSOLE called “Prep School”.  What is this class going to be about?

DE: PENSOLE Preparation School is a hands on 3-week program designed for graduate students to prepare for a professional career in the footwear industry.

Prep School classes will range from Personal Branding, Preparing for Interviews, Business of Design, Patternmaking, How to Create Collections, Bio-mechanics; and much more.

At PENSOLE Prep School, you will experience our rigorous “learn by doing” curriculum that will be customized to focus on specific areas of development. During each of these 3-week classes, you will be challenged to define who you are and who you want to be.

The first Prep School class is called: “Next Steps”. This class will feature several special guests from the Footwear Industry ranging from Design Directors, Design Managers, Recruiters, Hiring Managers and Staffing Agencies. These individuals are from top footwear brands and companies in the industry and they will share their knowledge in preparation for the “Next Step.”

 After these 3 weeks you will have a different outlook on design, how you present yourself, your work and how to work in a team environment. PENSOLE Prep School will also be the first graduating class taught at the new PENSOLE building in Portland, OR.

We are giving away a MESH01 scholarship for this class and other special prizes for students that register.

Registration ends on February 22 and class begins on March 12-31st.

How can interested designers find more information and register for this class?

DE: You don’t have to go far. Click on the banner on the home page and you can register today. We have some exclusive Mesh01|PENSOLE opportunities for everyone who registers for the class. (or click here)

Before we head out, any words of wisdom for aspiring designers?

DE: Stay hungry and treat your first design and all those that follow, like it is your last. Don’t take short cuts. As a Designer, you have a gift and that gift will always give back to you, what you give to it.

Thanks, D’Wayne, for taking the time to talk with us. 

Designers can register for PENSOLE’s Prep School class HERE