Elevating the World’s Sneaker Game
Footwear designer D’Wayne Edwards is one of only eight people to have ever designed an Air Jordan shoe. Besides designing for Michael Jordan, he has created shoes for Carmelo Anthony, Derek Jeter and Roy Jones Jr., plus designed Olympic gold medal-winning shoes. To create a shoe to meet the expectations and standards of Jordan and other elite athletes, Edwards had to build a shoe that could endure the highest levels of competition.
From his years working in the shoe design industry and reviewing resumes, Edwards realized there wasn’t a school properly training shoe designers. And given the footwear industry earns a little less than $50 billion a year in the United States, Edwards knew something had to be done. “And 80 percent of it is in five states: Oregon, California, New York, Massachusetts and Michigan,” he adds. With such a thriving industry, there must be innumerable qualified designers seeking to join the fold, right? Not exactly—there are many job seekers, but competent candidates? Not so much, Edwards said.
In 2010, he opened Pensole Design Academy, the only footwear design school in the nation. A Nike veteran who spent a decade designing for the illustrious Jordan brand, Edwards not only saw a problem in the footwear design world, but he knew he needed to do something about it. “The critical ingredient in the growth and success of the [athletic and outdoor] industry is the local talent base,” wrote Joseph Cortright in a 2010 report. The same year, Edwards took an eight-week “vacation” from being the design director of the Jordan brand. Vacation is the word he uses, when in reality, Edwards was running the pilot program for what would become his Pensole Design Academy.
The results were fruitful enough for the self-taught Edwards to take his 25 years of industry experience and walk away from one of the top footwear design jobs in the world to professionally enter a career of education and mentorship. Doing so without hesitation, Edwards knew this was a place where he could impact lives.
In a few short years, Edwards has attracted students from all over the world and established partnerships with corporate brands, from athletic companies like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour to function- and fashion-focused labels like OluKai. But most impressively are his academic associations where he’s managed to work with the top design and engineering institutions in the world, collaborating with the Art Center College of Design, Parsons The New School for Design, and MIT to offer classes across the nation.
Footwear design matters to Edwards because “it designed my life,” and he knows he can use it to design the lives of others. From a family of six kids with a single mom, Edwards doesn’t seek to just give opportunities to people that come from backgrounds like his, he wants to reform education by truly preparing students for professional careers in footwear design. And, he knows students will leave Pensole confident that they are better prepared than their competition.
A stencil of Bruce Lee adorns one of the walls inside Pensole’s Old Town location and Edwards mentions Lee’s fighting philosophy—he reacted the situation at hand. Lee would study his opponents making “my technique… a result of your technique,” as Lee famously said. Edwards imparts this same doctrine to his students. But, it’s also the one he’s followed his whole life—never letting circumstances limit him, always rising to the occasion and designing his own life. He’s now confident he can not only affect the future of an industry but the lives of many.
What’s the significance of the no. 2 pencil in your life?
It was what I learned with. I grew up in a single-parent home in Inglewood, Calif., and we didn’t have much money so there were no fancy art supplies. But, we always had plenty of pencils around. I grew up with the no. 2 pencil and it never left. I still practice with it and use it the same way I did when I was a kid.
You started Pensole in 2010 while you were still working for the Jordan brand. Why did you want to start a footwear-focused design academy?
Because I wish I was able to go to this school. When I was a kid trying to get into this industry, there were no schools that taught footwear design—this was in the ’80s. Fast forward to the 2000s and there were still no schools that specifically focused in on it. With the popularity of the sneaker culture and the industry, more students were interested in design.
Is there another footwear design school like this one?
No. There are schools that have a class [laughs].
What’s the traditional path to becoming a footwear designer then?
Most footwear designers come from product design backgrounds or an industrial design major in school. You have some fashion design majors—mostly that’s dress shoes. The schools that have classes in footwear design are predominately dress shoes—usually women’s. There are probably five of those schools in the U.S.
That’s it? You told me the footwear industry is a $50 billion business in the U.S.
Yeah, it doesn’t make sense, right? [Laughs] Some of it’s because people come via nontraditional paths and they don’t really know how to go back and create a curriculum specifically for it.
Some of the top schools do the hands-on approach—most don’t. When I specifically say “learn by doing;” it’s two parts: One is physical—working with your hands—but the other is teaching you the way you’re going to work. What I do different than most schools is that students work the same way a professional designer works—same timelines, same hours, same amount of pressure.
It’s not like you’re offering a course on one topic for a set amount of time, then a class on another subject.
No—14 hours every day on one topic, preparing them to work as a professional. It’s the reality of what happens when you get a real job. You might have to turn something around in 24 hours, and if you’re not programed to work hard and long, then that’s going to bite you in the butt.
You’ve designed athletic shoes for some of the most elite athletes in the world. How do you balance fashion and functionality?
I don’t think about fashion. When you’re designing something for an athlete, ultimately it’s equipment so the equipment has to work [laughs]. If it ends up looking great, fantastic! I won’t tell you that we don’t consider if it looks good or not, but that’s after we’ve solved the performance issues. It’s the designers job to make it work and look good at the same time.
You’re a self-taught designer who never had any formal training, but it seems like both the professional and academic world have embraced your educational endeavor. Was that surprising to you?
Yeah, surprising because I never took a design class in my life so my design education was on the job. You run across certain academic institutions that say, “If you don’t have a degree, you can’t teach.” Let’s put this on paper: If you offered a kid the opportunity to learn from someone who’s been in it for a couple of decades at the largest company there is compared to someone who’s never done it before but has a degree that says they can do it—which one do you think they’ll want to learn from? Unfortunately, some schools have a little bit of that mentality and those schools are in trouble because their students are not coming out and getting jobs because they’re learning the wrong way.
I found it to be the complete opposite at the schools that are the best in their field like the Art Centers, the Parsons, the MITs and the Harvards. They’re like, “We know we’re here to put students in jobs” and they are open, honest and secure enough with the way they teach to know they can learn from other people. Getting embraced by the best schools in the industry made it easier for those who are not the best to say, “Well, they see something that I don’t see. I wonder what that is?” [Laughs]
I knew I would have the industry part OK because of my past, but I wasn’t too sure if the education side would embrace it. I came at them differently than the way other educators come at them. I offered them a return on their investment—when the students themselves go back to their schools and talk about their experience. If you lead with that, any business person will listen to that conversation [laughs]. I think that’s what sped things up too, even on the corporate side.
Your school travels to places like New York, Boston, California and Las Vegas to teach. Has the partnership strategy with world-class institutions helped you spread Pensole beyond what you could do just here in Portland?
Yes, my strategy is to have school partners and then also footwear companies that sponsor programs to ultimately create a pipeline in each of those states. Now you can actually learn from professional designers that are working in companies in that state. For the company, they have the opportunity to look at interns or future hires earlier, so it’s more of a direct strategy instead of going to multiple schools around the world and picking from kids from all over the place.
You’re passionate about mentorship—the ability to provide opportunities to those that may not normally have them and to pass a skill on to another generation.
This school exists because it’s the school I wish I would’ve attended, and it’s the school I want to hire from. I’m only as good as the people that leave this program. The student is really the commodity and they’re going to be the one that’s the advocate. It’s critical for what they learn to be passed on. I challenge them to mentor two people so it creates this chain that continues.
At this point we have 60-plus kids working professionally, so when students come to classes you will have 15 to 20 designers [here] that are now working. I wanted that powerful moment of the student coming in for the first time and a professional [telling them] that they were sitting in the same seat. To me, that’s what new-age learning is all about—learning from someone who was in the same place that you are and is doing the thing that you want to do.
Tell me about your time at Nike.What opportunities did you have there that you wouldn’t of had elsewhere?
Everything. Working with the most talented designers in the whole industry, that was a huge motivating factor because you were surrounded by all of these people, so it forced you to elevate your skill level. That’s something that I’ve talked to my students about: You have to create these creative circles of people who are better than you so you can elevate to their level. Nike does that. Jordan does that. To work with the logo, specifically Jordan, that’s an honor within itself. It carries a certain level of responsibility that I held onto both as a consumer—because I was a consumer of the product before I started working there—but also as a professional because not too many people get a chance to do that. I knew it was a test of my design ability and reputation.
Being there put me on a much bigger platform than I would’ve had at any other company. I don’t think what I’m doing now would be… I would still be able to do it but I don’t think I would’ve been able to progress as quickly. But with that high platform comes an awful lot of stress and expectations so be careful what you wish for.
People look at Nike as being the top tier of athletic design and innovation. How did you grow as designer while at Nike?
[I grew the most] working for Michael Jordan because he was the best—well, he still is, in my mind—the best basketball player to ever play. Just understanding his work ethic and how he approached the game and what made him become the best. He put in work for that to happen. And he had to put in work to maintain that. You’re only as good as the last thing you’ve done, and if you want to be great at something, it doesn’t stop. Once you get to the top, you have to work just as hard to stay there. It was up to us individually to elevate ourselves and hold ourselves to a certain standard that he carried himself with.
How’d you know you were meant to be an educator—were you sure that you should walk away from Nike to focus full-time on the design academy?
I was 100 percent sure.
Primarily because I knew the industry needed this. Secondly, I knew I needed it. When you’re working in corporate for a long time, especially as a designer, the higher you go up, the less you design. I missed the design part. I saw a greater opportunity to have an impact on this industry beyond the shoes I was creating—and that impact is people. I wanted to supply the industry with better designers than what they currently have and that came from looking at really bad portfolios every year. I saw that as a challenge. I was able to experience the power of what happens when you mentor and invest in people when I was still at Nike. To see [people I mentored] design shoes and fulfill their dreams, that impacted me a lot more than creating shoes.
Have any advice for future footwear designers?
Find someone you admire, someone that you’d want to mentor you. Work towards being that person for someone else.