In honor of Black History Month, FN is recognizing African-American movers and shakers in the shoe industry. From rising stars to accomplished executives, here’s how they’re making waves and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.
Devlin Braswell — also known as Dee Nyce — is a man who has worn many hats throughout his life. Aside from stints in the U.S. Coast Guard and as a barber, the Bay Area native made a name for himself pre-2000s as a sneaker customizer. And although Braswell has given up on making one-offs for celebrities, he has not stepped away from the footwear industry. Today, the shoe aficionado is the leader of his own burgeoning luxury sneaker company, Fly Boys Couture Club.
What made you want to pursue a career in the shoe industry?
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“I started customizing sneakers in 1997 as a way to be different from everyone else. Because of word of mouth, I was able to make enough money from customizing for rappers and celebrities in the early 2000s to buy my own barber shop, as I was a barber by trade back then. But because there was no social media [at the time] business dried up after 9/11 and I joined the U.S. Coast Guard. After 11 years in the Coast Guard, I started to get the itch for customizing again. One thing about being in the military is that its very easy to become complacent because everything is pretty much done for you, so my pet peeve is complacency, and I felt that if I would continue to be just a customizer, I would feel like a loser with lack of growth. So that’s when I enrolled into the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in San Francisco as a product development student. My goal was to learn as much about the fashion industry and network as much as possible. I graduated this past summer with honors and that’s when I decided it was time to design my first shoe instead of customizing and making another companies’ shoes look better.”
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced along the way?
“The biggest obstacle I faced was just inexperience in how shoe samples are made. So here is a funny true story: I sent my tech pack to the manufacturer to produce my first sample, and I was so excited with how the technical drawing came out that I tipped my hat to my Instagram followers telling them my first shoe is being produced and its going to be a luxury sneaker. So the sample gets completed and it was made out of the worst fake leather ever. I had an anxiety attack, like, I can’t show this to my followers; this ain’t luxury. But what I didn’t know was that since it’s the first sample draft, the factory won’t use the real materials until I approve and complete all corrections.”
How did you overcome that?
“I got in my car and drove to the leather factory near me and I bought $300 worth of the veg-tan leather I wanted my shoe to be made of and I made my own sample from scratch and shipped it to the manufacturer the next day so they could copy it. This actually turned out to be a great anxiety attack on my part because the manufacturer said that I was the first person who ever made their own sample and sent it to them and said that this method is much better for them to do their best. So now I just make my own samples and I ship it to them to copy and mass produce. So my background as a customizer paid off. A lot of people who design shoes don’t actually know how to make shoes with their bare hands.”
What advice would you give to your younger self?
“It’s hard to say what I would tell my younger self because I am a firm believer in ‘everything happens for a reason.’ My military career taught me discipline and structure, and it also paid for me to go to one of the best fashion schools in the country. I would probably tell my younger self to invest in bitcoin and sell it when it reached $17,000 per coin, because making your own shoes and developing your own line as an independent designer is very expensive and the extra money would help me grow my brand.”
Best advice for other African Americans looking to enter the shoe industry?
“Best advice I can give is to do your own research, stop thinking that people or the world owes you something. The same way you can ask a person how to do this or that is the same way you can ask Google. People nowadays are lazy and want someone else to show them or do the work for them. I have done everything on my own — I didn’t borrow from a bank or family. I am financing my own dream because I want it that bad. If you want it, you will do what it takes to make it.”
More From This Series:
Black History Month Spotlight: Rasheeda Frost
Black History Month Spotlight: Pensole Footwear Design Academy Founder D’Wayne Edwards
Black History Month Spotlight: Naturalizer VP of Design Angelique Joseph