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.
Industry veteran D’Wayne Edwards is all about giving back. The footwear veteran, founder of Pensole Footwear Design Academy, a design school in Portland, Ore., is committed to giving would-be designers, regardless of socioeconomic or economic background, a chance to learn from industry professionals.
Edwards, whose résumé includes a stint as design director at Jordan Brand, has been instrumental in placing more than 200 Academy graduates with jobs in the shoe industry or as interns. (Edwards is one of only a handful of designers in Jordan Brand’s history to have designed an Air Jordan sneaker.)
What made you want to pursue a career in the shoe industry?
“I drew my first shoe when I was 12 (in 1981), and I was hooked. All through middle and high school, I drew sneakers, customized sneakers and dreamed of being a footwear designer. Little did I know my dream would come true shortly after my 19th birthday. Twelve years later, I also saw a shoe I designed as a high school senior become a basketball shoe for the Jordan brand.”
What has been the biggest obstacle you’ve faced along the way?
“Being a 19-year-old African-American. As one of the first African-American footwear designers in the industry back in 1989, with no formal college education, I was not taken seriously by some who were older [and had] college degrees. Knowing this was motivation to become better than everyone around me through hard work and dedication to learn the art of footwear design.”
How did you overcome it?
“Robert Greenberg, now chairman of Skechers, gave me my first job at LA Gear, took me under his wing and mentored me, which gave me the confidence I needed to get through those early years. Because of his mentorship, I was able to have a successful 29-year career in the footwear industry as a designer. Today, I am the founder of Pensole, which provides young kids — just like me back in 1989 — the opportunity that Robert gave me.”
What advice would you give to your younger self?
“I would not change anything. I believe everything happens for a reason, and with all of the ups and downs I had in my career, each of them has made me who I am today. One bit of advice I would give my younger self is: dream bigger. Dreams are free, so why not dream as big as possible? I have learned the only true limits we have as people are the ones we put on ourselves.”
Best counsel for other African-Americans looking to enter the shoe industry and/or fashion?
“Knowledge is king. Develop your skill to the point you cannot be denied, and you won’t be. Sadly, African-American designers represent less than 5 percent of the entire footwear industry — so the industry needs you. Hopefully, between your hard work and dedication to your craft to become a designer in our industry, and our industry doing more to provide opportunities for African Americans who want to get into the industry, our paths will cross one day.”
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