OpEd: Sneakers Are Not Just Something You Wear — They Also Have Power

As part of our new Op-Ed series, we ask key thought leaders in footwear and fashion to contribute editorial content. Pensole founder D’Wayne Edwards will contribute regular pieces about diversity and inclusion.

Most people of color who work in this industry were introduced to this as a consumer first.

Whether that was buying their first pair of fresh kicks to look fly, impress a young lady or make their friends jealous, or simply because they didn’t want to have the same kicks as their friends.

Over the years, sneakers have been used to celebrate special moments, tell stories of famous people, allow you to express yourself, find a girlfriend or trick kids into learning (like I do).

Sneakers are not something you just wear; they have power.

They have the power to inspire, motivate and connect people who do not know each other and bring them together to help more people like them. Because after they made that first step into our industry, it changed their lives.

I want to introduce you to four consumers turned executives who have taken that first step into our industry and now help others find where that first step could take them. They are: Foot Locker VP of corporate development and strategic investments Vlad Estiverne, Champs Sports VP of marketing Jason Brown, Footaction VP of marketing Richard Mcleod, and Foot Locker North America VP of marketing Patrick Walsh.

Where were you when you bought your first pair of sneakers? How did they make you feel?

Vlad Estiverne: “I bought my first pair of shoes on Fordham Road in the Bronx [New York]. But the earliest sneaker memory that stands out to me was seeing Michael Jordan on TV in the ’91 Finals in a pair of Air Jordan 6 ‘Black/Infrared.’ Everything about that shoe stood out to me, from the visible air bubble to the spoiler on the back. Michael transcended the uniform through his footwear. What made the moment powerful was how much Michael overcame. To see him finally defeat the [Detroit] Pistons [and] then the [Los Angeles] Lakers, I’ll never forget that because it taught me about hard work and perseverance. And you can do all that while still looking fly. I purchased a pair in 2000 when they were rereleased.”

Jason Brown: “It was 1989 in Los Angeles, and the shoe was the Jordan 4 ‘White/Cement.’ I was mesmerized not only by Michael Jordan but Mars Blackmon and how sports and urban culture clashed. I didn’t know who Tinker Hatfield was but was fixated on the amazing design of the sneaker. Before that, I had never experienced passion. My mother made me pay for half, which was done with both paper bills and coins. At that time, wearing the same thing as your favorite athlete or celebrity, the same thing you saw on TV, was a big deal. It gave me a level of confidence and pride I had yet to experience, ultimately leading me to being voted best dressed from junior high to high school.”

Richard Mcleod: “I was 17 and my Aunt T said she would take me to London to buy a pair of ‘trainers’ [sneakers] with the money I got for my birthday. I’m from London, so I didn’t start to say ‘sneakers’ until I moved to the U.S. in 2017. I wasn’t allowed to go to shopping on my own, so my cool Aunt T said she would take me. I played basketball heavily back then, so I wanted to get something fly. I remember going to a bunch of stores but ended up getting a pair of [Nike] Penny Hardaway 4s [in] black, blue [and] white from Size? I felt amazing because if you went to Size? in Covent Garden, London, then you were considered ‘in the know.’ Just walking around with the bag meant something back then.”

Patrick Walsh: “I felt inspired and proud. Not the first sneaker I bought, but my first sneaker love was the Adidas Attitude Hi. I was born and raised in NYC, and my favorite basketball player of all time was — and still is — Patrick Ewing. NYC came alive to me when the New York Knicks drafted [him], and I needed Ewing’s Adidas sneakers with the Knicks colorway. My mom gave an emphatic no. Two pairs a year was the norm, and this was not Christmas or back to school, but my older sister surprised me with a pair. I still remember the smell when I opened the box, I remember how I felt when I wore those sneakers around my friends for the first time — you couldn’t tell me I wasn’t right. I still feel like that kid romanticizing the next sneaker drop.”

How are you trying to make consumers understand what they can do through sneakers? And what are you doing with Pensole?

JB: “Each of our marketing campaigns is rooted in sneakers, however, the impact campaigns can make is infinite. We can educate, celebrate the past or inspire the future. At a hyperlocal level, we partner with numerous nonprofits dedicated to educating and inspiring our consumer, such as Pensole. Champs Sports consumers were able to get firsthand experience in the design process of creating a sneaker from scratch, hopefully exposing them to a career path they otherwise didn’t know existed.”

RM: “ ‘No 1 Way’ is not only a vision that celebrates and champions the evolving style and creativity of the community but an ideology that centers around the idea that there is no one way to achieve your dreams. We developed the No 1 Way Design Program because we felt it would be a perfect opportunity to engage historically black colleges and university students who are often underrepresented and — for the most part — don’t have an avenue to express themselves through design in a formal way. We are committed, and with Pensole’s stewardship, want to use the design program as the launchpad for nurturing the next generation of talent, helping them to fulfill their dreams in design in unique ways.”

PW: “Sneakers have provided me with enormous opportunities, and I am trying to pay it forward by empowering consumers to find their own opportunities in sneakers. In doing so, Pensole has been a great partner. My team and I get to work with D’Wayne’s team on multiple initiatives, including Fueling the Future of Footwear, World Sneaker Championships and Pensole-Ology: Puma Hacked. Each initiative provides the resources for our consumers to become the culture’s product creator of tomorrow. It’s amazing to see individuals discover their gift and commit to sharpening their talents. When you discover what you are good at, you begin to have a positive outlook on life and dream about your future.”

VE: “As a company, we have been very transparent that our consumers are driving culture. Sneaker culture is an enabler of expression [and] gone are the days of creative constraint. We believe that all creatives should have a voice and that the footwear industry should serve as a vessel of creativity. We recently invested in Pensole and created our incubator, Greenhouse, both platforms that are meant to promote creativity and disruption. We’ve also invested in NTWRK, an experiential commerce platform that offers creatives a distribution outlet. The consumer is creating culture just as much as they are consuming it. We intend, through these investments we have made, to be an enabler of creativity. We are blurring the lines of consumption and creation.”

What do you want your sneaker legacy to be?

PW: “That I used my platform to inspire, empower and support others. I love sneakers. They add a great amount of fun to my life, but I have been in the sneaker industry for nearly 15 years because of the positive impact I can have on others. Through my work, I hope to be able to inspire greater diversity and inclusion in the sneaker industry. Sneaker culture has evolved into a vibrant, multicultural community of sneaker lovers, but the overall industry still lags behind in recruiting, developing and empowering more black, brown and female leadership. I also want to be remembered for investing in the dreams of others. Helping past and current teammates, artists, designers, entrepreneurs, and others find their voice and shine.”

RM: “I want to be known for driving change, as someone who wasn’t afraid to take risks, learn and try something new. I have a love for the people I work with and want to ensure under my leadership [that] I am known for growing and developing each and every one of them.”

VE: “That I extended opportunity to those who needed it or have historically struggled to attain it. I cite our recent investments as examples. As much as we’ve invested capital into great and promising young businesses, we have also invested into a diverse group of entrepreneurs — Katie Johnson at Carbon 38, Jason Mayden at Super Heroic, Rachel at Rockets of Awesome, D’Wayne Edwards at Pensole, Eddy Lu and Daishin Sugano at GOAT and Aaron at NTWRK. We are now helping them achieve their next level of growth and development. I also take pride in always being there for others. Inside and outside the org, I make it a point to always be available when someone wants to talk.”

JB: “My hope is that everyone who works in our industry understands that it’s not only a privilege, but [also] a responsibility. We don’t just sell consumer products; we influence and shape popular culture in the U.S., which ultimately influences the world. It’s a responsibility I reflect on daily and hope I can pay it forward to inspire the next generation, as I was.”

What do consumers want from our industry?

JB: “Consumers, especially the youth, are more aware and conscious than ever. They want brands who are not only aware but contribute in an impactful way to the communities they serve. They understand business. However, they expect social responsibility from the brands they choose.”

VE: “Consumers are looking for a voice or a place to express themselves. No better place to be yourself than in whatever way you see that to be.”

PW: “Inspiration. In my office, I keep a photograph taken by photographer Nate Clark. The photo is of two small kids mesmerized outside of a retail window filled with sneakers. For those two kids, the world has come to a complete stop as they dream about the sneakers in the window as well as every possibility that life has for them. [Also] community. Those same kids needed to enjoy their window-shopping experience together. Our culture is one of shared experiences and ‘remember when’ moments. Places, times and people. [And] self-expression. Consumers want to be inspired but not told what to do. They have their own ideas and are finding outlets for self-expression. I love that through our collaboration with Pensole, my team and I can democratize the sneaker creating experience [and] provide tools for people in the community to become creators.”

RM: “Ultimately, consumers want to be understood. Our industry has the opportunity to bring consumers together through shared passion points, enriching the lives of those we touch through relevant brand experiences and opportunities.”

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