Emerging Designer Jelani Hankins Looks to Bring Shoemaking to New Orleans

Designer Jelani Hankins’ footwear roots are tied to New Orleans where his grandfather, Jules Edwards Jr., owned a shoe repair shop. And he, too, is looking to create impact in The Big Easy.

“My ultimate professional goal in footwear is to have a small-scale factory with an in-house brand that can offer design, development and manufacturing services,” Hankins said. “We will train local skilled laborers and offer a program for young adults to design and make footwear as portfolio pieces to submit when applying to college.”

Hankins, with the help of his family, is making this dream a reality. He’s building the factory in uptown New Orleans in a familiar location: his grandfather’s storefront.

During the conception and construction process, Hankins managed to churn out his first major professional milestone: his debut shoe, the Maximum Viable Product (MVP).

He released the luxe sneaker in August via Instagram in the “Matzeliger” colorway. It’s a black monochromatic look named after Jan Matzeliger, the inventor of the automatic shoe lasting machine. (Hankins included hidden details inspired by the invention throughout the shoe, including its patent number inside a window on the upper.)

Jelani Hankins Maximum Viable Product (MVP)
Jelani Hankins’ debut shoe, the Maximum Viable Product (MVP).
CREDIT: Jelani Hankins

These are accomplishments for anyone, let alone the youthful executive, who is doing all of this at just 23 years old.

Here, Hankins discusses what his next shoe release will be, how he creates and which footwear industry veterans have helped him along the way.

EDUCATION: “I’ve attended programs like Pensole in Portland [Ore.] and Arsutoria in Milan. And I learned pattern making and footwear construction one- on-one with many teachers from all over the world. I never went to college.”

ONGOING PROJECTS: “I am working to release the second colorway of my MVP sneaker and working with my family to renovate my late grandfather’s shoe repair shop into a small-scale footwear factory in uptown New Orleans.”

CURRENT ROLE: “I do design and development work for my own brand, Jelani, as well as independent work for other brands such as No.One, Twenty1Rich and Still Learning by Allen Van Norden.”

CREATIVE PROCESS: “I start with either the envisioned functionality for the shoe or the style of outfit to wear with the shoe. After some research, I will draw the idea on paper or go straight to drawing it on the last. I’ll make a pattern and initial sample myself before getting one made by a factory for production. This way, I have no doubts about the design and how it should look.”

MENTORS: “Safa Sahin, D’Wayne Edwards, Javier Laval, Cesar Idrobo and Shaun Forbes.”

BREAKTHROUGH DESIGN: “The MVP (Maximum Viable Product) is the first design I’ve made available to buy.”

SHOES I WEAR: “I wear my MVP sneakers, and occasionally, Reebok by Pyer Moss.”

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