In honor of Black History Month 2019, FN is celebrating African-American movers and shakers in footwear and fashion by recognizing their accomplishments and inviting them to share insight into how the industry can make bigger diversity strides.
Sixteen years ago, Damion Presson reached out to his friend Georges Labossiere, then a product manager at Reebok.
“Can you help me get in the door at Reebok?” he asked. “I’m open to anything.”
A few weeks later, Labossiere — who is now a senior director at Nike, running the Air Force 1 division — called about an open position as a field marketing representative based in New York City. But there was a catch. “The position only pays $25,000,” he told Presson, who was making six figures at the time.
“That was a hard pill to swallow,” Presson said. “[But] I was confident. I bet on myself and believed that the money would come as I grew with the brand.”
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The entry-level position, which involved heavy interaction with buyers, sellers and consumers, exposed Presson to multiple facets of the business, giving him the opportunity to decide what part of the company he wanted to explore.
“To this day, I still let Georges know how much I appreciate him and what he did for me helping break into this industry,” he said. “Never, ever forget where you come from or who you put on.”
Here, Reebok’s director of global entertainment marketing talks about supporting his peers and paying it forward.
What made you want to pursue a career in the fashion and footwear industry?
“Coming from Mount Airy in Philly, known as Uptown, sneakers and clothes were a big thing to kids my age as they were in other parts of Philly. I’d like to think Uptown was a fashion-forward place as it relates to my city. I always loved sneakers and particularly the Air Jordans. My father — being in the entertainment business at the time and actually still going strong with the legendary Temptations — would send boxes of Jordans home from his travels. Also, I would see my father with various stylists and tailors who would do custom pieces for the group. Watching my father pick out materials and design the group’s uniforms was fascinating to me, especially seeing his vision come to fruition. From that point on, I was intrigued with fashion.”
Looking back on your career, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
“Oftentimes, when people ask the question ‘looking back on my career,’ I think of a retired athlete who is sitting in front of his old plaques reminiscing on what used to be. I often have to remind people that although I’ve been in this game almost two decades, I have a lot of fight left me in me. It is truly gratifying when you know you have a body of work that is respected and appreciated by your industry and peers.
“In my career thus far, I have achieved many personal and professional accomplishments. I have had the opportunity to work with and sign artists like Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, Swizz Beats, Future, Alicia Keys, Rick Ross, Kerby Jean-Raymond [of Pyer Moss] and most recently Cardi B. But the most rewarding part of my career has been being able to reach back and mentor younger African-American men who have come through Reebok and now see the tremendous success they are having throughout the industry. When I watch Cameron Mason, senior product manager of Adidas Basketball; Ray Boyd, senior product manager at Yeezy; Stephon Sparrow, senior product manager of Adidas China; Jimmy Manley, director at Converse; and Jeremy Sallee, head of design of Puma Basketball, I see they are all making a significant imprint in this industry. Their success makes me feel proud; I feel very much connected to their success. I’m truly glad that I was at Reebok at a time when I could give them advice, share perspective and answer the tough questions for them. I guess it is true what they say: ‘Legacy is not what you leave for people but what you leave in them.'”
As a minority, what has been the biggest obstacle you faced in your career? How did you overcome it?
“I had a conversation with a good friend who played in the NBA and, after his career ended, went to work for the NBA. He shared with me that former players often get boxed in and pigeonholed as player development guys or coaches. Although they do great jobs in those roles, they are often overlooked for front-office positions. I connected with his sentiment from the perspective of often feeling as if I was only being viewed as the ‘entertainment and music’ guy. I’m not saying it is a bad box to be in, but I am saying that as African-Americans in this business, we must continuously and consciously push for opportunities in this industry that showcase our diverse talents and recognize all that we bring to the table. We can’t allow ourselves to be labeled or relegated to a specific box.”
What is the biggest challenge African-Americans face in the fashion and footwear industry?
“We have a perpetual fight to be included in senior level, board and ownership positions within the footwear industry. Our culture has always and continues to move the needle in fashion and footwear, while we simultaneously continue to be underrepresented or unrepresented in the boardrooms. I’d like to see more big-name athletes and celebs, who are brand partners with these major companies, demand more diversity and inclusion before doing long-term business with them. Not many have the leverage to do it, but there are a few that could really be more outspoken and have a significant impact on this issue. Our community has tremendous economic power, and we need to exercise that power by being discerning and proactive about how we spend and with whom.”
What is the best advice you would offer other African-Americans looking to break into the fashion and footwear industry?
“Be engaged and connected in anything that you are pursuing. It means knowing who is who and what they do at these companies. Networking is a vitally critical component. It means attending activations, building relationships and following up with the people you meet. Be everywhere they are, and soon people will take notice. Use technology as your friend. Use your social media platforms as a means to connect with people and share your ideas and vision. You will be surprised by who is paying attention. Finally, if possible, find a mentor in the industry who doesn’t mind sharing the information and giving you some guidance.”
What specific steps should fashion and footwear firms take to make their teams more diverse?
“I would like to see more concerted and intentional efforts from these larger brands to go into our urban areas and do more workshops and provide internship initiatives that give young people greater access and stronger networks within the industry. We have to look outside of the traditional three or four HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities] that big corporations often identify with. We’ve got to challenge these corporations to set up programs at some of the lesser known HBCUs and tap into nontraditional markets. Tremendous talent resides in our community and in our schools. There must be ongoing dialogue and action within these companies about diversity and inclusion. It’s a topic that’s taboo; however, everyone recognizes that it’s a huge problem. The first step in addressing the issue and resolving it is to admit and acknowledge that there is a problem.”
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