On Nov. 30, Dr. D’Wayne Edwards will be honored as Person of the Year at the 36th annual FN Achievement Awards. Below is an article from the magazine’s Nov. 28 print issue about how the footwear veteran is changing the game for designers of color.
Dr. D’Wayne Edwards’ LinkedIn profile is the stuff of sneakerhead dreams.
Professional designer for L.A. Gear at age 19. A coveted design director role at Jordan Brand. The creative force behind bestselling designs for MJ, Carmelo Anthony and Derek Jeter.
For the founder of Pensole Lewis College of Business & Design, it turned out his “dream job” was something much different.
“I wrote down a goal when I was preparing to leave the industry [in 2011]. It was to make people forget I ever designed shoes,” said Edwards. “I knew I wanted to have an impact that superseded what I did when I was working as a designer. The whole last year has been a culmination of that goal.”
Last fall, Edwards revealed that he had become the controlling stakeholder in The Lewis College of Business, a Detroit-based historically Black college and university founded by the late Violet T. Lewis that closed in 2013. His mission: to transform the institution into the country’s first HBCU to focus on design.
“There have been so many learnings about how to reopen a college and all the political legislation associated with it — all the handshakes and meetings — and of course the education side of things,” Edwards said from his home in Detroit. (He also still spends half his time in Oregon.)
As Edwards immerses himself in his new city, his college is growing quickly.
“By us moving to Detroit, we reinvigorated a lot of talent that’s in this city,” he said.
Almost 150 design students have come through the school this year, and that number is expected to double in 2023.
That’s all due to the industry’s receptiveness and willingness to partner with the college and fund students’ educations, according to Edwards. “That part has made all those long days and nights worth it,” he said.
The school has also opened the door for Edwards to build expanded relationships with longtime partners and rising brands. The college has also caught the attention of the luxury industry, and one of Pensole’s newest partnerships is with Capri Holdings’ three brands: Jimmy Choo, Versace and Michael Kors.
For Edwards, footwear and apparel is just the beginning.
“We’re going to expand into a full assortment of careers that are right in front of kids’ faces, but they don’t see themselves in them,” the educator said.
Here, Edwards talks about how the industry should approach DEI for the long-term, what his students can bring to the industry and the big opportunities ahead.
We’ve seen so much upheaval and disruption in the athletic space. What opportunities and challenges does this present for 2023 and beyond?
DE: “This has been the nuttiest year in footwear industry, and we have a month left. The lesson for brands is, ‘Don’t try to go for the quick money. Don’t go for this person who is super popular and has all the followers. Hopefully they pay more attention to quality and character and true connectivity to the product and the brand. We’re going to see the independent designer have a voice and start to get some distribution traction. That becomes more of a realistic person to look up to. They don’t have a ball or microphone in their hand. They have a gift and were able to leverage that. It’s more obtainable to be that person than an entertainer or athlete. Consumerism has shifted, and I hope brands are paying attention.”
What do your students have to offer the industry?
DE: “Raw talent. A lot of them were just like me and didn’t go to college. They didn’t have the money to go. Some might have started and stopped because they couldn’t afford to continue. A lot gave up on their aspirations of being a designer. [Our students] are not jaded by the past. They’re focused on, ‘How do I make this industry better?’ These kids aren’t happy with the things that brands are producing and putting out. They’re not being tricked by Instagram followers or influencers. It’s less star worship. They’re starting to see themselves as the commodity.”
Now that you’re nearing the end of year one at the helm of an HBCU, where do you want to go next?
DE: “We are expanding outside our sweet spot of footwear and apparel. We’re doing an interior design program. We’re in a new facility, and we haven’t decorated anything so the students can design every single space in the college. We’re also going to launch culinary, hospitality, communications, journalism. That’s the beauty of how we work with our brand partners to highlight that these are real jobs you can have. We want to make sure they understand these industries want representation. That’s the secret sauce. You have to be serious about your commitment and supporting it with internships. The kids need to know they are working toward something.”
In 2022, you revealed expanded partnerships with two of the biggest industry players, VF Corp. and Nike. Take us inside these programs.
DE: “VF is great example of the challenges corporations face when trying to recruit for diversity. For our first class, we started with Vans, The North Face and Timberland. We knew they were individually in tough places as it pertains to diversity — Costa Mesa, Calif; Denver; New Hampshire. The idea around the program was that you give the kids an opportunity to see what VF has to offer as a collective organization. It wasn’t a singular brand, it was all three. At the end, they were able to choose where they wanted to work and explain why. This year, we’re adding a few more brands [Dickies and Smartwool] that give kids more visibility into the company. Our Nike partnership with Serena Williams [Design Crew] has been going on for a long time. Now we’re entering into a new initiative with the company to make education accessible for students who attend HBCUs that don’t have design degrees, which is 90% of them. All 101 schools will individually work with us on some level. If they have design aspirations, they can test the waters and see what happens. That’s through Nike’s vision.”
While many companies have embraced your efforts, broader DEI progress has been mixed. How far have we come since the racial reckoning of 2020?
DE: “We have a long way to go. To me, it’s about companies understanding their business models. If you specifically spend advertising and marketing dollars to get a Black kid to buy your product, you have an obligation. There were a lot of initiatives pledged in 2020, and we’re two years in, almost three. Some of those initiatives have expiration dates, but they can’t. If you want to make an impact that’s continuous, that’s not based on one moment in time. As long as you’re targeting this consumer, it needs to be part of your business model, with suppliers, with employees. Sometimes companies overthink it. Diversity in advertising and commercials is way overdone right now. We went from one spectrum to another. Just be authentic to who you are and who you want to be. I’ve always said as soon as the company has made diversity a part of the C-Suite’s compensation, that’s when they’re serious. When that doesn’t happen, you’re not serious. When it becomes as important as making money, that’s when it will start to change.”
You work with industry giants and also much younger companies. How does the approach to DEI differ?
DE: “It’s a lot easier [for startups] because you can design it into your business plan. Allbirds, for example, is a B Corp., and in their bylaws, there is diversity. There is that pillar they’re measured upon. But if you’re a bigger company, you have funding you can redirect.”
How do the smaller companies stand out with consumers and potential employees?
DE: “Nike has had a 50-year head start, so of course these kids grow up and want to work at Nike. For a company like Allbirds, they have to do things that gain consumer acceptance such as education programs or mentorship. Consumers are still going to be consumers, but they’re starting to be a little bit more critical about who’s paying attention. Those brands that don’t try to cement the connection behind slick ad campaigns or slick products are going to get left behind.”
What areas of footwear do you have left to conquer?
DE: “The college was a women’s college. For me, that’s a huge focus. In terms of African American women in footwear, there are probably only 25 or 30. I only have a couple of brands that focus in on it [with our partnerships] — Adidas, through the S.E.E.D (School for Experiential Education in Design) program we have, and Jimmy Choo. We’re not doing enough in sustainability. If you want to do sustainable focused footwear for women, let’s talk.”
As you expand, how do you make sure you have the right teaching talent to drive the growth?
DE: “It’s making sure I have those industry experts. It’s pulling people from corporate jobs who are ready to do something different. That’s who we focus in on, professionals who’ve done it on a high level for a long time. They become experts in this new zone. When you go to [most] design schools, you don’t see Black teachers. That a huge advantage we have, being able to have a network of people who want to teach and give back.”
Where will you, and the college, be five years from now?
DE: “In five years, you will see a more complete college. We want to offer those careers that people experience on a daily basis, but don’t see themselves in. In five years, our goal is to have a high school in our building. We’re a five-minute walk from two high schools in the opposite direction. I approach it like sports. If you’re recruiting for a college, you’re going recruit from a high school program. Our goal is to create a program where there’s dual credit, and you’re earning college credit too. That means the industry can get talent younger.”
For 36 years, the annual FN Achievement Awards — often called the “Shoe Oscars” — have celebrated the style stars, best brand stories, ardent philanthropists, emerging talents and industry veterans. The 2022 event is supported by presenting sponsor Nordstrom, as well as Caleres, FDRA, Merrell, Vibram and Volumental.