The 2022 National Black Footwear Forum in Detroit provided Ashley Comeaux the opportunity to give a beloved colleague her much-deserved thanks.
Comeaux, who is the VP of product design at Allbirds, was one of four women on the “Hometown She-ros” panel that took place Saturday at the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design (PLC) in Detroit. The group of successful women has not only made their mark in the footwear industry, but they have also helped others find their way.
She was seated next to Adidas S.E.E.D. director of design education and growth Cheresse Thornhill-Goldson, someone who Comeaux credited for offering valuable encouragement during her days as an up-and-coming designer.
Rounding out the panel — which was hosted by PLC president and founder D’Wayne Edwards — was Adidas Basketball assistant footwear designer Eliya Jackson and Mister OK’s Essentials founder and CEO Precious Hannah.
Below, Comeaux offers insight to FN into her Black Footwear Forum experience and explains why the event is such a great resource to the industry.
You were part of the “Hometown She-ros” panel at the 2022 National Black Footwear Forum, which featured a group of successful women in footwear who have reached back to help someone else find success. What was your experience like speaking on stage?
“Looking back on the time on stage, it was an experience I am grateful for. I think more people need to know how special and powerful the simple act of paying it forward is, and what it could mean for someone on their journey — and even the potential it has to make strides forward for an entire community if carried through with intention. I became emotional because it means a lot to have had Cheresse take me under her wing and plant those seeds of encouragement for me as a young aspiring designer. I was able in that moment to give her her flowers. I’m not quite sure I ever had the moment to really appreciate her in that way. That whole moment was special for not just me, but for all of us to be up there and show in real life what paying it forward looks like.”
During your panel, you had mentioned why the representation is of critical importance. How has the power of representation impacted you in your career?
“It gave me the audacity to dream bigger. It opened my eyes to the possibilities and encouraged me to push my own potential, to realize a future I couldn’t even really fathom for myself. I mentioned on the panel that seeing Cheresse’s photo up on the wall [at Design and Architecture Senior High in Miami] with her creation for a company like Nike was eye-opening for me. Representation, if all it does is spark a thought or inspires your ability to push past what you think is a dream, we need more of that.”
Why is it important that the Black Footwear Forum exists?
“I went to the first African American Footwear Forum in 2019, and going back this time around, it really occurred to me that BFF is a community, it’s an opportunity to get together and remind ourselves and each other of the incredible Black talent that we have across the industry, making waves. It’s a moment to connect and encourage one another and inspire those who have aspirations to get into this industry, along with those who are just beginning their journey. To me, when I think about community it’s all about empowerment. I would say BFF offers community and an immediate sense of belonging, which is very real and very special. It’s a beautiful thing.”
What did hosting the event at the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design in Detroit add to the Black Footwear Forum experience?
“I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing firsthand D’Wayne’s brainchild of Pensole. I mentored in his very first class, and I can’t tell you the amount of chills I had stepping foot onto the campus and seeing what it’s become. I’m getting chills right now just saying this to you. It’s a testament to what can be realized if you just continue with your dream and see it through. He had a vision, he took a leap of faith, he built it, he shared it, he just pushed forward and didn’t stop and didn’t waver on it. He knew what he was doing from the beginning and what it would mean for this industry at large and what it would mean for the countless aspiring designers who the only thing between them and life-changing trajectory in this industry is a shot at an education that’ll get them there. I am unbelievably proud of D’Wayne and all that he’s achieved. He’s well on his way to enrich this industry and change it for the better. It was such a beautiful thing to see that auditorium full of students who will have that opportunity and not let means or access get in the way of that. It was a beautiful moment to see someone grind for 10-plus years and see the fruits of that labor show up in a massive, beautiful facility on the waterfront of Detroit.”
Did any other moments during the forum have a profound impact on you?
“Going back to the ‘She-ros’ panel with Cheresse, Precious and Eliya, the moment when Ebony, the student in the audience who is deaf, asked a question around how she can make her work stand out and not feel like she’s disadvantaged because of her disability. It struck me in that moment that here she is, she’s blazing a trail forward and not letting her disability stop her in pursuit of her passion and her dream. That was an incredible moment for me; I was so inspired. For all that every one of us on stage has achieved in our journeys, that was a moment of awareness that there’s still lots more to be done within this space relative to the differences we have as individuals and how those show up. As I mentioned to her in that session, the work is going to do the talking for her. I was just so inspired by her at that moment because she’s not letting anything stop her from pursuing her dreams.”
Looking ahead, how would you like to see the Black Footwear Forum evolve?
“It was great to galvanize not just the footwear industry leaders, but also leaders and trailblazers in industry-adjacent spaces like music and automotive and sports. Footwear is so intertwined with so many other industries and spaces and culture, and I’d love to see BFF continue to evolve with voices who lead in those adjacent spaces in order to really inspire the youth of tomorrow. I love that BFF is a platform to get the real about the stories — both good and bad and in between — that exists for creatives and leaders in our community, to not just inspire but to make us aware of what other aspiring creatives can look forward to and expect and how they can take part in contributing to progress.”