Designer Brands Inc. is making a major investment to increase diversity in the footwear industry.
The DSW parent is making a $2 million investment to support the first Black-owned footwear factory and is launching an exclusive distribution partnership to sell products created in the factory in its stores.
The program comes via a partnership with footwear designer Dr. D’Wayne Edwards, the president of the Pensole Lewis College of Business & Design in Detroit — the first HBCU with a focus on design.
To create the the shoes, Edwards will tap designers of color from Pensole and the school’s broad network of diverse talent. The new factory will be based in New Hampshire and will produce these shoes, which will then be sold exclusively at DSW.
Edwards, a longtime advocate for diverse representation and opportunity in the sneaker industry, said this partnership represents an effort to address root problems that stunt growth for Black footwear designers and creatives.
“You can design products all day long and you can find factory resources to make samples and make production,” Edwards said. “But if you don’t have a distribution partner, then your business ends up failing or not getting off the ground.”
The factory will be called the Jan Ernst Matzeliger Studio (JEMS), named after the Black footwear leader who changed footwear manufacturing with his 1883 patent for the lasting machine. The center is currently being outfitted with footwear-making machinery and technology, with the first pairs slated to come out in September. Edwards will construct the first shoe designs, but Pensole students and other designers of color will be able to submit their designs for consideration moving forward.
For DSW president Bill Jordan, a partnership like this hits on all fronts: internally, consumer-facing, and from a business perspective.
“We’re so excited to be able to highlight new design talent, especially design talent of color,” Jordan said. “We’ve got a responsibility to do that, and a desire to do that. And quite frankly, our customers want us to do it.”
The program’s leaders have yet to determine a framework for compensation and autonomy for participating designers. But the goal, said Edwards, is to empower participants to see the entire production of their designs through until the end.
“We want to make sure that they understand the proper way to launch a brand and to actually conduct the business,” Edwards said.
First and foremost, this partnership is meant to encourage diverse talent in the industry. But the new program also gives DSW a new pipeline for exclusive product, which is even more important for retailers these days, as major brands like Nike and Adidas siphon off partnerships with retailers to focus on DTC channels instead.
The announcement comes as many retailers and brands celebrate Black History month.
However, both Jordan and Edwards made it clear that the initiative will grow beyond the launch this month.
“This is something that is going to live for a long time,” Edwards said. “We’re just announcing it at this point. But but honestly, we’re really trying to make history every single month, not just this month.”