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D'Wayne Edwards is an unlikely sneaker world trailblazer. He began his career as a file clerk at L.A. Gear, where he submitted a sketch every day into the employee suggestion box. After six months of doing so, the then-19-year-old was hired as a designer, becoming the youngest one in the industry and the second African-American. (Nike's Wilson Smith III was the first in 1986.) Edwards eventually moved to Nike, where he would design dozens of sneakers, including the Air Jordan XXI, and work with athletes like Jordan, Carmelo Anthony, Derek Jeter, and Roy Jones, Jr. His shoes sold millions of pairs and drove billions of dollars in revenue.
Today, Edwards has moved into another role: mentor. He's the founder of Pensole Footwear Design Academy, a school based in Portland, Oregon that teaches students all aspects of shoe design and development. Pensole has partnerships with Foot Locker, Asics, Adidas, and other brands, as well as institutions including The New School for Design, the Art Center College of Design Pasadena, California, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Pensole recently held a contest that resulted in a new student-designed Asics Gel Lyte III silhouette being sold at Foot Locker. During a break from teaching a program at the New Balance corporate office, Edwards talked about his plan for Pensole, staying neutral in the competitive sneaker world, and why he'll never go back to designing full time.
When did you first get the idea for Pensole?
It started when I was a kid. In high school, I attended this organization called Southern California Occupational Resource Center (SCORC) in 1988. It was a place that I was able to go and learn from professionals about professional things. That was the first time that I got the idea that it would be really cool if there was a footwear school like this. Once I did get into the industry, then the Future Sole program [a competition for aspiring designers] came out of a Reebok design competition that I entered when I was 17. I won that competition. I knew there were more kids out there like me. Pensole is the culmination of my experiences. It's the SCORC version of what I wish I would have had. It's the competitive nature of the Reebok competition. And the last piece is what I would like to hire from as a hiring manager.
Shoe design is an extremely complicated process. How much can you teach students in a three- or four-week program?
You can’t do everything in the short period of time. What we primarily focus in on is the process of being a professional designer. We are using footwear as a vehicle to express that process. It's fundamentally product design, and footwear is the product for that equation. The process is what we really want them to understand: How do you approach creativity? How do you approach designing a product? We get into terminology and constructions, but we don't necessarily assemble shoes. That's a much longer, more tedious process. We focus on storytelling, consumer profiling, the business implication of design decisions, properly knowing where things should be distributing, different color theories, and material design process. It gives you a lot of the foundational things that you don't get in college around creativity and process.
What are you looking for in applications?
That's kind of a trick question, only because it's a trick process. For the footwear students, we only ask them to submit a sketch by hand. That's it. The reason why we do it that way is that we're looking for, one, if you can follow directions and, two, how much do you do with very little information? Do you do the absolute bare minimum, or do you really go in and make it thorough with such a low barrier of entry? That tells us about work ethic, thought process, and creativity. From a sketching point of view, you can do anything you want as long as you do it by hand. Within that, I'm looking for proper shape. Do you know how a foot goes into the shoe? And natural artistic ability. We want it by hand because a computer can manipulate natural talent. It can make you think you are better than you are.
How many applications do you get per class?
We average about 700 [and accept about 15].
Do you think the shoe design world is more open to people from different backgrounds now than it was that you were starting?
I think most creative industries are, primarily because they ultimately look for people who can think. If you can think and have three legs, you're hired. It doesn't matter where you come from. Strategically, the target market that a company is trying to shoot for might mean they have specifics around using female designers, international ones, or local talent. So those variables come into play based on the current make-up of the design staff and the company focus.
You work with so many partners, including most of the major shoe brands. How do you balance them all?
I'm Switzerland, man. I used to work at several big companies, so I understand confidentiality. This is largely based on my reputation, both prior to and future. I wouldn't do anything to jeopardize sharing information from one brand to the next. There's a character thing that I value highly... I see them all as very clear individuals and partners. There's a confidentiality that is essential. We haven't, knock on wood, had any issues. Ultimately, our success is based on our results. If we weren't producing results, people wouldn't want to work with us or keep coming back.
You did the collab with Foot Locker on the Asics shoe. How did that go?
The product sold out within an hour, so I think it went well. From a product point, it went well. For me, the success is the kids in the program who got jobs. There are a few of the kids in the class who are working professionally. Not at Asics, but at a few of their competitors. That's how I measure success: what happens to the kids when they leave.
A lot of people I teach are still in school, but on the average, of those who are eligible for employment, we place somewhere in the high 70 percent.
Where do they go work?
Ninety-five percent are doing footwear. There are some who are working on bigger projects at bigger brands. Those range from designing signature series for some of Nike's top athletes, designing products for Adidas’ more popular personalities, like Yeezy. Other kids are doing things for brands that aren't signature-type of things but they are marquee products for those brands, whether it's Converse, Adidas, Nike, Jordan, Kenneth Cole, or Cole Haan. They are kind of spread out, which is great.
You've talked about balancing the need for growth with the need to not get too big. How do you do that?
You look at growth from a revenue point of view and then you look at growth as an organization and a business. For us, we are still growing at a pretty aggressive rate when it comes to how many people apply to our programs. The amount of companies that come to us has picked up every year, but we only work with certain ones. On the physical business side, that part has been growing really well, primarily organically as well.
On the revenue side, we're a little different. We do it two ways. We work with companies, and they pay for the students to be there. On the other side, we're not a traditional school in the sense that we charge tuition. Most schools make money in two ways: tuition and donations. We do neither of those two things. We haven't touched the donation piece. That's something that we're thinking about considering, but we're thinking about generating revenue by creating product. Our biggest asset is the talent that we have. We'll have programs like the World Sneaker Championship that are revenue generators for us. That's equal to the donations. That helps us build out the facilities, hire more instructors. You'll see more Pensole-branded products come out. We're not trying to be a brand because I don't want to be in the footwear industry anymore from that perspective, but that's just how we chose to generate revenue to fund our school. I don't have any alumni who have gone off to be billionaires and want to give us $100 million for a new building. Until that happens, we have to create ways to do that.