D’Wayne Edwards is a true inspiration, pioneer, and hero. The founder of the Pensole Footwear Design Academy, D’Wanye’s life has been a roller coaster fit for the silver screen. He grew up in Inglewood, California, in the heart of South Central, LA. He drew his first pair of sneakers at the age of 11. At 17, he won a Reebok design competition, beating out professionals and college students nationwide. It was from there that he knew his dream of becoming a footwear designer could, and would, come true. By age 19, D’Wayne was the youngest professional footwear designer in the industry, landing a job at LA Gear. In 2000, he began his design career at Nike. He went on to become one of the youngest Design Directors in Nike’s history. He is only one of eight people to ever design a pair of AIR JORDAN sneakers- and he did it twice – the Air Jordan XX1 and XX2. In 2010, D’Wayne launched the Pensole Footwear Design Academy to give young design students from around the world—regardless of socioeconomic background—an opportunity to learn from the industry’s best, without financial barriers.
Over the duration of the Cheats Movement Blog, I have had the honor to interview a number of my personal heroes and I’ve always been hesitant to use the word hero because I didn’t want to appear to be too over the top. Well, that logic must change today because D’Wayne Edwards is true hero, not only to myself but to the countless students he teaches and mentors through the Pensole Academy. I was able to chat with him about Pensole, diversity in the sneaker industry, Bruce Lee, Jackie Robinson, Carmelo Anthony, Air Jordan III’s and much more. Check out the Pensole Footwear Design Academy at their website and follow them on social media. Enjoy. #WESEEIT
D’Wayne Edward – founder of the Pensole Footwear Design Academy
You started as a designer and you remain a designer first, but now you’ve added educator and businessman to your to your portfolio; what do you find the most challenging?
I would say the designer piece because that is where it began and without that I would not have the other two. I think that understating how to be a designer and how to use my brain from a creative point of view has been the part that has helped me transition to the educator and businessman. At that same time, I didn’t realize until years into my career that I was the business – I didn’t realize that. I would say that I’ve been a businessman for a while but it’s like that Jay-Z line, “I’m a business – man,” and that became so much more relevant to me as I got in the business. Its actual helped me teach my students, just getting them to understand that they are a commodity, they have no job right now, and they are the business that they’re trying to sell to get a job. And when you paint the picture that way for people who learn by imagines, it’s helps them understand the importance of the special powers that they’ve been blessed with.
That’s a good point because the way you started your career – in 1989, it was all about work, work, work, you turned in a sketch every day until you got hired at LA Gear. When you teach your students, do you tell them it’s more about the product or the person?
It’s actually both because you’re given a project for a reason, so there is something within you as to why you were given the opportunity. You should always discover who you are first and once you discover who you are, you’ll be able to figure out how you can impact the thing you’re about to do. Then it totally becomes about the thing you’re doing (project you’re working on) – it has nothing to do with you. It’s this crazy switch that has to happen that I will honestly say most designers won’t do – or don’t do. They very rarely make the transition from – okay, I need to design the product for someone else – not me. And, in my opinion, when you really become in tune with your ability as a designer, you make the transition mentally – very similar to an actor or actress making the transition to the role/character that they are playing, you now become that role, you now become the consumer that you’re designing for and most designers don’t do that very well.
So when you’re designing, does it start with I have a client that I’m working for or does it start with I like this design?
Well, hopefully you like the design – everyone should be proud of their work. But it’s interesting because that is the true test of a professional because you could be in a situation where you don’t like the company that you’re working for or you don’t like the people that you’re working with – or you don’t like the project you’re working on – where as a professional that shouldn’t impact what you do because as a designer, whatever you create has your name on it – even though it may never have your real name on it – it’s always a reflection of who you are so you shouldn’t let personal things creep in – which is hard. But for me, I take a lesson from Bruce Lee, it’s like water, water becomes whatever it touches. Designers have to be that fluid, that nimble so that they can adjust.
Do you see a lot of that flexibility in the industry right now or is that a challenge?
It’s a huge challenge. It’s a huge challenge for designers that have been taught a certain way. They’ve been taught to be a bit selfish or self-centered. There needs to be an understanding that it’s not about the individual designer but about the product they are designing. And that could range and sometimes you could hit the jackpot and design something that fits your demographic – that happens too – but being versatile enough to be able to touch whatever comes your way – and being open to those opportunities – that’s when you’ve hit more of your creative groove.
You just mentioned Bruce Lee and I know that you’re a big follower of his philosophy but I’ve also read that you’ve learned a lot from Jackie Robinson and the baseball players in the Negro League era, how does that resonate with you?
A few things, first I didn’t know that that was even a problem; I didn’t know that we (African Americans) were not allowed to play. For me, it was more about the fact they weren’t allowed to play in the major leagues but they still played and prove to the world that they were good enough to be there and that was one of the first lessons, I learned from that era – the act of creating their own destiny. The second piece is – from the Negro Leagues I found Jackie (Robinson), and because I knew about the Negro Leagues, I knew that Jackie wasn’t the best player in the Negro Leagues – baseball is actually his worst sport – he integrated the major league in his worst sport – but the thing about Jackie that I held onto was that he was conscious of the fact that it wasn’t about him. He was conscious of that fact that his actions were going to dictate future actions after him. And he was mentally strong enough to withstand all the things he had to endure during that time. He wasn’t the best one but he was the right one. And that happens all the time in business and in life. There is a certain type of character, a certain type of way you have to carry yourself where your actions create the future of others. And that hit me pretty hard at a young age because I saw that through Jackie’s lens.
Where you started in footwear design, there were only a few African Americans in the industry (like three in the entire industry). I know that increasing diversity is one of the objectives of the Pensole Academy, do you believe the sneaker industry is moving in the right direction when it comes to cultivating diversity in the industry?
Yes and no. I would say no because no company has really done anything specific to attract more people of color – or put programs together – or contribute to the uplifting of the industry that way – not one – not one has planted their flag in the ground and said we’re going to be about this – we’re going to do something about this. So no one has done that. Now, have more (people of color) got in the industry? Yes, more have got in and I’m responsible for a big chunk of those getting in because I’m the one saying that this is an issue. And because it’s an issue, I’m going to try harder to make myself visible so that people can see that someone looks like them that is in this industry or has been in this industry. And if I ever teach them, I’m going to be harder on them because it’s not about their skin color; it’s about their skill-set and just because you’re darker doesn’t mean you get a golden ticket. No, you have to be better than anyone else – you’re work has to be better and you should never rest on what you look like. So for me there are two parts, I don’t think the industry has done enough – strategically – from a company standpoint. And then there is an awareness issue. So more have come into the industry but it’s about at the same rate as it’s been since the beginning; it’s still pretty slow.
What’s the future look like? What’s the next step – outside of you and Pensole. There is an entire generation of kids growing up – loving shoes – maybe more than in the 80’s and 90’s because of the internet and the industry being so big now. How do companies use that to have youth understand, that they could have career in this industry, if they’re good enough and you work hard enough.
It’s about adjusting some of the communication. Notice, I didn’t say completely change because they still have to sell shoes but adjust the communication. Collectively these companies spend billions of dollars on marketing driven to black kids – billions – but I challenge someone to tell me if the number is a million that they’ve contributed to the education of black children – collectively. If you spend billions in marketing and advertising but you can’t spend a million – so that you can go to school and become someone in sales. It’s not even a design thing, just get them in the industry – teach them that they have a career option in the industry – that has not happened yet. There is a certain level of awareness that the companies can do better at – whether they are doing camps or at retail spots – they can do better at adding some communication because it’s really is about awareness. I was watching this James Brown documentary last night, and I wrote down this quote where he said, “Don’t give me nothing, just open the door.” And I feel the same way, just open the damn door. That’s how my career started. I had to take it and run with it. And that’s where I think we are today; all I’m asking is for people to open the door. Hell, let them know that there is a door. And until that happens, the industry will continue to be slow on diversity.
What’s the age range of the student at the Pensole Academy?
We’ve had as young as 14 and up to 30 something. We have separate high school programs and we have college programs. And when I say college, you’re either in school or out of school. It ranges but the majority of our program is for college or out of college students.
Is there strong competition amongst the student designers in class?
No, not really. What I try to challenge the students with is that they should be battling themselves. So forget the person to the left or to the right of you, your focus should be you. And if you can come up with the best to beat yourself – then you’ll be the person next to you – if you’ve done your best. Now, if your best is not good enough – then you now understand what good enough really means and you need to go back in the lab and work harder. When you pay too much attention to your opponent – then you’ve already lost. If you’re thinking about the next guy – you’ve already lost. Again, another Bruce Lee philosophy is that he doesn’t have a style; his style is whatever you make him do. So whatever you make him do – that’s what he’s going to do. He’s totally playing off of you so it’s a bit like a freestyle battle, whatever you say I’m going to come back at you.
As an educator, would you rather work with pure passion or pure talent?
I would take passion over talent any day. If I do my job, I can get a student up to that talent level. You can’t teach people to be passionate about something but you can teach them to be better at something.
Let’s switch gears a minute, what was the last sneaker/shoe that you saw that got your really excited?
Man, that’s tough. I have different emotions for different parts. I wouldn’t say that there is one sneaker or shoe, I’m more impressed with ideas that haven’t happened yet. That’s where I get excited – the possibility.
What’s your all-time favorite footwear piece?
Air Jordan III.
The III’s over the XI? I don’t know about that D’Wanye – I could wear those XI’s to my high school prom in 96.
Yes. Everyone likes the XI’s and hopefully you have a personal connection to your favorite pair.
Do you have a connection to the III’s – what’s the story?
For me it was couple of things – It’s the first one with the Jordan logo (Jumpman). It was the first ones with the crazy height – no one had ever done height like that before – first one with crazy print – no Nike swoosh on it – it was simple and iconic. And later, I discover that is more my design style – simple but memorable. And still to this day shoes struggle to get to that height. I was simple, clean, and iconic.
I won’t ask you to choose your favorite student but I will ask you to name your favorite athlete that you’ve collaborated with on a project?
Carmelo Anthony. Obviously working with Michael Jordan is an incredible experience – I’m one of only 8 people to have ever done that but with Melo, I would say I connected more with him because I spent more time with him. He’s the athlete I’ve spent the most time with and we connected more on a human level. He was new to the industry, and I felt like I was helping him get educated on the process of footwear design. There were things that I could bring to the table and there was a lot he brought to the process. There was always a level of mutual understanding and respect and we made good products together. And every time we worked together his vocabulary and knowledge of design increased.
Is the growth of the Academy in-line with your plans?
It’s is. It’s growing faster than I anticipated. I believe in small scale/huge impact. So I don’t want an Academy that releases thousands of kids in the industry every year – that is counterproductive. I want to be more focused on the quality. Find the best in the world and train them. Find these pockets and cultivate those pockets all over the world. But I call it small scale. We’re going to make some announcements next month and trust me next year will be crazy.
So what does the future of the Academy look like?
Well the current fundraising campaign (Soleholder) is going to allow us to do a lot of things that we set out to do. We are looking at an online program that is in partnership with a brand that will give kids an opportunity to have their design sold retail. And we are looking to create a minority based program, a program for women, we are going to build a production facility here in Portland, so all those things are in the works and you’ll start hearing about all of those projects in the near future. It will get to a point where – about every other month – you’ll start to hear announcements about what we’re doing as a result of the Soleholder campaign.
How much time do you spend trying to figure out how to break the mold – how to do things that haven’t even been thought of yet?
That’s my new form of creativity. Where you think about the businessman part where I’m still creative on both levels. I still pick up the pencil and do some things but now I get excited about tackling a business problem, using my design background and knowledge to attack it. It’s no different than if I’m designing a shoe for an athlete – we have to figure out the problems and list those problems out – then find ways to solve that problem. That’s what we’re doing with Pensole now. I would say that Pensole is my greatest design because it evolves every day. As a designer that’s what you love – to design something that you keep working on every day. It just keeps getting better. For me – it’s truly exciting to look at business and new opportunities to do stuff that’s never been done before.
Interview by Cheats – TheCheatsMovement@gmail.com