Some kids dream of becoming an astronaut or a fireman. D’wayne Edwards only wanted to do one thing: design shoes. He was 11 when he sketched his first sneaker using a number two pencil. But Edwards didn’t see a path forward for himself in the footwear industry. A big stumbling block was that there were no shoe design schools where he could learn the craft.
Edwards eventually got a job as a file clerk for sneaker brand L.A. Gear. Every day for six months, he put a different shoe sketch in the company’s employee suggestion box. The company eventually got the message and hired him to become a designer at the age of 19, making him the youngest professional designer at the industry.
He went on to top design roles at brands like Sketchers and Nike, and over the course of his career, he has produced 500 men’s and women’s shoes ranging from athletic to casual to formal. But when he was in a position to hire young designers, he found that the lack of footwear training continued to be a gap in the industry.
“Toward the end of my career, it was very difficult for me to hire students directly out of college, primarily because there was no education that helped them bridge the gap between their collegiate career and going into a professional career as a footwear designer,” he says.
He’s changing all that with the Pensole Footwear Design Academy, which he launched in 2010, offering intensive courses in shoe design taught by people who have worked at companies such as Nike and Adidas. Classes are usually three or four weeks long and cram in what a student might learn over the course of a full college semester. “We do an average of 14 hours straight every day,” Edwards says. “We do that on purpose: The design industry is brutal that way. You will have to pull all-nighters to get projects done.”
Students learn to do consumer research, study materials, then prototype–things that most footwear professionals only learned how to do on the job. These days, 850 people apply for each class of only 18 slots. The school invites applications from young people much like Edwards himself, who want to pursue careers in the shoe industry but don’t have the basic training to get started. Some are as young as high-school age, but others attend schools like Parsons and MIT pursuing other majors but want to learn about the nuances of designing shoes.
“Footwear is one of the most complex things you put on your body,” he says. “It’s like designing a house or a car. There are multiple materials that need to be considered. You need to think about the human that is actually wearing it. Shoes are the foundation of your entire body.”
This year, Pensole partnered with Foot Locker and Asics on a project called “Fueling the Future of Footwear.” Some 1,400 people applied for 18 slots in a master class taught by Edwards himself where they could then compete to design a new Asics sneaker. “The idea was to give students a taste of what it’s like to work at a real company,” Edwards says. “They learn about the rigors and all of the decisions that have to be made to put a product on shelves.”
The winning design, which was unveiled today, will be sold at select Foot Locker stores starting September 17. The group came up with 40 different shoe concepts, and the one that was selected contains vibrant purple and orange panels that tell a story about the daily life of the person who will be wearing the sneaker. “It brings to mind sunrise, sundown, and the middle of the day,” he says. “Through the colors and materials selected, you get a glimpse of what that looks like.”
Edwards says that sneaker design is often much more than just creating a comfortable and stylish shoe. It’s about producing a rich narrative and weaving together different themes and motifs. Foot Locker will shed light on the design process and the storytelling that go into the shoe, as it will sell these sneakers in stores over the next couple of weeks.
For Edwards, watching these students see their hard work transformed into a shoe that is sold on shelves is exhilarating and takes him back to the very beginning of his career. “I still remember that day back in 1990 when I walked into a Foot Locker and saw one of my shoes on the shelf,” he says. “You couldn’t pay me to give up that moment.”