Only 4.8% of designers are Black. That’s especially bothersome in the shoe industry. Sneakers are one of the hottest commodities of our era—built firmly upon the foundation and marketing of Black culture. With the exception of Ye and his gargantuan Yeezy brand, there are few Black designer-entrepreneurs who hold any major stake in this industry.
But that could soon change, thanks to a new initiative at DSW. Starting September 15, the shoe retailer will drop its first release in a new line of shoes created by up-and-coming Black designers. The products will be made in what they’re claiming to be the first Black-owned footwear factory in America.
“The main reason we’re doing this is to empower African American designers and give them the opportunity to have their designs reach the marketplace,” says Bill Jordan, president of DBI, the parent company of DSW. He also notes the obvious business opportunity at play. “I’d love to have a regular [release] cadence that’s predictable, where we can message to our customers, and people are getting in line to go buy this.”
Where do these Black designers come from when so few designers are Black to begin with? Namely, Pensole Academy and Pensole Lewis College. Both were founded by D’Wayne Edwards, the former lead designer of the Jordan brand. He has spent the last decade running the Academy to educate and place minority designers into the shoe industry. This year, Pensole’s influence is skyrocketing, as it’s reopening Lewis College, Michigan’s only Historically Black College and University (HBCU), which closed in 2012, as Pensole Lewis College. It’s a free school, subsidized by the biggest brands in footwear—including shoe brands like Jordan, Nike, Adidas, and Versace, along with distributors like StockX and Foot Locker.
DBI is making a $2 million investment into Pensole, which is allowing Edwards to open his own factory in New Hampshire. There, his team will produce the factory’s first run of shoes to go on sale at DSW. After that, Edwards plans to source new designs from Pensole design students who are looking to launch their own brands. (He also sees an opportunity in partnering with celebrities and other Black creatives who would prefer to own their company, rather than be a cog in a corporate machine.)
“We want to focus on helping these kids understand there’s more to having a shoe than a design: You need to think through the brand and business,” says Edwards. “We’re not interested in a singular shoe. We’re interested in people we can get behind to have a business in this industry.”
Building shoes in America will introduce its own difficulties. Countries like China dominate manufacturing, not only because of labor costs, but because they’ve spent decades consolidating production technologies in a finite geographical area. In general manufacturing, if any single component of a product is unavailable, it cannot be made. China sidesteps these shortages by simply having more factories in close proximity. Edwards acknowledges that, as a result, it’s faster to source just about any component you need abroad than in the U.S. Furthermore, $2 million is not a large sum to open a factory. It’s easy to imagine a single specialized machine at a Nike or Adidas factory costing that much, whereas Pensole will be designing a production line on more of a budget.
However, Edwards is intimately familiar with this topic, having spent a career in footwear design. And he admits that his American-made shoes will have their own natural design constraints, which creates the chance for unique designs not seen elsewhere.
“Our goal is not to reproduce what we can do in China here in the U.S. It’s to take advantage of what we can do in the U.S. to create a newer design language for product,” says Edwards. “The way U.S. manufacturing will come back [is] it needs to look a lot different than how it looks in China. We’re still going to make nice leather, canvas, and textile sneakers. But when you look closely at the construction, it’ll be based on those opportunities, not limitations, that U.S. manufacturing has.”
What Edwards hasn’t figured out yet is precisely how revenue sharing will work between Pensole’s factory and students who take part in the program—though both he and DSW promise that these founders will own a majority of their companies. “We’re not trying to take someone’s intellectual property or brand,” says Edwards. “We’re trying to help them make a business.”
It all adds up to a unique model, to say the least. You have a private company that’s funded a factory that’s owned by a school for Black students who are having their tuition subsidized by private companies, which are all trying to source the next great Black designers to make their products. It’s capitalism transformed into a scholarship fund—with real job opportunities.