Sneaker culture and black culture are intertwined. The brands driving sneakerheads to stores are often tied to black cultural touchstones: Jordans have long transcended the basketball court, and hip-hop mogul Kanye West’s Yeezy line has proven popular at both Nike and Adidas. But the designers working behind the scenes on shoes often aren’t nearly as diverse as the audience buying them.
That’s what D’Wayne Edwards, a longtime Jordan brand veteran, is hoping to change. Edwards now runs Pensole, a Portland-based footwear design academy that is sponsoring a new program called L.E.A.D. (Leaders Emerge After Direction) at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to educate young black creatives about the footwear design industry.
“The only relationship a lot of these kids have with these brands is as a consumer,” Edwards said. “They have shoes with a Jumpman on them, with a swoosh, with three stripes. Those three brands specifically are doing a better job of letting people know that our relationship doesn’t end with you just buying the product. [With L.E.A.D], we are trying to introduce these kids to an opportunity they probably didn’t know existed.”
While there are design schools scattered around the U.S., many don’t have a diverse student population. Plenty of prominent colleges offer art and design programs, but those degrees are rarely targeted by students of color, according to Edwards.
“Our industry has a diversity problem,” Edwards said. “The opportunity to hire people of color from traditional educational paths is pretty slim. So instead of going through the traditional channels where you have less than 5 to 10% [PoC] enrolled, we wanted to go to the schools that have 75% or more enrolled.”
Considering the public faces of sneaker culture are predominantly black, it can be a surprise that the designers of the actual shoes are not. While many creative industries focusing on diversifying staff to bring in new perspectives, the sneaker design industry hasn’t been one of them.
“Diversity breeds innovation. If you have a room full of the same person, 10 of the same people with one topic, they’re going to produce the same idea in the end,” Edwards said. “If you have a room with 10 different people, you’re going to get 10 different things. Why wouldn’t brands want more options of looking at one problem in multiple ways? Especially if their consumer base is diverse, why wouldn’t the workforce look like the consumer base?”
The actual seminar is designed in a way that complements a student’s regular course schedule. There will be three seminars held between March and November, but the goal from these seminars isn’t to pull in fees from students; it’s to find the best designers. There aren’t any costs associated with the program besides finding transportation to the seminars. As such, there have to be caps on how many people can attend: 60 students will be selected for the first online seminar, and that will be cut down to 30 for the final two classes.
The second seminar is where designers will be made. For three weeks in the summer, students will go through a masterclass of design training, six days a week, 10 hours a day. The final seminar focuses on resume and portfolio building, helping the students actually transition into full-time designers.
Edwards is hoping L.E.A.D. will instill passion in young black students and give major shoe brands a pipeline of diverse designers to push the sneaker industry forward.
“Brands are looking for a balance of different things, but passion is crucial,” Edwards explained. “Physical talent is important, but many students overlook the passion part. That’s the part that brands want because that’s something that no one can actually teach you.”