Former Nike Air Jordan designer pushing sneaker industry to diversity

Former Nike Air Jordan designer pushing sneaker industry to diversity

D’Wayne Edwards is one of a handful of Black designers who built a successful career

  • D’Wayne Edwards is one of a handful of Black designers who built a successful career in the sneaker industry.
  • He worked as Nike’s footwear design director between 2001 and 2011, where he made sneakers for the Air Jordan brand.
  • Now, Edwards is leading the charge for more Black representation in the sneaker industry, via his work as the founder of design academy Pensole and as a leader for The African American Footwear Forum (AAFF), which addresses and solves diversity issues in the field.
  • “It’s our job to tear the damn door down,” Edwards said of the industry’s barriers to entry for Black people. “And make sure it never closes again.”
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D’Wayne Edwards is known as one of the more influential sneaker designers around. He’s also one of just a handful of Black people who managed to find major success as a creative in the industry.

In a career spanning three decades, Edwards launched his own brand, SITY, and completed a 10-year stint as Nike’s footwear design director, where he designed for the Air Jordan brand. To date, Edwards has created over 500 styles for athletes like Derek Jeter, Carmelo Anthony, and Michael Jordan.

But even with all of his success, Edwards said he felt like it wasn’t enough. 

“I realized there was just a greater purpose for my existence in this industry than just to design shoes for athletes,” he said, explaining his decision to stop working as a full-time designer in 2010 and start Pensole, a design academy that encourages the next wave of young footwear designers on their path into the industry.

Since its founding, Pensole has placed more than 475 former graduates at brands such as Nike, Under Armour, and Adidas.

D'Wayne Edwards

Shoe designer D’Wayne Edwards arrives to the celebration for Jordan Brand’s launch of the Air Jordan XX2 shoe at the MGM Grand Pavillion Tent inside the MGM Grand Hotel/Casino on February 16, 2007 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

But beyond nurturing budding designers, Edwards has also embarked on another mission to correct what he sees as an overarching problem in the industry.

As national attention shifts to conversations around diversity and inclusion, Edwards is collaborating with sportswear and sneaker industry workers and alumni in actively fighting for change through The African American Footwear Forum (AAFF). This organization works to address and solve diversity issues in the footwear industry. The forum held its second meeting on June 19, or Juneteenth, where Black professionals and industry workers virtually discussed and took stock of the state of diversity and opportunity for Black people in the field.

In describing his motivation to move into a more activist trajectory, Edwards described feeling fulfilled as a designer, though “incomplete as a Black man and as a person.”

As such, Edwards has figured out how to leverage his experience to create more opportunities for other diverse candidates. He is doing so in his role at Pensole as well, with initiatives like the Leaders Emerge After Direction (LEAD) by Design program, which helps nurture students of color on their path towards a career in the industry via a partnership with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

“Right now, we all know there’s not that many of us in the industry,” Edwards said, noting that one of the forum’s goals is to get an accurate census of Black people within each major company to fully understand the discrepancy within the industry. The Nike alumnus estimated that there are likely less than 200 black designers among thousands in the footwear industry right now.

Black representation in the sneaker industry

The sneaker community is largely considered intrinsically bound to Black culture. But for some industry people, this cultural influence isn’t seen beyond outward messaging or campaigns. For example, marketing campaigns and celebrity partnerships from Adidas and Nike are known to prominently feature artists and athletes of color, such as Beyonce, Kanye West, and LeBron James.

“We’re always talent, we’re never the brains behind organizations, we’re never a part of the organizational structure and the planning, the manufacturing,” Edwards said. “We’ve been completely shut out of those areas.”

After recruitment and retention, career advancement is one of the biggest problems for Black employees in the footwear and athletic-wear industry, said Darla Pires DeGrace, a diversity, equity, and inclusion strategist. Pires DeGrace is also a former recruiter for Reebok and a member of AAFF. Beyond the office, activists say there is still work to be done in other sectors of the footwear industry, like at retail stores, to support other Black people in the field.

Some changes are already in place. Brands like Adidas, Nike, and Under Armour have all acknowledged company-wide problems with inclusion and diversity. As for Edwards, his role as a forum leader allows him to ignite important conversations with major footwear brands regarding diversity and inclusion. In Foot Locker’s most recent earnings call, CEO and chairman Richard Johnson announced the company’s continued partnership with Edwards, which involves funding training and mentorship programs for Black creatives.

“When it becomes a part of the way they do business, then that’s when you’ll have sustainable long-term impact,” Edwards said. “If it’s just cutting a check, that just serves the immediate purpose.”

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