Perspective on the Black Footwear Forum
“We called this year’s event ‘Homecoming’ because BFF is our moment to come together to reconnect, celebrate, educate, inspire, and just appreciate the Black geniuses who run this industry,”PLC founder and President Dr. D’Wayne Edwards.
For four consecutive days, over 500 Black footwear professionals from all over the country congregated in the city of Detroit, Michigan – sharing their experiences, paying it forward, and being seen among a sea of others that have the same goal. To be seen. And to be seen together. Oftentimes in the footwear industry, you are always the only Black person in the room. And oftentimes you are wondering, why?
D’Wayne Edwards has already laid out his plans and the pathway could not be clearer. With the reopening of the HBCU; PENSOLE LEWIS COLLEGE OF DESIGN, the GEM factory, and a new annual meeting of the minds, its no wonder that supporters like FDRA, NIKE, ADIDAS, MILLER KNOLL, and others have decided to participate.
Detroit’s New Mobility
Detroit is a city where, depending on your age, magic was produced. Among the grit of the automobile industry, Motown Sound and its talent emerged and gave the world its soulful balance.
Walking into the ICON building on Walker Street was like entering another moment in history where the magic will be made.
The Black Footwear Forum had a fantastic roster of events that circled the Downtown area in time for the Tigers and the Oreos, the North American International Auto Show, and probably some other happenings. A great way to see what downtown Detroit has to offer as it readies itself for revitalization. And as it readies itself as the new hub for Black Footwear Designers.
Kofi Bonner attended the forum and discussed his taking a seat in the center of Detroit as the new CEO of Bedrock commercial real estate firm. His position, appointed by Dan and Jennifer Gilbert is charged with bringing the city into the 20th century. Not without addressing the “unintentional” consequences (gentrification), as one guest put it, that would outprice its current Black community.
Bonner revealed that there will be plans, programs, and initiatives to keep families in Detroit.
The new mobility of Detroit from design, to music, to living, will look a little different. Hopefully to fill up the defunct properties and bring back life. Attracting those who want to visually see change, and see themselves again in the downtown area. The responsibility to successfully bring a world-class community to the city falls on Bonner’s shoulders.
What Does George Floyd Have To Do With Footwear?
845 Days Later was the theme for the forum. Terrence Floyd, The brother of the slain, conversated with D’Wayne Edwards. This is 2022. It could very well be 1963. People of Color in the United States have only catapulted in their career trajectory in numbers fueled by injustice and unrest in the community. What happened to George Floyd and his family was a repeated act of fatal, unlawful violence upon a Black man by the police. What happened to hundreds of Black people after that was a plethora of job openings. Sound familiar?
Image: Submitted by Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design
Corporations saw the “sacrifice” of George Floyd and reacted to the voices and cries that impacted the Black community in the footwear industry.
The discussion gave some highlights on social injustice and how it affects the Black community no matter where you live. And in the creative space, negativity can either spark a new collection or damage the thought process altogether.
During that time in 2020, footwear companies and their employees (including C-level and managerial levels) had to be retrained on how to communicate with empathy as they scrambled to develop inclusion and diversity roles.
Although asked, Terrence Floyd did not reveal what his brother’s favorite pair of sneakers were however, he did want the audience to walk away with the knowledge of the We Are Floyd organization. During Floyd’s presentation, you could hear a pin drop as reality is ever-present in the footwear industry now thriving with Black talent led by Black culture that is haunted by social injustices.
845 days later…where are we now?
Be The Blue Pen
Let’s give Ms. Kay some acknowledgment for the talent that was presented during the BLACKLIGHTS panel discussion.
Learning that others are taking the same pathway as you, may require some breadcrumbs that lead the way. So was the experience of the panel; Chereese Thornhill-Goldston, Ashley Comeaux, Precious Hannah, and Eliyah Jackson.
Image: Submitted by Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design
All four ladies have come up through the footwear industry by way of a Southern Florida High School’s product design class under the strict guidance of “Ms. Kay”. Who may unknowingly cultivated the ideas and dream manifestos of the panel.
The ladies took us all down the road to truly paying it forward while grabbing your aspirations along the way. Comeaux used a blue pen to draw her shoe designs that were on display in Ms. Kay’s class. Inspired by the possibilities, Princess followed the same method. The symbolism of the blue pen exuded – “walk with me” vibes as the four of them walked the same pathway that lead them from Ms. Kay’s classroom, to College for Creative Studies in Detroit, to PENSOLE ACADEM,Y and ultimately their respective current career roles.
Chereese is heading educational pathways at S.E.E.D, Ashley is Allbird’s VP of Product Design, Precious is CEO of Mr. Essentials, and Eliyah is the PENSOLE national sneaker design winner and Assistant Designer at ADIDAS.
The homecoming theme is actually right here, where these creative talents came to share their stories of finding who they were in the creative world and making a mark that many are afraid to make. Standing on each other’s shoulders there are literally four “generations” if you will, of legacy in the making. Ashley, Precious, and Eliyah were able to see consistent inspiration on the walls of Ms. Kays’ classroom; images of Chereese and her work, then Ashley’s work went up for the students the following year, and so on and so on down the line fueling an “If she can do it, I can do it too” ecosystem.
The four share a thread that is unbroken and can easily be extended to the next generation of talent. Each one, finding out about the other and bringing them along the non-traditional path armed with information, the dos, don’ts, and the how-to’s to conquer this ride called the footwear industry.
A success story in the making and maybe a documentary. A full-on marching band should have been heard and seen coming down the aisle to jumpstart this presentation.
Our Pressure Creates Diamonds
“We have (as women) the ability to apply pressure to create the diamond.” – Portia Blunt
This session tagged The L Word can only be summed up with quotes from the panel as the discussion circled around ladies of color in the corporate workplace. What is success to some, is frowned upon by others. Navigating through the new face of the inclusive and diverse industry can be a welcome and a burden. An audience member asked, “what does that look like in terms of dress code, hairstyles, etc.”
As if we need to create a handbook on how to dress like a woman of color in the workplace because non-Blacks are constantly looking for a way to reform. Constantly trying to “understand” when it simply is to reconstruct.
Take a look at the headshot photo of any corporate Black female CEO. For ladies that are in the industry – clearly from a sneakerhead talent stream – that is a look that just does not fit.
As a person of color in the leadership role, you have the powerful position to place viable candidates into the industry. As a leader, you have the voice and opportunity to course-correct and help people to move forward in this complicated and dynamic industry, as it has been done by our non-colored counterparts.
Building a positive bridge to the culture includes not co-signing on the negative narratives surrounding our co-workers or peers. Dismantling old celebrations that are too far in between and usually only in February (or October if you are in the UK), by creating constant acknowledgment and dismissing archetypes of non-Blacks that are doing the storytelling. Those key methods create real impact and real change.
Some takeaway quotes from the Tapped In session:
“Stop chasing titles and start chasing impact” – Portia Blunt (Reebok)
“Step into the discomfort” – Janice Tennant (Merrell)
“You have to know who to move in these white spaces” – April Dinwoodie (Steve Madden)
So what should we see from our forward-thinking talent?
Designers are cool, yes but we need to see more developers, technical designers, engineers, and supply chain…Portia Blunt
“Break the ice to get the bag” – Jazerai Allen-Lord (True To Size)
“Be what you can’t see.” – Katherine Allen (Adidas)
Be Where Your Feet Are
It is not often we are told, without laughter to check yourself. Checking your selfcare is a joke among the due dates, personal life goals, Instagram posts, and the time at the gym.
Inspirational Black Genius, Kevin Caroll told the crowd that “energy is your social currency”. And perhaps our energy is being siphoned in our environments and it is imperative to make sure you have your selfcare in check. Your energy is your power and knowing yourself and how to fuel yourself is key. Knowing when to Rest, Recover, and Replenish.
Competing with doubt becomes the norm for creatives and anyone respectively who is working for applause and not a cause. The cause is you and your energy. Being where your feet are is totally understanding who you are in the moment and the value of your energy there. And also taking solace that if the vibes are positive where you stand, then that energy is well spent.
Your energy is your currency.Kevin Caroll
Other topics covered during the forum included hearing professional leaders tell their stories of industry success and creating experiences that impact the community. Retailer James Whitner agreed with a female attendee that there is a void in women’s streetwear boutiques and to go create one! Garry Thaniel expressed the organic rollout of his position at eBay – which never existed until now; General Manager of Sneakers. And simple advice on how to move in the industry;
“Find a chimney, sliding door, window or back door – anything” – Precious Hannah (Nike)
During the Storytelling panel, music producer Che Pope, who produced the Grammy Award-winning album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill chimed in on the importance of bringing back music like Motown – which is why he settled on Detroit as the home to his new experience WRKSHP.
Storytelling through motor vehicles like Crystal Nindham, Executive Director of GM, and the stories we resonate with in terms of interior design. Media guru, Jacque Slade expressed that his method is giving nuance in an overt way by leaving the boring parts out of lifestyle experiences.
And wouldn’t it be cool to have a sneak peek at the Slum Village x Puma collab with Rick Williams and his Distinct Life branding experience for the 2023 Hip Hop Anniversary?
A personal perspective from the Editor
“The group started the event with a sister-circle of prayer before we dove deeply into what matters; identity.”🙂
The S.E.E.D program headed up by ADIDAS alumn and forward thinkers (Cherese Thornhill, Jessica Smith & Liz Connelly) has provided pathways for women of color to find their voice in the white noise of the industry. Through self-realization, self-awareness, and creative discovery, anyone who enters the S.E.E.D program walks away with a newfound sense of self and perhaps a foot in the door. In attendance were familiar faces throughout the forum events including Dr. Violet Ponders – granddaughter of Dr. Violet T. Lewis, original founder of Lewis College of Business.
The group started the event with a sister-circle of prayer before we dove deeply into what matters; identity. Not in the sense of I don’t know who I am but in the context of how others identify you before they even speak to you.
I had the pleasure of sitting next to Ebony Watson, creator of BY GEEKY. She is an artist and sneaker enthusiast that is also deaf. Accompanied by three interpreters, Ebony attended all of the events of the forum and absorbed everyone and everything around her. Using her interpreters as a conduit, she and I were discussing how people “see” us and what that means personally.
We were asked; What are three things you think people notice about you?
For me; small, black, woman.
And for Ebony; woman, black, deaf.
Not necessarily in that order – the elements get switched around as it suits the situation.
Knowing how others see you – positive or negative – affects the way you move. It can affect the way you communicate with others. And surely, can affect your creative flow. If you find a negative connotation, the goal is to turn that into a powerful positive and approach your path that way.
Basically, planting the seed of how you want people to SEE YOU.
Armed with our sense of self, we moved on to creating our creative treasure chest of flowing inspiration. An affirmation of sorts, written down on a note paper and placed into a small chest. Although it was recommended to change up what you put into your treasure chest – you can find solace and joy in your “get happy” routine.
Perhaps this exercise works best in an HR environment when creative talents are tapped-out and inspiration is just not happening. Or folks at ADIDAS know the environment is not the best emotionally for people of color and creativity is sometimes suffocated with self-doubt, exclusion and all those other words that equal to and include not getting paid what you are worth for the stresses of recoloring those classics.
Finally, once we discovered our creative flow, we moved on to the sneaker design! Reminiscing about the first time sneakers became more than just shoes for you was a great way to bring out nostalgia and remix it with creative prowess even if you don’t think you have any. Everyone in the room had a first time and here is mine:
A punchy color combo of a NIKE ACG hiking boot from the early 90’s. I’m missing the navy blue here. But what this exercise did was remind me that as a teen, my mom was not a sneaker person. I had owned only one pair of kicks. My sister however, was the NIKE sneakerhead. Watching her collection grow was always so fresh to me. So when I got the chance to go shopping with her at Kings Plaza Mall in Brooklyn with my allowance, I was stopped dead in my tracks by what was considered, boy’s shoes.
You spent money on those??? I remember my mom saying (she thought they were so ugly). I responded with confidence, yup! They were the first pair of sneakers I purchased on my own and I even got a nod of approval from my sister. The next day, everyone at school wanted to know where I got my shoes from and I wasn’t telling!
I got them at Buster Browns.
Sneakers evoke a feeling of fun memories and creative awareness. Shoes do that in general for people. But sneakers like Jordans, Dunks, Free-Style, Converse, and even a hideous colored hiking boot hybrid can make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. Executing that activity should make any creative want to keep that flow going. Which I think was the purpose of the presentation.
Discovering your creativity by looking at yourself in a different light and bringing it all in with a wonderful memory that evokes and promotes creative output. Perfect.
The Black Footwear Forum
The wisdom we footwear professionals have is passed down to the younger generation to make a change, take a chance, and become the choice. Having the opportunity to sit at the table with your 90’s fashion icon, April Walker of Walker Wear is a telling tale of the excellence in the environments we can create. D’Wayne Edwards and his team will never stop hearing the words; This is SOOOOO needed! When’s the next one? The event encompassed the culture we share through art, food, music, social engagement; brotherhood, sisterhood, and our own pathway to success.
I for one, hope the next one will be in Los Angeles and focus a bit more on Black-owned brands in the industry where career pathways can be funneled in that direction. Hearing about another Black-owned high-volume production factory run by Jeffrey Henderson was invigorating, imagine the job fair for that! Visioning the potential and magic we possess is exactly where BFF should be headed and bring home the realness the industry and its consumers have been waiting for.
“Every year, the BFF grows, not only in attendance but in cultural and industry significance. This year we gathered the most influential group of creatives, leaders, and aspiring future leaders of any conference to date.”D’Wayne Edwards
If you missed the event, you can watch it HERE: