Building and growing a black owned manufacturing business in the United States
With great power…
“Some are doing for PR purposes, some are doing it authentically – we’re calling their bluff
You say you want to make an impact so show us the proof.”Dr. D’Wayne Edwards on corporate pledge
Dr. D’Wayne Edwards is the most prominent Black designer in the footwear industry and he’s ready to step into manufacturing. A shoe veteran of 3 decades, his career spans from L.A. Gear, Nike as footwear design director from 2001 to 2011 and laid his hands on the immortal Jordan brand. He is credited with paving the way for young Black design talent entering the sneaker industry and serves as a voice of diversity wherever he goes. Dr. Edwards is the founder of PENSOLE Design Academy – an academy dedicated to understanding sneaker and fostering product development. PENSOLE is located in Portland, OR only a half day’s drive from Edwards’ beginnings in Inglewood, CA.
2022 started off with multiple announcements. Edwards hit us all over the head with achievements and dream state ideas turned true. It is more than safe to say that Edwards is now the Godfather of Black talent (an undeniable force in urban influence, sneaker culture and fashion’s “dope-ness” seal of approval). And his plan to bring that awareness to the center of the footwear industry and beyond is something we should all note. So I had to have a conversation with him and ask, what’s the plan???
The plan is simple – make Black creative part of the fashion supply chain.
Social injustice in the United States has been the motivation for recognizing a problem within the creative community. A sentiment that goes beyond one person and has created a catalyst of actions and activities over the past two years. One such is the 15% promise corporations have pledged to commit to. However, there have been bare minimum efforts leading up to this point.
When the world cried out for justice among POC and lack thereof in industry, major companies began to reach out to Edwards and his PENSOLE team to see how they can help. 2020 was interesting for Edwards and his team because it helped them reshape the purpose of the organization and its position in the industry. PENSOLE is the only viable sneaker school in the United States giving students the fast-track to being part of a culture that they helped develop.
On the whole, fashion education has groomed talented designers to work for large corporations like NIKE, Adidas, AllBirds, Li& Fung Group, etc. Those companies and the likes have large budgets that help elevate the brands designers work on, believing that there is success there. That strategy may be the only way creatives can see their ideas come to life.
How about doing it yourself? Edwards had some strict advice for breaking out on your own.
“It’s hard to break out on your own.” He stated. “Most people make it a hobby. You have to be all in. It’s an easy way to lose money and lose time and it’s a heavy financial burden. I know how difficult it is to pull it off. You also need a retail partner and then a manufacturing partner.”
Edwards went on to say that designers have always been on the talent side of things, not the business side, so we never have the opportunity to fully understand the whole circle of the industry. This is where the master plan takes shape.
The business side. That is the part that designers don’t think about.
If You Build It, They Will Come
On February 14, Edwards stepped up and became the one to reopen a closed HBCU.
With an increased interest in diversity from his corporate partners, the idea of
reopening the Lewis College of Business in Detroit, MI (the only UNESCO City of Design in the United States, and one of the largest cities with an African American population) immediately became a goal. Edwards saw this as an opportunity to unapologetically shake up the product development industry by doing deeper into education.
“That is why we are building the college – it’s for any company that produces a product. Not just footwear. Design got us to the table – now it’s about knowing the business side to the industry.”
Once the HBCU became an option, a vertical formation started to develop.
The only Black-owned footwear factory that completes the formation will be based in New Hampshire thanks to, DSW and others who decided to put their money where their mouths are.
Achieving a manufacturing arm in the United States is no small feat. With the lack of diversity in the production arena, logistics, shipping, procurement, etc. – establishing a factory promotes strength in the industry and impacts the creative community immensely.
Without this being done, those diversity corporate programs out there are just initiatives – not for the long term. There are still major voids in corporate cooperation and those simple initiatives are a way to simply check off the diversity box. Programs that target Inclusion and diversity among people of color, African Americans, blacks need to be a part of the supply chain. Retailers realized there are no Black brands or apparel brands in their supply chain.
So in comes the elements of building a Black supply chain in just about 12 years.
The “Fifth Element”
I cannot write enough about how much this excites me. As an advocate for domestic manufacturing, the talk of a new factory just vying for lasting stations, and the whirling sounds of machines and fresh fashion coming down the conveyor belt is highly inspirational. Its almost like watching a fantasy movie unfold.
While Edwards is not the first to dream of a trinity that would bring more African Americans to the forefront of industry, it is important to point out how his vision plays a role in the future of fashion. There are not three but five key elements to do this.
- 2010 Edwards injected the industry with PENSOLE as a direct pipeline to emerging creatives in the sneaker and product development space alongside creative collaborators like FAAS.
- 2018 Founder of the African American Footwear Forum or Black Footwear Forum – a community of creatives in search of a home within the footwear industry.
- 2021 Board Member of the Black Design Collective opening up a pathway to an organization with an iconic fashion roster that includes the likes of Ruth E. Carter, Kerby Jean-Raymond, T.J. Walker, Byron Lars, Kenya Martin and Angela Dean to name a few.
- 2022 Re-opening of the Lewis College of Business in Detroit, designated as an HBCU – founded by Dr. Dr. Violet Temple Lewis in 1987. A hub for Black talent in the business of product development.
- 2022 Opening of the JEMS Factory producing footwear – further emphasizing Made In USA and domestic manufacturing while creating industry jobs and jolting to the local economy.
The factory is the fifth element – saving fashion’s humanity and elevating its core consumers.
It was when DSW reached out to Edwards and asked if the factory would have the ability to produce shoe lines that made it all a reality. The dream to open up a factory to produce black brands was manifested. Although manufacturing is not his wheelhouse, with donated equipment, there was no way he could turn down the opportunity. Finishing off with investors and major distribution, this US based Black owned footwear factory will act as a space to design, develop and produce out-of-this-world footwear.
Ultimately completing the product cycle!
This vertical structure stands on the shoulders of what Edwards calls the three pillars of product creation and development. It is that cadence and flow of design, development and manufacturing that curates legacy and longevity for any brand. Ultimately Edwards is designing a universe and solving a major problem within the industry.
DBI (Designer Brands Inc.) made a $2 million investment into PENSOLE, that allowed Edwards to establish his own factory (JEMS Factory) in New Hampshire, the only Black-owned factory in North America. There, a modern historical mark will be made producing the factory’s first run of shoes (created by Black Designers) that will be sold at DSW retail stores.
There are other opportunities that can arise from this platform. The factory will no doubt become a landmark for Black creatives to produce and grow their brands. Something that is very necessary when thinking of the Black Fashion Supply Chain and where the making part of industry is King. Without a factory – you have no product.
“We’re not interested in a singular shoe. We’re interested in people we can get behind to have a business in this industry (Fast Company).”
What Edwards is doing will allow Black creatives to tell their own story right here in the United States and demand our place in industries where one-of is not enough. There are still wide open areas in the market that need to be explored – sustainability, logistics as mentioned, freight, retail and fulfillment. Edward’s master plan is setting the course to getting there.
As for how this new universe Edwards has created will bring about the possible fall of dominant culture and rise of new prominent players…well that requires another conversation.