It’s really an opportunity to change some lives.Dr. D’Wayne Edwards
A Plan Laid All Out
At the top of 2022, I wrote an article on building and growing a black owned manufacturing business in the United States where it outlined the master plan of Dr. D’Wayne Edwards and his passion for moving the shoe industry forward. The article touched on many points, social issues, and the lack of diversity and ownership within the industry. Edward’s plan included the re-opening of an HBCU, funneling students from his PENSOLE Academy from Oregon to Detroit, and continuing to host the largest Black creative industry event – the Black Footwear Forum. And lastly, opening a footwear factory.
Edward’s drive comes from spending countless years in the footwear industry and seeing the absence of Black leadership roles in and outside of design as well as recognition. He saw Black creatives, not just as talent, but as part of the fashion supply chain.
And so on February 16th, it was announced that Dr. D’Wayne Edwards, President of Pensole Lewis College of Business & Design (PLC) and Designer Brands penned a $2 million investment deal to open the First Black-Owned U.S. Footwear Factory. LeCrown Shoes Industry Co., LTD with decades of athletic footwear development experience, has also invested $1 million into the factory. The partnerships will create entrepreneurial opportunities for underrepresented footwear designers.
Designer Brands Inc is home to DSW retail and the Camuto group of footwear brands (Vince Camuto, Lucky Brands, and Jessica Simpson). This partnership means that there is a direct link to retail distribution which is something most start-up brands do not have access to. Shoes produced at the factory will be designed by PLC graduates and black designers and sold exclusively at DSW starting this September. LeCrown Shoes rounds out high-volume sneaker development.
Also important to mention are the collaborative partnerships, and long-lasting industry relationships aligned with the PLC creative pipeline series of Master Classes (check out the Carhartt work aprons).
“By honoring the legacy of Black entrepreneurs, we aim to inspire future designers by providing a powerful path for educational, career, and retail success. When we work to advance diversity in the world of fashion brands, our business succeeds and everyone wins.” Bill Jordan, President of Designer Brands.
It’s All About Jan
March 20, 2023 marked the ribbon-cutting ceremony that took place at the new JEMS by PENSOLE footwear factory located in Somersworth, New Hampshire. One of the first Black-Owned footwear factories in the United States.
Founded by the now legendary Dr. D’Wayne Edwards, JEMS by PENSOLE is inspired by Jan Earnst Matzeliger who invented the world’s first shoe-lasting machine in 1883 and revolutionized shoe manufacturing. The name JEMS represents Matzeliger’s initials with a little something extra. The Jan Earnst Matzeliger STU/DEO will strive not only to pay tribute to Jan’s legacy but also to pave the way for other future industry leaders.
“JEMS by PENSOLE is a firm step for promising careers for Black leaders in footwear, who as a group represent less than five percent across all design industries,” said Dr. Edwards. “With our factory now open, we’ll quickly advance PLC graduates to training for product pre-production all the way to creation of our first sneakers. Our partnership with Designer Brands and DSW makes all this possible and celebrates Black business innovators in important and meaningful ways.”
Edwards was so inspired by the story of Matzeliger that even down the to J embedded into the logo – he says, it came from Jan’s patent. If you turn it upside down, you will see the making of a “J”.
I read about Matzeliger for the first time 12 years ago. Since then I have been longing for a Black owned factory to send my clients to. As a designer myself, the development of JEMS is something quite spectacular because I am a heavy advocate for domestic manufacturing and ownership. In any industry, we are the players that play hard and are often afraid to take the risks of failure and money wasting to position ourselves firmly. And I can remember the jaw drop when I found out Edwards designed the NIKE Equestrian boot for the 2008 Olympics.
The dream of owning a factory for Edwards finally manifested itself in 2023 and so I had even more questions to ask about this historical establishment.
OK I’ve Got More Questions
I asked Edwards when will JEMS take on outside production. He answered, “Next year. But we will not accept just anyone. All entrepreneurs will have to go through a program at PLC to ensure they have a solid business plan so we can help them elevate their success.”
So how about the shoes? Will JEMS produce other products besides sneakers?
Edwards let me know that at this moment only lifestyle sneakers will grace the conveyor belts at JEMS. I can imagine because sneakers are so much easier to produce than heels. Also because the consumer purchase rate of sneakers has sky-rocketed, even in the face of a pandemic.
What about job openings?
JEMS is currently hiring technical staff. This is incredible because most creatives think they have to stay in one lane of aesthetics. Not so, PLC would encourage their students and designers to think outside the box. How about learning how to use an industrial stitching or lasting machine? Or become an assembly technician? These are still creative positions that help make the shoes come to life. And these positions are well-saught after as the industry itself struggles to find domestic (and legal) talent in these areas.
This was not an article on the achievements of African Americans or Blacks or Latinos in the footwear industry because that history is evident every time you put on a pair of modern sneakers. Even if you wanted to take a Cult-classic stab – it was written into the original 1995 JUMANJI film.
However, I will use the blowhorn to announce that African Americans spend millions of dollars to support their favorite athlete or designer which in turn, helps to elevate a multi-billion dollar sneaker industry. There would be no “AIR” movie without the fanatic, expensive, and violent spending on Air Jordans.
JEMS represents the piece of the pie that has been missing for many, many years. The factory is also a cornerstone for creative footwear development for the athletic shoe industry made for, marketed by/to, and designed by the very DNA that catapulted GLOBAL sneaker manufacturing in the first place.
Leaning Into Your WHY
According to the PLC statement; “We are the source for creative vision and progress; bearing the torch to push the culture forward — beyond what’s visible. At Pensole Lewis College, we offer a new path to break into the world of product creation. We prepare the largest talent pool of designers to enter the industry empowering them to make it better for the next generation, leaving our industry better than when we entered it.”
Those are strong leadership beliefs that require bold steps. And there is no shortage of boldness from Edwards, the PLC students, and the creatives that helped to elevate and inspire a whole culture within the footwear industry. Other noted factories and studios will spring up following JEMS including the LA-based FCTRY Lab. I cannot wait to see the vision come to full fruition and to wear the first pair of shoes off the JEMS line designed by Edwards – crafted here in the United States.