A reborn HBCU in Detroit is opening a Black-owned footwear factory
Pensole Lewis College is a new design school for sneakerheads
In an effort to increase diversity in the footwear industry, a reborn HBCU is joining the parent company of retailer DSW to open what they say will be the first Black-owned shoe factory in the United States.
The company, Designer Brands Inc., is investing $2 million with Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design to open the 20,000-square-foot facility in Somersworth, New Hampshire.
“The unacceptable fact is that Black designers comprise less than 5% of professionals across the design industry,” said Roger Rawlins, CEO of Designer Brands. “DBI and DSW have an opportunity and responsibility to help create more opportunities for Black designers.”
DSW will serve as the primary retail partner for footwear collections designed by Pensole Lewis students and manufactured at the New Hampshire site.
D’Wayne Edwards, a former Jordan Brand design director, worked with the founding family of the former Lewis College of Business to reopen the Detroit school, which was started in 1928 and closed in 2013. It is the only historically Black college and university in Michigan and the first HBCU to focus solely on design.
The school will open in May with an initial class of 350 students. It will be accredited through an affiliation with the College for Creative Studies, a nonprofit private art college in Detroit.
“The connection between the factory, the college and DSW, that synergy is how corporations should work with colleges and with entrepreneurs,” Edwards said. “Investing in the person who is actually the consumer.”
The inaugural class will have free tuition. Brands such as Detroit-based Carhartt, and luxury companies Jimmy Choo and Versace will be incorporated into the design curriculum of the first session as partners. The school is receiving an undisclosed amount of philanthropic support from Target and the Gilbert Family Foundation, founded by Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and his wife Jennifer.
“A big challenge all young designers and brands have is distribution,” said Bill Jordan, president of Designer Brands. “Through this partnership and the creation of [the factory], we are able to strengthen the process and open doors for these designers, hopefully propelling them into a successful career in the footwear industry.”
The factory is being named JEMS by Pensole. JEMS is an acronym for Jan Ernst Matzeliger Studio, a tribute to the Black inventor who received five patents from 1883 to 1899 that revolutionized footwear manufacturing through a new lasting process.
“What he did, we wouldn’t be as far as we are today without his invention,” said Edwards. “Knowing that invention pioneered so much of how this industry has been built over the last 139 years, people need to understand that.”
At the time, most of America’s domestic footwear production was based in New England. Lasting, the process of merging a shoe upper with the sole, was done by hand and the best workers could produce around 50 pairs per day. Matzeliger’s invention could produce as many as 700 pairs per day, cutting production costs in half. Because of his biracial background (his father was white and Dutch, his mother was a Black woman from Suriname), he wasn’t given his due until decades later. He appeared on a U.S. postal stamp in 1991 as part of the Black Heritage Stamp Series.
“I discovered Jan about 20 years ago, and I was embarrassed that I didn’t know before that,” said Edwards. “Over the years, he’s had a stamp, and every once in a while, you’ll see for Black History Month an organization mention him. But I don’t think he’s ever really been given his just due from the footwear industry. What we want to do is educate the footwear industry as a whole about the pioneers of the footwear industry. He was the pioneer for us in this industry.”
Edwards designed Air Jordans and Carmelo Anthony signature shoes throughout the 2000s in his role at Jordan Brand and plans to design the first collection of Pensole footwear made at JEMS this year. The first sneaker is planned for production on Sept. 15, Matzeliger’s birthday.
“I want to bring back leather sneakers,” Edwards said of his upcoming collection. “I want to bring the craftsmanship that we used to have in the U.S. — really handcrafted sneakers.”
From there, students will design and create collections. Edwards says the factory will be able to produce up to 125,000 shoes per year at full capacity.
“A lot of people think they want to have their own brand and think they want to be an entrepreneur, but they have no idea how hard it is,” he said. “That’s what the college does — gives them insights into what the opportunities of entrepreneurship looks like.”
Edwards started working with students a decade ago when he founded the Pensole Footwear Design Academy in Portland, Oregon. That program will be relocated to the Detroit campus.
Besides providing Pensole Lewis students with factory experience that will prepare them for brand jobs, Edwards sees the emphasis on U.S. manufacturing as a long-term strategy that more brands should invest in. Over the last year, factory closures due to the coronavirus pandemic have strained the global supply chain across the athletic industry.
“I don’t think it’s a one-off, and I think it’s going to continue,” said Edwards. “I also think brands are going to look at diversifying where they get products made so they don’t get stuck in this situation again. … The real opportunity for U.S. manufacturing is that it’s faster. The product will cost more, but we were doing the math, and by the time you add the increased taxes, the increased duty and the increased shipping, all of that is [potentially] equivalent to making them in the U.S.”
A key purpose of opening the design academy in Portland was to provide brands with a diverse candidate pool and put students in position to land jobs immediately. His first class, created in partnership with the University of Oregon 10 years ago, had 41 students.
“What’s crazy is, 33 of them are professional designers till this day,” Edwards said. He funded the academy himself for the first eight years before taking on outside investment.
He’s long known that the cost of college has priced out many students with potential. Edwards estimates that most design colleges can now cost an “easy $50,000 to $80,000” per year.
“You have no idea how many people [brands are] eliminating that naturally have a gift, or started school and couldn’t afford it,” he said. “The industry has woken up to that. … College is a great thing if you can afford it. It’s a great thing if you can experience it. But not everybody can.”
In the 10 years spent operating Pensole, Edwards has helped to place nearly 700 students in professional design roles at brands across the industry. Many of those former students are now continuing that cycle, creating educational workshops for future students. Last week, Edwards partnered with Adidas to host workshops for students at a middle school in Los Angeles.
“The beauty of it is that other industries are coming,” Edwards said of receiving corporate outreach from companies in the package design, graphics, furniture and user experience design sectors. “There’s other brands that are in other industries that are appreciating what we’ve done in footwear design and they want to replicate it on their side. It’s a testament to what we’re doing on the footwear side.”
Edwards hopes that the new factory and the inaugural class of students at Pensole Lewis can continue to provide a path for a future generation to take part in an athletic industry that has long been fueled by the creativity and talents of Black athletes.
“We’ve been able to show the industry that talent is everywhere,” said Edwards. “You just have to be open to receive it, instead of being so pigeonholed to look at the traditional places that industries look.”