While working as a lowly file clerk at LA Gear in the late ’80s, 19-year-old D’Wayne Edwards sketched a new shoe design every day for six months, quietly slipping each one into the company chairman’s suggestion box. One hundred eighty sketches later, the chairman rewarded Edwards’s talent, imagination, and tenacity. He hired the teenager to create shoes for real, making him the youngest professional designer in the industry.
All the ambition in the world, though, wouldn’t make up for experience, so Edwards turned to his colleagues for help. “I understood it was on me to be proactive. So I just asked what I didn’t know ... and [my coworkers] answered,” says Edwards, whose meteoric career trajectory took him from LA Gear to Skechers and eventually Nike, where he became one of only six creatives—ever—to design a Nike Air Jordan sneaker.
The value of that mentoring drove Edwards, now 43, to create the Pensole Footwear Design Academy in the heart of Shoelandia two years ago. Two hundred graduates later, Pensole has become the country’s premier school for shoe design. Parsons The New School for Design in New York sends its students here. So does Georgia’s Savannah College of Art and Design. Not that Edwards cares about applicants’ pedigree: wherever potential students come from, they get one shot at getting in: a single black-and-white drawing. There’s no long-winded essay, no GPA requirement. “If you’re talented, it shows up,” says Edwards, who left his position as design director of Jordan Brand to start the school. “If you have a passion, it shows up there. If you have a bad work ethic, it shows up in what you put on paper.”
It seems to be an effective filter: Already, more than 40 Pensole grads have found jobs with companies like Nike, Adidas, Cole Haan, and New Balance. Online megaretailer Zappos plans to sell at least one design from a recent Pensole class.
Over the course of Pensole’s three-week term, students spend 12 or more hours a day in the Old Town school’s classrooms, pounding out project-based assignments such as designing comfortable and functional shoes for Portland’s bridge workers. Meanwhile, Edwards uses his industry connections to bring in a steady stream of footwear professionals, such as Nike Emerging Markets designer Cheresse Thornhill and creative agency headhunters, to give students realistic insights into what makes a design sellable and what personality traits hiring managers look for.
“I didn’t want to create another theory school,” Edwards says. “Everything we do is as close as possible to having a real job.”
In January, Pensole partnered with the Boston-based Two Ten Footwear Foundation, a nonprofit offering educational services to footwear industry professionals, to bring 10 students to Portland, tuition-free (tuition typically runs $3,000). Another 25–100 started Pensole’s online courses the same month. The partnership increases Pensole’s presence with East Coast industry giants like Steve Madden, Reebok, and Puma, and also provides students with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: All of the students’ final projects will be on display this month at the fashion industry’s massive Magic trade show in Las Vegas. There, more than 5,000 companies—among them big names like Aerosoles, Fossil, and Perry Ellis—will be on hand to inspect new designs. Or in the case of Pensole students, “design.” Each student will show just one prototype, based on one sketch—a drawing that could be worth an entire career.
NIKE’S JORDAN NU’RETRO 2, $115 The first Jordan basketball shoe Edwards designed proved lucky for Indian Pacer Fred Jones, a former Duck who won the 2003 NBA Slam Dunk Championship wearing a pair.
DIAMOND LIFESTYLE, $1,200 One of two Pensole designs selected for the 2012 summer Magic show, Chris Dixon’s five-inch, cushioned platform was snagged by Zappos, which plans to sell the artful design through its website in the fall.
THE REBAR, $85 This design from Pensole student Jared Friorovich also went to Magic, but hasn’t yet been picked up by a manufacturer. Too bad for skateboarders, who’d love the ankle-protecting high top and impact-cushioning silicone underlay.