One year ago, Pensole Footwear Academy, known for training aspiring sneaker designers, launched an offshoot called FAAS: the Functional Apparel and Accessories Studio. Students worked on projects like creating outerwear for a customer with hemiplegia, a condition that can cause significant muscle weakness. The result was a slick jacket with oversize, easy-to-maneuver pockets and magnets hidden alongside the front zipper—making it easy for a wearer with limited arm mobility to flick it open in seconds. After students presented the work to some Nike execs, the company decided to fly the class to September’s New York Fashion Week for an appearance during the Tommy Hilfiger show.
How did a 12-week program—a fraction of the time of other design schools—achieve success so quickly, in front of industry bigwigs? Credit goes in part to the glorious workspace: vast bolts of the newest high-performance materials and screen-printing machines share space in Pensole’s eight-year-old Old Town HQ with Vibram sneaker soles, full hides of leather, and equipment—easily a six-figure setup at students’ fingertips. The rest belongs to FAAS director and sportswear heavy hitter Angela Medlin.
Medlin spent three decades building up a stellar résumé. Her 1990s beginnings at LA hip-hop headquarters Cross Colours—where Tupac, Dr. Dre, and a pre-dreads Snoop Dogg all hung out—led to an overture from one of the most infamous names in activewear history: Peter Moore. Formerly the global creative director for Nike, Moore was seduced by Adidas a quarter century ago to pull the German company out of a slump. Among his first moves? Bring Adidas HQ to Portland. And hire Medlin. “I was like the 30th person at Adidas, and it was a culture shock,” she remembers. “Portland in 1994 was a town, a sleepy town.”
After leaving to take design director gigs at Eddie Bauer, Levi’s, and the North Face, Medlin came home, leading a Jordan Apparel face-lift for Nike. At each stop she saw the same thing—newbie designers weren’t ready for their jobs. Now a celeb in the activewear world (basically the Tina Turner of functional apparel), she took her concept for FAAS to Pensole director D’Wayne Edwards. Then she tapped into her decades of resources to bring in industry folks, from big names like Under Armour and Adidas, to pose design challenges to students. The industry vets meet with them once a week, providing mentorship and professional insight before the students (who range from college kids to post-grad) present final products to “clients,” in the exact same process they would as IRL designers.
“When people learn to design apparel in a traditional school, they’re not learning performance apparel,” Medlin says of this straight-to-the-point process. “And performance attributes are in everything. It’s not just for the athletes anymore.”