words // Nick DePaula 
interview // Nick DePaula & Steve Mullholand
photography // Steve Mullholand

[Originally published January 2009 in Sole Collector's Issue 26]

We're happy to bring you our Industry Insider series, which was originally in last year's Issue 26 and featured the stories and journeys of sixteen professionals in the footwear industry. By following each person all the way from their childhood to their current position today, we were able to capture the work, passion and effort that they've put in towards their career and lifelong goals. Each piece is simply a must-read. You can be sure to see brand new Industry Insider interviews throughout the year, featuring even more designers, developers and every position in between.

Name: D'Wayne Edwards
Company: Jordan Brand
Title: Footwear Design Director 

To many people throughout the footwear industry, Nike's Jordan Brand has represented the pinnacle of design throughout its history. D'Wayne Edwards, the brand's current Footwear Design Director, has had an unconventional path during his 20-year career, as he began professionally designing at the age of 19 and bypassed design school after his prodigious teenage years, where he spent his time drawing shoes and applying his love for architecture to real-life projects.

The designer of Carmelo Anthony's first five signature shoes, as well as the Air Jordan XX1 and XX2, Edwards came from humble beginnings while growing up in Inglewood, California. While he spends less of his time now designing new products and more time managing a team of five designers, he also has invested himself into providing thousands of aspiring designers the opportunities that he did not have while growing up by mentoring them through the Future Sole design competition. As you read this, Edwards is gearing up for this year's competition as this has already proved to be a worthwhile project. 

Nick DePaula: Can you tell us about your educational background and how you got interested in footwear?

D'Wayne Edwards: I did not attend design school. I didn't touch an art class. [laughs] I was in middle school when I drew my first shoe, and my teacher, Mrs. Weathers, would catch me and keep all of my sketches. I would always draw shoes on three by five index cards all through middle school and high school and became known as the shoe guy. I started to customize my shoes in high school as well by getting some all-whites, going down to the local shoe repair shop and getting some spray dye, and I'd tape and tape them up and start spraying them for myself. Then I started customizing for my friends, too, in our school colors - green and white - so we would have the freshest shoes on the basketball court back in '84.

Drawing shoes was my passion, and I have no idea where it even came from. I always had the best shoes growing up, and when something new came out, I always got them. I'm the youngest of six, and all my older siblings would chip in and help me out so I could get the latest and greatest of everything because they knew I loved sneakers. ... In high school, I remember telling my guidance counselor that I wanted to be a footwear designer, and she was like, "No one gets paid to do that. You're better off going to the military and making something out of that." I was from Inglewood, Calif. and it wasn't the safest place around, and just getting out of the city is an actual win. That was pretty deflating for me. To support my sneaker habit I was working at McDonald's during my senior year, and I remember seeing this ad in the paper for a Reebok design competition. It was the smallest ad you could place in the L.A. Times - maybe a quarter of an inch by a quarter of an inch, and I found it. So I entered and I won. ... That was when I realized that I had the talent to actually do it, but still there was no place for me where I could actually learn the craft of footwear design.

I graduated from Inglewood High School in '88, and there weren't any design schools that taught footwear. Industrial design wasn't big, and in California you had FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising) and Otis-Parsons, both heavy apparel- and fashion-oriented schools, but I wasn't interested in either of those things. I figured, "Well, I'll just do something else," and I was interested in architecture in high school and thought I would become an architect. That didn't work out 'cause I didn't want to do the additional schooling that it took to actually be an architect. I just wanted to design great houses, so I attended Santa Monica College for business marketing, advertising and management.

I decided on Santa Monica College for business, because I knew someday I would have a business of my own, and once I got there, I really liked the business world, but design was still my passion. In order to support myself and my sneaker habit, I went to work for this place called Account Temps. It's a temporary work place that deals with finance, and I was really good with math. One of the first jobs I got was as a file clerk with L.A. Gear in the fall of '88. I thought, "Hey, wait a minute, I'm at a footwear company, maybe I should try to get hired as a footwear designer." I started talking to some of the designers there, and they kept telling me the same thing - that I needed to go to school for four years, but they could never tell me what I needed to go to school for, and that I just had to graduate from college before I could get a job in this industry. At the time, L.A. Gear was changing over management, and the new management group had asked every department to put up a suggestion box for ways to make the company better. In finance, my suggestion was to hire me as a footwear designer. [laughs] Every day I put a new design in that box, and I did that for months, until one day the owner of the company, Robert Greenberg - he was my first mentor and still is someone I am very thankful to because he gave a young kid a chance when no one else would - called me into his office once he found out who was putting these shoes in the suggestion box. 

That sounds like some "Good Will Hunting" stuff. [laughs]

Yeah, [laughs] so he called me in, and we started talking, I told him, "I just graduated high school, I have no formal training and I just want a chance to see if I can get it done. If you like what I can do now with no training, just think what I can do with some formal training on the job." So, he gave me a job as an entry-level footwear designer in January of '89. I was making like $18,000 a year for my first job as a footwear designer. I thought I made it. [laughs] Once I got in, I just kept my mouth shut, asked questions, worked hard to prove to Robert that he did not make a mistake and learned from all of the footwear designers, developers and marketing people. Within four years I was a senior designer. ... I stayed there until '92 and left there to work for this small footwear company in Michigan [called MVP Footwear] that sold me on something that wasn't there when I got there, so I was only there less than a year but it was a great experience because I met some great people.

While I was at L.A. Gear I told Robert about this company called Cross Colours and this young designer by the name of Karl Kani. I told Robert, "They are going to be big and he should do something with them." Karl was the pioneer of urban streetwear. Before Sean John, Phat Farm FUBU and all of those brands, there was Kani. He was the first to feature rappers like Puffy and Tupac in print ads. He and I became friends in '89, and he always talked about me doing his footwear. While I was in Detroit, he got into contact with Robert Greenberg, who had left L.A. Gear and at that time just launched a new brand - Skechers USA. Once they decided to do footwear, Karl and Robert called me asking me to come back to California to design Karl Kani and Cross Colors footwear. From '93 to '97 I was the Lead Designer and Brand Manager for both of these brands. In four years we built those brands from zero to about $50 Million. In '98 they parted ways and Robert offered me my own brand through Skechers called Sity. We had a great first year with sales of about 5 million.

Ironically, Sity was ranked second behind Brand Jordan by Sporting Goods Business as the top brands to watch in 2000. Surprisingly Skechers decided to divest in Sity to focus more on their girls, women's and kids businesses instead of the urban market. I had the option of staying, but I was in this industry for 11 years, and I wanted to freelance, so I started my own consulting company. There were no hard feelings between me and Robert or Skechers. He gave me my start, and I will always be grateful to him for that, and we are still good friends today. Less than a year into my freelance freedom a good friend of mine who worked at adidas, Paul Wilkinson, called me and said his boy Drew Greer who worked at Nike called and said they were looking for someone to help them get into the urban boot market. Nike wasn't really doing boots for the streets at the time, so I was like, "Well, I only wear Nikes and the best designers are all at Nike, so why not see if I was good enough to be a Nike designer." Honestly, that was the only reason that I took the job. I wanted to see if I could work at this place and [see] where my skills were. Two weeks after my interview I got two offers on the same day, one to work in ACG and the other in Sport Culture. I accepted the ACG position because they called me first. During my time in ACG I worked on the Goadome 2, Karst 2 and a variety of shoes from slides to trail running shoes. At the time, ACG was located on the third floor of the Jerry Rice Building, and Jordan Brand was one floor up on the fourth floor, so I came up here all the time. Bob Mervar was the Design Director at the time in Jordan, and he was actually on the panel in my interview, and I just told him that, "if you ever needed any help designing stuff I would love to help. ..."

They had a Jordan boot project that they wanted to do, so my first Jordan project was the Profiler Boot. About a year later, a position in Jordan opened up, and I accepted a position in my dream job. It just did not seem real. I was designing Jordans. ... I only accepted the job at Nike to see where I stood as a designer. I never thought I would get a chance to design for Jordan. What? That was and still is an honor for me. This month marks my 20th year in this industry, and my journey was not a conventional route. I am statistically not suppose to be here. Think about it ... a black kid, the youngest of six, raised by a single parent, less-than-middle-class status in the inner city with no college fund for a "chance" at a future" ... That was me. The sad thing is that my story is not new, and I meet a lot of kids today that are like me, and that's what the Future Sole competition is about: to provide kids the opportunity that most professional designers today did not have. There are a lot of talented kids out there that have the ability, but don't have the guidance and don't know what to do or where to go, but they have all this raw talent and they need a place where they can showcase and refine their talent.

It's a little bit easier today because kids have the Internet, and they can email designs around. Schools are also becoming more aware of the fact that people actually can make a career out of footwear design, but there is STILL no school for it. When I was growing up, fashion design and cars were the best design jobs. Today, footwear design is the new hot job. Today it's a little easier, but it's still nowhere near where it needs to be. The U.S. footwear industry is close to a $50 billion industry, and there's no school for it. Crazy right? You can't say, "I want to go to school for footwear design," and find a school that will teach you. The industry has a long way to go in terms of educating the talent that comes into it. A lot of the talent that comes into the industry is from industrial design, graphic design, fashion design or architecture. As a footwear designer, you must acquire all of those skills at some point, but there's no solid pipeline. Future Sole is the first step towards providing a road map for kids to follow, and that has always been my goal - to provide that one day along with a school dedicated to it as well.

Steve Mullholand: Can you tell me a little bit about what your job entails on a daily basis?

Every day is different, but my days start around 6:30 a.m. with me trying to get out of email jail - I currently have over 500 emails in my inbox. And as the day progresses, I might have four or five meetings to attend around the seasonal design direction, reviewing designs, design strategies for future seasons, sketch sessions, etc. In between that, I manage five talented designers that I have to make sure I am available for when they need me for a variety of reasons from design input, conflict resolution, brainstorming on new concepts to general conversation. As a director and manager, I feel like it is my job to help my team get stronger and to make their job easier or less stressful - not always an easy thing to do. I don't design nearly as often as I'd like, but when I do, it's either before people get here or on the weekends. [laughs] And on a good day I might be able to actually design something before I end my day around 6 p.m. Yeah, my days are sometimes long, but I love what I do, and I work with some very talented people - not to mention the brand I get to work for makes it all worth it.

What's your favorite aspect of the job?

Number one is designing. Designing something from nothing still amazes me to this day, and to see someone you don't know wearing it, and they don't know you designed - it is great. The second is it is an honor to work in the Jordan Brand. That may sound corny, but it's true. I grew up with this brand. I have bought every pair of Air Jordans until I started working in the brand. I am a fan. The last pair I customized back in '90 was the black and grey IIIs. I flipped mine to be black with red elephant. Today, people would think those were fakes. [laughs] Next, I would say the places I have traveled, the people I have met and the things I have learned are all from being a designer - from traveling to Italy to see how Lamborghinis are made to Georgia to see how the F-22 Raptor is made. I have had more than a few once-in a-lifetime experiences. Last but not least, the people I work with, from my design team and the rest of the Jordan team to the professional athletes I have had a chance to design product for. I am truly blessed and I give thanks every day before I come to work.

Can you talk about the vision of Future Sole?

The Future Sole project is a lot like my experience of being a young kid and drawing sneakers in high school and wanting to have this as a profession. The great thing about it is that Nike is trying to provide a semi-pathway for kids to get closer to that goal. Being a high school student and being able to have Nike designers review your projects and review your work and give you advice on how to improve or what schools or even high schools to go to is a blessing. The concept of the contest is to identify high school kids that have a talent in design, and even if you may not win, we'll still identify the kids that have talent and help them improve so maybe they can win the next year or get into college. For the first competition we had over 150 entries, and Juan Carlos Pozo from Florida, who is 18, and Ben Adams-Keane from Boston, who is 15, were our winners. Juan is a freshman now at Pratt in New York, which is really special because he is the first in his family to go to college. They both could work here at Nike today, that's how talented they are.

It's pretty humbling to see the talent level that's out there and to see how hungry the kids are. We're going to be switching up the competition this year a bit, and there's going to be three separate competitions for Nike, Jordan and maybe Converse. It will still be under one umbrella as Future Sole, and all contestants can enter all three. [NOTE: The Converse branch of the competition wasn't included in the 2009 Future Sole contest.] We are going to link up with more community organizations and design schools so more kids will have a pathway for success now that we know there's a lot of talent out there. My path is different, and sometimes I really don't like to talk about [it] because I don't want kids to think that's what they can do by skipping college or design school. I don't always like sharing that part, but I think if you have the opportunity to go to school you should definitely go. I am a believer in if you are going to school or you are not going to school, what is going to separate you is your passion. If you don't have that, you can get as much schooling as you want, but you are wasting your time and money.

I know that may sound harsh, but everyone needs to find what is that one or two things that you would do for free. I would do my job for free - but keep the checks comin' Jordan - because this is what I am passionate about. [laughs] Then I got my chance as an entry-level footwear designer, I felt like if I failed, the next black guy or girl wasn't going to get the chance that Robert gave me. I had a personal mission to make sure I not only succeeded, but that I exceeded his expectations and my own expectations. I wanted to prove to him that he did not make a mistake and to myself that I could do this. My thing is this - you leave a legacy wherever you go, and the great thing about design is that your work is going to be on this earth longer than you are. Even though all of the shoes I have designed in my career have someone else's name and logo on them, I designed it. That makes it mine. Whether it is good or bad, my name is in that product, and as a designer you need to take personal responsibility for what you design. And if you give it your best, your work will continue to be talked about even after you're finished.

If you don't put in the effort, you will not see the results. When I talk to kids who want to become designers, some think that it's easy, because we have the ability to draw and create images with a pencil and paper. If they were able to shadow us and see the amount of time that a single shoe takes and the amount of revisions and updates and things that it takes to get done, a lot of people would be surprised and discouraged. Others would think it's a challenge to go after. Those are the kids I want to work with because if there's a kid out there with superior talent who is just wants to do this because it is a good-paying job, and there's a kid who might need some work with his skills, but he has a passion and work ethic to get better, I'll take the kid with passion and work ethic to work with every day. You can't teach passion.

How do you deal with stress here at Jordan?

You're not only a designer, but you also manage a handful of people and watch over their timelines. Prayer. Seriously. I pray to focus in on the things I can control. Everything else, I turn it over to God. I also think my overall demeanor helps, because I'm pretty much on five all the time - exterior-wise. [laughs] Inside, I might be spiking a little bit more. [laughs] But, I can't ever let my stress show and let my team see me stressing, because then they're going to stress out. I have to always maintain a certain level of calmness, but I'm naturally calm anyway. During the time I was designing the Melo 5.5, M3, M4 and the XX1 and XX2 at the same time, it was pretty stressful, but I tried not to show it. When you get to the director/manager level, your stress levels rise because you have to deal with so much more from projects, tasks, people and politics. ... It was pretty stressful, and after the XX2, I actually ended up having some serious health issues. When you are dealing with stress, sometimes you have to just let it out or deal with it, and I never did. When things get bad or disappointing, I also always try to keep things in perspective - I am getting paid to design shoes.

Nick: What advice would you give people in terms of seeking out a mentor or finding internships?

That's the number one thing, and you hit it right on the head - find a mentor or somebody that can help you. It's a lot easier today because there is this thing called email. Think about it, what do you have to lose? Send an email to somebody asking for advice, and if they don't get back to you, oh well, send more to someone else, but if they do, then you hit the jackpot. Try and find someone who will see your work and give you some feedback and help you improve and get better, and that's for any profession. One-on-one feedback is priceless. School can't teach you that. Even though you'll have professors who can be your mentors, the bad part is that none of them have designed footwear.

Reach out to as many people as possible and see who gets back to you to help put you in a position to improve yourself, just like Justin (Taylor) did. We developed a relationship online and over the phone, and I told him, "Meet me in Vegas if you're serious about doing this." I didn't know he was going to drive from Arkansas. [laughs] But, I saw his work, and we met in Vegas, and even though he was very talented anyway, I believe that experience helped him. If you are able to, go where designers are, like trade shows such as WSA or MAGIC, which are both twice a year in February and in August. PROJECT is the same time as MAGIC and there is also one in New York. Go where the talent is, and if that means you have to drive six hours - or in Justin's case two days - to get there, you need to figure out a way to get there.

Showing that type of commitment shows the person you're meeting with that you're serious. At the same time, if you're not serious about this profession, don't go and waste somebody's time, because that only makes it harder for the next person that tries to contact that person. Two of the things I always tell people that I mentor is one, don't waste my time and I will only give you one chance to mess up. I value my time and I don't want anyone to waste it. Second, if I help you, you need to help two people with the goal of keeping that strand going and more people will be helped. That is another form of having your legacy in this industry and in life.