D’Wayne Edwards Discusses America’s First Black-Owned Footwear Factory – Sourcing Journal

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One-hundred and forty years since biracial inventor Jan Ernst Matzeliger patented the automated shoe laster, less than 3 percent of designers and fewer than 1 percent of brand owners today are Black.

Sneaker icon D’Wayne Edwards leveraged this bit of history as his incentive for opening the JEMS by Pensole shoe factory in Somersworth, New Hampshire on March 28. Short for Jan Ernst Matzeliger Stu/Deo, the new facility marks the first Black-owned footwear factory in the U.S.

“We wanted to honor him by naming the factory for him,” Edwards said of Matzeliger, whose device was dubbed “the most important invention for New England.” “We also wanted to further develop the historic nature of the Northeast as it relates to shoemaking.”

On Sept. 15, the 171st birthday of Surinam-born tinkerer of partial German heritage, 915 pairs of shoes will be the first released from the new factory, which Edwards said has 15 employees and counting. Edwards also designed the footwear, which should begin rolling off the production line next month. Going forward, the concept is to establish a cohort of designers chosen from Detroit’s Lewis College for Business, the historically Black school Edwards purchased in 2020 after it shut down in 2017.

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“What we’re doing with the college is we will create programming that will identify those that have this passion,” Edwards said. “And we want to leverage it as the education arm to identify and develop this talent.”

Edwards previously owned and operated the Pensole Footwear Design Academy in Portland, Oregon since 2010. Combining the two campuses created Pensole-Lewis College.

“The majority of what we teach is on the footwear design side, but we also teach apparel and accessory design,” Edwards told Sourcing Journal. “We’re expanding into other areas from a graphic design point of view with interior design, sculpting, packaging, so we’re becoming more of a well-rounded design school, but our primary partnerships are deeper in the footwear [and] apparel set.”

Edwards counts footwear retailer Designer Shoe Warehouse (DSW) and its parent company Designer Brands Inc. (DBI) as its biggest partners. DSW contributed $2 million to launch the factory and will continue to help with marketing and distribution, and will hire top Pensole-Lewis College designer graduates.

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Bill Jordan, Designer Brands Inc. President, the parent company of Designer Shoe Warehouse, speaks at the opening of the new JEMS by Pensole factory opening in Somerset, N.H.

Courtesy of JEMS by Pensole

“We’re here to help,” DBI president Bill Jordan told Sourcing Journal. “Things like sourcing and transportation—we’ve got big infrastructure and we can move things, get banks, help any way we can on the backside. And once these goods are produced, we’re going to turn around and sell those goods at DSW to our customers.”

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On the academy side, Jordan said DSW will be involved, too, even providing judges for the “Shark Tank“-style competition Edwards has in mind for whittling aspiring students down to the 10 or 15 who will qualify for the JEMS cohort.

 “We don’t want people just to be designers, so to speak—we want them to be complete visionaries of the whole process,” Edwards said. “We can teach you the technical skills—that’s pretty easy—but it’s really your level of commitment from a passion point of view.”

Edwards discovered his talent for footwear design when he was a 12-year-old drawing shoes.

“I didn’t know it was a job; didn’t know it was a possibility, but I got my first job at L.A. Gear in 1988, and from that experience kind of tricked my way into getting a job in 1989,” he said.

During a three-decade career that included stints with Nike and Jordan, Edwards has seen few people who look like him in the footwear design sphere. In 2019 he tried to turn that around by starting the Black Footwear Forum (BFF). The first of these forums drew more than 300 designers, marketers, entrepreneurs and students to Washington, D.C. and last year’s saw 1,450 descend on Detroit, where the BFF will be again on Sept. 22-24.

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“When you’re Black in this industry, if you walk into a room, you’re always outnumbered, whether it’s a meeting at the office, a trade show or a convention. This is the first time folks can walk into a room and they’re the majority,” Edwards said. “It was important for people to see that because people are lonely and that loneliness in corporations creates a lack of community.”

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JEMS by Pensole founder D’Wayne Edwards and the company’s director of manufacturing Scot Hull embrace during the opening of the new factory in Somersworth, N.H.

Courtesy of JEMS by Pensole

Though he’s spent most of his life in the footwear business, Jordan hadn’t heard of Matzeliger’s story until Edwards told him.

“African Americans represent less than 5 percent of designers, but I can tell you they buy probably 20 to 25 percent of all the shoes in America,” Jordan said, pointing to how growing African-American footwear design talent could help boost shoe sales among this demographic.

Jordan said marketing for the JEMS by Pensole launch is still a month away, and Edwards isn’t sharing details or photos of the inaugural product launch. But the focus is on “bringing back leather,” he said, describing how difficult it is “to find a good pair of leather shoes.”

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JEMS by Pensole founder D’Wayne Edwards and DBI president Bill Jordan inaugurate the new factory.

Courtesy of JEMS by Pensole



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