Sandwiched between a wooden worktable and a row of industrial sewing machines, a tall public relations professional wearing gold kicks, skinny jeans, a long cardigan, and a sweatband stands bent at almost ninety-degrees with her fingers digging into a sneaker mounted on a plastic foot. The mold is called a las and is used to give shape to shoes as they’re being designed. The PR rep’s aim is to get the shoe off the last in under a minute and the ring of people around her cheer when, resorting to brute force, she rips the sneaker free.
This is one of the challenges in an event that our hosts at the Pensole Footwear Design Academy have dubbed the Kicks Combine — a series of footwear design and construction challenges whose aim is to help us better understand the experience of studying at the school.
Started in 2010 by D’Wayne Edwards, Pensole Footwear Design Academy is the only sneaker design school in the nation. Edwards is a luminary in the global footwear community, where he’s continually distinguished himself for the last 29 years. He worked on the legendary Catapult during his time with LA Gear, designed for Karl Kani and Skechers, and eventually landed at Nike, where he designed the Air Jordan XXI and XXII.
Still, with a seemingling endless reserve of talent, Edwards didn’t find it easy to break into the field of shoe design. Growing up in a single parent family in Inglewood, design school wasn’t a viable option. Instead, he began working as a file clerk with LA Gear. Ambitious from the jump, he spent six months placing a shoe design in the office suggestion box each and every work day. After exactly 180 of them, he got his first design job at age 19, making him the youngest professional footwear designer in the industry. Now, as the founder of Pensole, he gives talented young design students of any socioeconomic background a chance to learn from industry legends.
Along with other writers who cover coveted sneaker drops and culture, I was invited to the Pensole space for the Kicks Combine — a collab between Foot Locker, ASICS, and Pensole. The day marked the release of the Asics “Fresh Up” designed by Pensole students Brady Corum and Vince Lebon. The duo says their design was inspired by the impact of hip-hop culture and pulled from the textures and colors of turntables, microphones, and graffiti. It doesn’t take an expert to recognize those influences in the design.
Located in Portland, Oregon’s Old Town, Pensole is only about twenty minutes from where I live, on a regular day. But it snowed the day before the combine, and snow sends Portlanders into a panic. The news was awash in warnings to leave for your morning commute as early as possible, so I found myself slipping along icy sidewalks a half hour before our call time. I thought it might signal problems if I waited inside a nearby bar for a 9 am event, so I swung open the door and walked into the academy.
I was greeted by two young women who gestured to tables covered in boxes of coffee and Blue Star doughnuts (the current fave of Portlanders). There was also juice, fruit, and yogurt. I grabbed some coffee, promptly poured a hefty amount down the front of my shirt, and set off to explore the space. The floors were pale wood slats and the walls were a flat black. Along one wall were asymmetrical shelves punctuated with shoes, balls, and a few odd knickknacks.
The open floor plan of Pensole’s first floor is divided into one area filled with design tables and another large open space with flat screens dotting few of the walls. When the rest of the writers arrived (I was the only chick), we all piled into this space and had a seat to listen to Edwards, who walked us through the typical student morning routine. The focus in these sessions is positivity and inspiration, a mandate to shake off the dreariness of the news cycle.
“I feel like especially now, in this day and age with social media and our phones and everything else, we get fed so much negative information that we never take the time to get good information,” Edwards said. “I say ‘take the time to get good information because good information is typically not shared.’ You have to make a concentrated effort whether it’s sign up to mailing lists of different creative websites or have friends and family that can feed you information. You have to customize what your input is.”
Pensole helps students by offering them 50 to 60 websites and throughout the term each student leads the start of the day by sharing an inspirational quote, three people alive or dead with whom they would have dinner, one inspiring product, a book that they recommend, and a person they follow on social media. Over a 21-day course, that leaves students with a considerable info/inspo database when they exit the program.
There is a tendency in our culture to frame design and art as the product of inborn talent peppered the occasional dose of divine inspiration. But, that isn’t how Edwards sees it. His goal is to instill habits in students that will ultimately allow them to succeed in the industry. And he certainly leads by example.
“I like a lot of different things and I respond to just kind of… what life brings you, I don’t have a go-to point of inspiration,” Edwards said. “Whatever the project is, I embrace it and who it’s for and then I start to try to become the person that it’s for; wherever that leads me that’s where I end up going. With all of these different forms of insights then you start to notice trends. You start to notice behaviors and you start to notice these things, and at some point, as a creative you develop a pattern of how you create things. You develop a creative process.”
As I sat beside my fellow writers listening to Edwards talk about the creative process and information gathering, I started to think about how much I would love to go to Pensole. I couldn’t design a shoe to save my life, nor do I really want to, but I want to be around D’Wayne Edwards, as I imagine everyone who meets him does. He is energized and excited and positive in a way that feels deeply authentic. It’s thrilling to be near.
After the morning Q and A, we were all split into groups of two. In these pairs, we worked through a series of events that fell into four categories: strength, speed, accuracy, and IQ. In the first half of the combine, we were tasked with recognizing sneaker textiles while blindfolded, designing lacing configurations as quickly as possible, color blocking as many variations as we could during a three-minute period, testing our perception of color, and determining the cost of various elements of a shoe. Now, these obviously aren’t the same as sitting down and designing a shoe, but they did highlight the critical nature of the creative process. Plus, every exercise was lead by former students, including Vince and Brady, who designed the “Fresh Up.”
Competition isn’t my jam and I went into the experience with trepidation. How could I compete with these hypebeasts? Luckily, my love of play kicked in, and I committed to getting as much out of each activity as I could. Sitting at the textile station, I ran my fingers gently over fabrics and leathers like they were lovers and made a concerted effort to determine what they were. Still, I was occasionally stymied by a lifetime of vegetarianism and utter absence of familiarity with animal skins. When asked to be more specific about the type of leather I was feeling, I said, “I don’t know. Dead cow leather?” The answer was nubuck.
As the only woman present, I had the advantage on identifying colors because I am considerably less likely to be color blind, so that was a confidence booster. After getting through these events, I felt pumped. I had a poor showing at the lacing event, but even that seemed unlikely to upset my momentum. (Seriously, sit down some time and race the clock to come up with multiple appraches to lacing design on a drawing of a shoe. It’s dumb. My takeaway: Laces fucking suck and velcro is the future.)
In the afternoon, after we all dove into a Chipotle buffet and the remaining doughnuts got a second look, we went upstairs to the area where students physically construct shoes for out next set of challenges. Walls were covered with bright soles, leather and fabrics sat in rolls, and work tables fought for floor space against rows of giant sewing machines. For this part of the combine, our goals were sewing a sample shoe upper, cutting two pattern pieces out of leather, reconstructing a shoe that had been broken down into parts, determining what a crosscut of a sole would look like, and, of course, the last challenge — that our PR women killed — of getting a shoe off of a last.
The cross cut challenge was easy peasy, and I crushed the reconstruction puzzle, moving through the pieces of the shoe methodically while people cheered for me. But, things ground to a halt when my partner and I started cutting leather. My blade was so dull and I ended up scoring the pattern pieces and ripping them apart, leaving a fringe all around the edges. D’Wayne told me those would need to be removed in production or the shoe would look like crap. Taking the shoe off of the last should have been cake because the dude before me cracked the code and realized you had to manipulate the insert to most quickly remove the shoe. Did I follow his lead? Nope. I unlaced the shoe. All I could hear in my head was “Work the laces!” and I have to say that voice was really just a line from Psych and not a solid strategy.
It took me 34 seconds to rip that sucker off of it’s infuriating plastic foot and I felt like the last kid finishing the mile in seventh grade. (Which is to say, I felt like me in seventh grade.)
I don’t wanna brag, but when we all finally finished the events and our scores were tallied, I came in third among the journalists and hypebeasts. Now, some people might frame that as losing, but earlier in the day Edwards told us one of his favorite quotes was “There is no losing: only winning and learning.” So, really, I was one of the top learners. And, I did learn. I can’t design or construct a shoe or anything, but my appreciation for the sneakers I cover and their designers and makers have increased considerably. And my admiration for Edwards — a man who has paid forward his success at every turn — is absolutely sky high.