D'Wayne Edwards: The legend. The magic of being the best of YOU.
First of all, thank you so much D'Wayne Edwards for this great opportunity to learn from you. Your words have enriched my life and I am sure people would be able to learn so much from you as well.
It is difficult to explain this feeling or sensation but you sometimes know instinctively what you want or need. When I first read his article, I got that feeling.
At a tender age of 17, he won a Reebok design competition, beating out professionals and college students nationwide. Two years later,, he became the youngest professional footwear designer in the industry. Later on he became one of the youngest Design Directors in Nike’s history and designed AIR JORDAN at the age of 30. Fortunately, I had a chance to interview with a legendary footwear designer, D'Wayne Edwards, founder of PENSOLE Footwear Design Academy. He shares with us the essence of his life.
C: For those who are not familiar with you, let us know more about you. How did you come to a footwear designer?
DE: That is a long story, but I will try to keep it short. I grew up with the gift to draw anything I could see, and starting at age 11 I drew my first shoe. All through school I would draw shoes instead of doing my class work (which got me in trouble a lot), and one day I saw an ad for a footwear design competition. Well, I entered the competition and won but I was still in high school so I did not get the job. That sparked my desire to be a footwear designer even more, so I started trying to find colleges that offered footwear design so that could be my future. But there were no schools of that kind, so I gave up on my dream. I later went on to graduate from high school and started working, filing papers. One of my early jobs was at a footwear company by the name of LA Gear. Here I was, my dream job in sight, and one day they put suggestion boxes in every department for employees to give the company ideas on how to make the company better. Well, my idea was to hire me as a footwear designer, so I put a new sketch of shoe in the box everyday. After six months the owner of the company called me into his office and offered me a job. That was shortly after my 19th birthday. There is more to the story but I tried to keep it short. The longer version is on pensole.com under “founder”.
C: When you design, what you can see in your mind? What kind of processes are taken in your thought?
DE: Interesting question, because I think my designs through in my head before I actually draw. I can spend hours or days building a physical image of each design in my head, adding things until I can see about 90% of what it will look like, then I sit down and five minutes later it’s on paper. I usually finish the final 10% once it is a real image on paper. I see my designs in black and white, which is why I only use a No. 2 pencil and white paper.
C: Even though you had an incredible career as a designer, why did you begin the PENSOLE Footwear Design Academy? What do you aim to achieve through it?
DE: I started it for a few reasons. The first is I wanted to provide a pathway for young kids like me—who grew up poor with limited resources in a tough environment with a better chance of ending up dead or in jail than of having any type of career. The other reason I did not want my legacy in this industry or as a designer to be the “products” I designed. I feel I was blessed with a gift that has more power if I share it with others than just using it to make me or other people rich. My aim for PENSOLE is to simply leave the footwear industry better than it was when I entered it by developing the next generation of footwear leaders. So far, so good. We have more than 100 students working professionally after just four years, at the industry’s top companies.
C: Being the best designer would be completely different from being the best teacher. How do you make a bridge between them?
DE: Great question! Never been challenged to think about that. I would say my life’s goal—to be better than I was yesterday—has impacted my approach to design and teaching. I think there is a certain level of discipline you have to have if your goal is to be great at anything. But the title of “great” is something you work towards and earn. I have always strived to be great, and now, instead of me trying to design a great product, I am focused on helping design lives. Today, I still think of myself as a designer, but I also see myself as a farmer, and my students are my seeds. If I am able to plant them across the industry, it will elevate design throughout the entire footwear business.
C: What is a method/thing/way that others do not take, but you take to transmit your knowledge and experience to the next generation?
DE: I lead by example and teach my students the way they will work in the real world. My relationship with my students is not one of just a teacher because my philosophy on teaching is summed up in this quote from Bruce Lee: “I am not teaching you anything. I just help to you to explore yourself.” To quote Bruce again, “Life is your teacher and you are in a constant state of learning.” I sincerely believe this, and I am not here to teach you “skills” with your hands, my goal is to help you develop your brain so you reach your full potential: as a person first and designer second.
C: What makes the difference between commercially successful artist and talented artists having a low profile?
DE: Visibility. I believe the talent can be the same, but if no one sees it, how will they know your talent? Now, of course, there are other factors, like working at larger companies with higher profiles, but at the end of the day you should be working towards perfecting your craft daily to achieve your own level of greatness. And who cares if anyone sees it because you should not be defined by what others think. Focus on being the best YOU, and at some point the world will discover who YOU are.
C: From the viewpoint of business, how does your experience as a designer help you manage your academy?
DE: It helps me greatly! Business is my new design challenge. How can I creatively solve problems that will lead to a better way of doing things is what I ask myself daily. I advise ALL designers who want to have their own business one day to approach business the same way they design If they do that they will see their vision for their company before it happens that same way they see their designs before they’re real. PENSOLE is my greatest design, and the world has only seen a very small part of it. I am excited to wake up every day to develop and reveal more and more of it. I can’t wait to show you what I am working on next.
C: If you had had the same amount of knowledge and experience when you started the academy, what would you have done differently?
DE: Hmmm, I am not sure because even thought it has not been easy I would not change a thing. What people don’t realize is we do not learn from our successes. We learn from our mistakes. And when you adopt the willingness to take a chance to do something great, even if you fail, it might still end up good. Most don’t even try, and they fail before they start. So, for me, I don’t look back because I am focused on moving forward.
C: If you can make a call to 20-year-old D'Wayne Edwards, what kind of advices you would give to him?
DE: Another GREAT question! I can take this is a few different ways because so much has happened to me over the course of my life, but I would say: “Li’l Bro, it’s not going to be easy. You will experience the death of people closest to you. You will meet people you never dreamed of meeting. You will be praised and criticized by the same people. You will fail more than you succeed. Be thankful for everything because if it was too easy, it would not be worth it.”
C: If you can leave one message to make the world better, what would you say?
DE: Man, where do you get these questions……? ☺ “Focus on being a person who inspires others because one day someone will need you.” – D’Wayne Edwards