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Kickin’ Facts | The hidden ways to enter the sneaker industry, as revealed by sneaker professionals

Whether you want to be a sneaker designer or another creative in the industry, many Black youths have no idea about the programs — sometimes free! — that they can join and learn the trade from professionals. Check them out here!

Pensole student Pensole

“Kickin’ Facts” is REVOLT’s sneaker column, written by sneaker expert Jazerai Allen-Lord, where she dives into the culture and discusses all things kicks with a special emphasis on Black people who are in the scene, but who the now very-gentrified sneaker industry often overlooks. Come here for the real from an absolute sneakerhead who truly is of the culture.

The sneaker industry is elusive as f**k.

We rarely see a distinct pathway to anything aside from consumption, and with the SNKRS App trending weekly like clockwork, even that has its complications. “How do I get a job in footwear?” is the number one question in my DMs, but with multiple barriers to entry and a broken recruitment system, it’s a difficult question to answer with hope.

But, a new group of vanguards intend to bring clarity to the process of building a career in sneakers, filling the holes in the pipeline to make it possible for young creatives to flip the switch from consumers to contributors to the sneaker game. Through programs like PENSOLE Academy, adidas S.E.E.D. School, Alexander John Studios, and Garrixon, those who are unable to afford art school or have been shut out of the recruitment process can get the education, experience, and preparation they need to enter the industry prepared.

“A lot of the major brands try to look for new design talent through the same channels they use to look for all other talent, which is traditional design schools. But if you go that route, you’re not going to find us [Black people] because a lot of us cannot afford to go to design school. A lot of us don’t even understand that it’s a career possibility. A lot of our parents don’t believe that ‘art’ is a career path. And I emphasize art because if you’re not in the industry, you don’t know the difference between art and design. Because of that, a lot of parents discourage us from going into art-related fields. They don’t understand that design is different from art. We still have the stigma of art equals broke. But, design does not equal broke.” - Dr. D’Wayne Edwards, Founder of PENSOLE Academy

Dr. Edwards founded the PENSOLE Footwear Design Academy following a 30-year career in which time he designed over 500 styles at Jordan Brand, Nike, Skechers, and LA Gear. The inequities he uncovered during his personal career journey is what inspired him to open PENSOLE, and now through his work, he has made it his mission to not only balance the scales, but to be the resources that he needed as a kid.

“A couple of years ago, I did a study. There are 96 colleges in the US that have design programs. On average, African-Americans were only at 9% enrollment. Forty percent of us dropped out after our sophomore year because of finances. So that percentage goes down to five and a quarter. Half of those kids are art students, and the other half are design students. So, that drops it even lower to two and a quarter. And then, half of those kids are not being taught what they need to be taught to be employed. So, on average, by estimation, not just our industry, but all design industries have less than 2% of Black students to pull from. And it’s probably worse now because of COVID-19. So, if that is the norm, of course, the companies are going to say that they can’t find us because they aren’t looking any further than what they normally would do.” - Dr. D’Wayne Edwards, Founder of PENSOLE Academy

PENSOLE Academy is a disruptive pipeline for the $60 million sneaker industry. Through their program, designers of any gender, age, or ability are not only certified in the process of footwear design but presented with an opportunity to present their work to a brand recruitment team and potentially land a position. Unlike traditional education, brands like Nike, adidas, New Balance, Puma, and Foot Locker partner with the academy, not only in funding but also in recruitment.

Another differentiator is PENSOLE’s ability to iterate its offering as the industry shifts. Due to the quickness at which the sneaker industry evolves, the job skills taught through PENSOLE Academy are currently not being taught in design schools. The curriculum is easy to modify as the academy’s renowned instructors come from the same brands that the students want to work for.

During your time at there, you are introduced to the various design-based jobs in footwear, something that has been a mystery to most people at the consumer level. After being shown the jobs, you are given the opportunity to learn the jobs from the people who actually do them.

Not only does PENSOLE serve as the bridge between the student and the company, but it removes the most significant obstacle: cost. All of its programming is free.

“The things that these kids see daily that they don’t know are actual jobs are things like color designer — deciding where colors go on a shoe and which ones to use. Someone gets paid to do that. Someone else gets paid to select all the materials for all of the shoes. Someone else gets paid to decide what type of shoe should even be made. That’s called product marketing. All of these jobs are just sitting there, but the kid in the mall doesn’t know that this is how that style comes to life on the shelf.” - Dr. D’Wayne Edwards, Founder of PENSOLE Academy

Adidas was PENSOLE’s first brand sponsor, so it seems natural to see a second partnership sprout between the two — this time focused on women. Adidas S.E.E.D. School is billed as a strategic pipeline to welcome new talent into the brand and the industry. S.E.E.D. stands for “School for Experiential Education in Design” with sessions held at the elusive Brooklyn Farm. The inaugural class, Generation 2020, is comprised of female creators, and all six of them are women of color. Founded in partnership with PENSOLE and with support from Pharrell, adidas has recognized that the design industry needs a change and that it’s time to offer talent of all kinds a seat at the table. In their words, “We believe in a future of footwear designed by the consumer, for the consumer.”

“I was at Nike for almost ten years. I worked on a lot of great products, I learned a lot and grew my network. I was really inspired, as you would expect to be at Nike, but I got to a point in my career where I had hit a glass ceiling as a design lead. I also wanted to take a step back. I wanted to teach and mentor and create more opportunities for people like myself to get into the industry, especially women of color. We are not in existence in this space, but we have a lot of influence on the consumer side. So, I went back to South Florida and started teaching at my old high school to close the loop there, and then I found out about S.E.E.D., and the vision for the program was everything I felt that I had been working my career for. To be able to open up doors and create opportunities for other people. So, when the opportunity came for me to actually be part of the core team and help drive S.E.E.D. forward, I uprooted my life. I left Miami in January and moved to New York. Right now, I’m leading all things design. So, building the curriculum, facilitating the designer’s learning, and product creation.” - Cheresse Thornhill

Adidas S.E.E.D. School is led by knowledgeable, talented women with experience who intend to leave their legacy within the next generation of female creators. They aren’t doing this through lectures in a classroom, but through hands-on participation in real-world scenarios. There, you bring real products to life, which is where the support of Pharrell comes in. The first project for the class of 2020 was focused on graphic design where they executed the merchandise t-shirt for Pharrell’s Something In The Water Festival.

“What makes S.E.E.D really unique, which is different than colleges and universities, is that we’re actually producing products that will go to market, and our designers are learning through the product creation process. So, they are able to see their product hit the market, and see how it’s received on the backend.” - Cheresse Thornhill

Not only does the education model meet the student where they are, but the recruitment process does, too. In speaking with Liz Connelly, who oversees the talent acquisition and recruitment for adidas S.E.E.D. School, she broke down the current education model and how her personal journey influences her system.

“I’ve always been super passionate about education, although I personally have never felt served by the educational systems as they exist. College was always a struggle for me, I actually never finished school. It had nothing to do with my desire to learn or how far I wanted to go in my career. I just wasn’t learning in a way that I felt I needed. In my previous position at adidas, I led the internship program for North America, and it was a really fun program and experience. We had some strong talent that came out of that, but when you get deep into a pathway, you start to question: Why is this the core pathway? Why is this the one lane that students are being directed to in order to get to a company like this? And what drove my curiosity further was asking myself if all creators in the entire universe traveled a university path. I didn’t think that was correct, and research and data show that it’s not. Particularly in underrepresented minorities.” - Liz Connelly

Adidas S.E.E.D. School is gearing up for their next round of recruitment for the 2021 class, and this time the focus is not just on women, but Black women. To shoot your shot, similar to the PENSOLE application process, all that is required is that you draw a shoe that doesn’t exist yet. Aside from that, they ask that you are 18+, have no prior corporate industry design experience, and are a Black woman. We love to see it!

If you aren’t in Portland, L.A., or NYC, the road to sneaker success could feel bleak. On the third coast in the ATL, Alexander John has opened his studio for the next generation of Black creators. Working on his team ensures that you not only learn the skillsets needed to become a footwear designer, but you have access to the necessary tools locally to work on your own projects for free.

“A lot of times, kids pay thousands of dollars to go to these classes and learn all the skills, and then they go home, and they have all this knowledge, but they don’t have the equipment to practice on or the money to get it. While that’s a great route for people who can afford it, where I come from, there are very talented kids in the community with really dope ideas, but they can’t afford to take these classes. Their lifestyle also doesn’t allow it because, as Black people, we are adults on average when we turn nine or ten years old because of our circumstances. That’s why I want to make the whole thing accessible. The education, the training, and the tools. That’s the last piece of the puzzle for me. Teaching kids how to put shoes together and taking them through A-Z.” - Alexander John, Creative Director & Footwear Designer

Alexander’s differentiator is in his approach. While you learn the traditional skills taught at most of the design programs available — i.e., color, materials, and technical design — his studio isn’t a school that you graduate from or become certified at. It’s on the job training and placement for aspiring creatives from the local community. He welcomes creatives with all skillsets who are willing to learn, and do the work, teaching them not only how to work with their hands, but personal development and the marketing and business piece that is often left out of the design conversation.

“Because so much has happened to us as Black people, and we are traumatized continuously by watching our people die every day, we tend to lose our sense of confidence and can sometimes become aggressive and defensive. So, in working with the hands, you learn life principles. You learn how to deal with things. You learn patience. You learn teamwork. There are a lot of companies and schools that teach you one thing, but there is 360 learning that is necessary for them to become a whole person in this business. I could teach you how to do a kick all day, but that doesn’t mean you know karate, and know the lifestyle and the culture and why it exists.” - Alexander John, Creative Director & Footwear Designer

Alexander John’s studio has remained open for his mentees and team during COVID-19, a place that they have used to continue their personal projects. Over the past 12 months, young creators who would typically be left out of the recruitment process at major brands had the opportunity to work with those same labels on multiple projects through Alexander John Studios. If you’ve seen the Mixtape Pumas on JAY-Z and everyone from Roc Nation, that was them. The hyperlocal colorways for Foot Locker’s community stores? That was them. And even through a retail collapse, 2020 has been equally as promising.

Garrixon has a novel solution that sits between Alexander John Studios and the PENSOLE programs, targeting the new wave of creators who have no desire to work at the brand because they are the brand. While on a successful track creating custom drops for celebrities like JAY-Z — and even the Brooklyn Zoo — Rich Franklin and John Silverman saw a gap in the industry when it came to limited run production and a rise in consumer desire for personalized products.

Through a tiered model, you enter the Garrixon universe through one of the many footwear design workshops offered (at cost), which serves as a procurement and testing phase.

“We create these classes and workshops that people can take and learn about the craft. What that does for us is gives us a pool of talent to look at to see who’s ready to go through to the next level. After that, we take them through a 90-day training period to discover what they’re best at and what they enjoy the most. We like people who can wear multiple hats and can be a multi-purpose player because our industry is not as easy as the regular footwear industry. At the big brands, you’re going to make 20,000 pairs of the same silhouette. The materials are the same, the process doesn’t change, it’s almost like a Chipotle assembly line. With our shoes, because they are limited drops for a creator or business, we could be amending a pattern to add a strap or dipping it into some type of flex seal, and it needs to go through research and development. What we want is people who can play all those different roles.” - Rich Franklin, Lead Designer at Garrixon

Outside of creatives who want to launch their own brand, similar to Alexander John, the designers at Garrixon expanded their offering to include quick-turn production of small runs for the big brands. A typical footwear production process can take 18-24 months and requires multiple trips overseas. When Nike has a hot idea and wants to create 500 pairs in a flash, they call Garrixon.

“We’ve done shoes with Budweiser, Land Shark, Arizona Iced Tea, Super Pretzels, Planters Peanuts, Serta Mattresses, all these cool nostalgic brands. Pepsi, Jagermeister, all the brands that I grew up with, I now get to work with them in the capacity of bringing something to life in terms of footwear, and I absolutely love it. And then I go to the other side of the coin, and we work with guys like Nike and adidas, Diadora and Puma, on a lot of their short runs. So, if they have to make 500 pairs for All-Star weekend, they can’t really call up their factory in Vietnam and say, ‘Hey, by the way, we had a dope designer come up with a concept overnight. Can you slip that in production?’ No way, that factory is booked out years in advance. So, when the big brands have an idea, and they don’t have the time or resources to do it in their factory, they call us. Our factory has some of the best machinery that even some of the Asian factories don’t have. So, we’re able to create the footwear with the exact specifications that the brands are making them, if not better.” - Rich Franklin, Lead Designer at Garrixon

Though I haven’t participated in any of these programs, I have found myself referring them to all of my mentees, as they seem like the most explicit path to success. My most recent client at New Balance, who led design on the brand’s inaugural Black History Month collection earlier this year, came from the PENSOLE x New Balance class. A young female designer whom I have been coaching for the past five months recently landed at Garrixon after two years of searching the globe for education opportunities for Black women and spending over $5,000 in independent classes.

“This journey can be so discouraging. The gaps, the lack of resources, the time in between. You’re trying to follow your dream, but you don’t know if you’re going up, down, to the side, you have no idea. But, you can’t give up, you have to believe. When I went to the classes, I learned a lot, but I was tired of chasing the brands. I’m tired of chasing adidas! I’m tired of filling out applications at Nike. I want to be a designer. But, they tell you that you have to start at retail, so I even tried to apply at Journeys. I couldn’t even get a job there, and I have a college degree! So, I started going to all of these Zoom calls with sneaker professionals during COVID-19. Someone from Garrixon was on one of the calls talking about the studio and what they do, and I thought, ‘I’m going to try this.’ I already know how to do some of the design stuff from all the classes, so I entered their design contest. Right after that, they posted an opening for the program, and I applied. Now, here I am. Now, I have the opportunity to challenge myself and to really design something. An opportunity to put to use all of the things I spent money to learn. I get to learn a lot in this place, and God-willing, I’ll be here for a while. Because every day, I see another part of the process, and I realize that I could want something else.” - Marcia Senatus aka fr0mmars, Footwear Designer

Yes, you can want something else. You’re allowed to want something else. You can and should demand everything that this earth has to offer to you, to us, as Black people, because our stories are just waiting to be told, and thanks to the new wave of sneaker education, we have defined paths to tell them.

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