Dr. D’Wayne Edwards knows his sneakers.
At the age of 17, he won a design competition against college students and real-life pros and as a 23-year-old became the head designer for a hometown brand aptly named L.A. Gear. Then Dr. Edwards eventually took a design role at Skechers, where he stayed for seven years.
Right around his 30th birthday, Dr. Edwards became a senior designer at Nike for a short time before moving on to Brand Jordan—where he would become one of only six people ever to design an original Air Jordan silhouette.
In 2011, Dr. Edwards left Nike and started a journey all his own. He founded the Pensole Academy, a footwear design school built to serve kids like himself and create a pipeline through which up-and-coming footwear designers could meet the shoe brands—and potential future employers. Now, Edwards spends his days running the academy and looking at the future of footwear every single day in the eyes of his students.
Sourcing Journal sat down with Dr. Edwards to pick his brain regarding the advancements and challenges that footwear will face over the next few decades, and answers about what will be the next great innovation in the footwear industry.
Sourcing Journal: As brands dive further into fashion sneakers and lifestyle-based casual footwear, do you see a big change coming in the way we think of sport and performance sneakers?
D’Wayne Edwards: That’s an interesting question, that’s the same question that’s happening internally at companies, at brands, at retailers. “Is there a difference anymore?” Internally, brands are saying, “no, not really.” Because the consumer is the same.
Where it becomes a challenge, from a design perspective, is that you do need some kind of distinction. With performance product, it’s made for a very specific reason, to do very specific things with specific people. Now, if the consumer decides to do something other than that, it’s totally fine. But we’re in a really dangerous zone for brands because they don’t have an understanding of how to position their brand or their product. Everything is blurry.”
SJ: Has the resale market played a role in making things “blurry” for brands?
DE: Early on, sneakers were kind of like movie releases. You know, something releases and then you judge it by how well it did the first weekend and the first week. Now, even that is going out of the way because of the resalers. They are creating this false sense of success for brands because they are buying product with no intention to use it. They just know someone else will like it. That creates even more confusion for brands because you can release something and not know if you’ve hit the target consumer because the resaler is buying it.
SJ: What can brands learn from resale success?
DE: I don’t know if they know what it means—besides it sold. At the end of the day, that’s the goal. So, “check,” it worked. But, you really don’t know what about it worked so you can do it again. It worked, but why?
SJ: Now that athlete endorsements have kind of fallen by the wayside, what do you see as the future for brands looking to move product in that way?
DE: Now you have the influencer, which is not necessarily an entertainer. They just have cultural influence for whatever reason that is. The idea was that was reserved for the athlete, that was reserved for the musician, the entertainer. Now, this transition is happening.
It will continue to evolve, I think, until normal people with their own social currency become relevant as well. That will keep the lifestyle and athleisure side of footwear pumping and going. The cycles won’t happen as they have in the past, where it will go away and come back. It will always have a place. It may not dominate like it is now, but it will have a place.
SJ: What about performance-based footwear? Do athletes have any sway in that space at this point?
DE: That’s a tough one because I’m old school. I believe in authenticity and credibility, having performance as a foundation for why you did something. That is very black and white, either it does or does not work and when you make a product for an athlete that’s obvious.
When you tap into lifestyle, it becomes super subjective. Your probability of being right is a lot less. That becomes the toughest part of the equation. It’s where brands are trying to go. So, they’re grabbing this influencer or they’re doing this collab here, they’re just grasping at straws to increase their accuracy of being right.
I do believe the athlete endorsement model is old though. The idea of the big contract is old.
SJ: Do you see No. 1 NBA draft pick Zion Williamson’s upcoming endorsement contract resetting the market and bringing athletes back into the fray?
DE: I think that’s a little skewed as well. So, as much as Zion is a freak of nature on the court, he’s still a 19-year-old kid who has a 1 million-plus social media followers. So, you’re buying into the fact that he is the consumer. Not just that he’s a phenomenal athlete, he is the consumer first and foremost. So, you’re kind of getting lucky a little bit, whereas there are very few Zions coming out of college that have the cultural following before they even step on the court.
You’ll see a big endorsement for him coming soon. But, I think there’s still going to be this blurriness that has to happen and I think brands are always going to have to design the best basketball shoe that they can design for me—specifically because the shoe blew out, right?