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Pensole Lewis founder D’Wayne Edwards is paving the way for Black designers

Educator leading only HBCU dedicated to design

D’Wayne Edwards is the founder of Pensole Lewis College, the first academy in the U.S. dedicated to footwear design, and the first historically Black college in the country focused on design. Edwards is focused on paving the way for more Black footwear talent to enter the sneaker industry.

Edwards, who received an honorary doctorate in 2019 from ArtCenter College of Design, will be honored at the 17th annual Black History Month Celebration for the General Motors African Ancestry Network on Feb. 24.

Tell us about Pensole Lewis College. 

The original college was called Lewis College of Business and it was founded in 1928, by Dr. Violet T. Lewis. She had this vision to create a school that would allow Black women to get a job in corporate offices so she created this secretary school called Lewis College of Business really to teach Black women the skills that they need to be considered for those opportunities.

The school had tough times and it ended up having to close in 2013. I was made aware of the college in 2020 through a casual conversation with a friend of mine here in Detroit, and I was blown away. One, I didn’t know Detroit had an HBCU, and two, I didn’t know Dr. Violet Lewis was one of three Black women to found an HBCU. So I was ashamed that I didn’t know of her and I was ashamed I didn’t know of the college. I read articles about how they tried to reopen the college, but they were unsuccessful. I was like, “Hey, I would love to talk to you and the family about reopening [the] college and adding design to it and bridging the gap of what I was doing on the West Coast and bringing it to Detroit.”

Why is it important for Black talent to be involved in the sneaker industry?

You have to recognize, and I think the industry recognizes, that we created the culture. Without us, there is no culture. It’s one of those things where we have always made everything we touch more elevated. We’ve always been the ones that make things hot. We’ve always been the ones that make things relevant. But we’ve never been the ones creating it on the back end. We created it on the street, but we don’t create it on the back end. That’s been my awakening. Once I got into the industry 30-something years ago, there was nobody else sitting to the left or the right of me. The longer I progressed in the industry, slowly one or two may pop in, but it just wasn’t moving at the speed that we were moving on the street. That culture was building and all these billions of dollars were being made but yet we were not to be found in corporate offices. That, to me, was a big disconnect. Your sneakers are arguably the most important part of your [out]fit. You can tell a little bit about somebody [by] what they have on their feet.

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