PENSOLE – My Time in the Footwear Dojo

I’ve been been MIA for some time and the last Weekender was published nowhere other than the baggage claim area of Portland International Airport (PDX carpet anyone?). I spent the month of June at the PENSOLE Footwear Design Academy in the footwear capital of America. Shortly after, I flew to the other side of the world to study engineering abroad. Since then I have juggled school, work, and traveled with little to no connection to the Internet. Pensole was an incredible experience and I can probably talk about my time there for hours without any direction.

I wanted to share some of what I learned and the experience I enjoyed with our readers, so to make sure there is some sense and order to my inevitable ramblings, my fellow WearTesters writer Noah Goldowitz (TheShoeRestorer) asked me a few questions for the first round of my ‘tell all’. Without a little direction from him, I don’t think I would have conveyed what I wanted to. As always, thank you for supporting the site, I hope you enjoy reading!

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PENSOLE

[Noah]:  First off, tell us a bit about Pensole Footwear Design Academy. What is it exactly? How did you find out about this school?

No one says it better than their website –

PENSOLE students will experience our rigorous “learn by doing” curriculum, where they are taught to THINK before they create and do everything by hand, from sketching to rendering to prototyping. Our programs introduce students to all aspects of footwear design: concept development, sketching, constructions, materials and storytelling. We also emphasize professional skills such as branding, interview techniques, networking, portfolio development, and verbal and visual presentation. All PENSOLE students walk away from our master classes with an exceptional project they are proud to share with potential employers, fellow designers, and the world.

This particular class was for the FN Platform Challenge, where teams of 3 footwear designers, 1 color and materials designer, and one business and brand designer collaborate to complete a project for a company. D’Wayne makes sure that the projects aren’t your typical running or basketball shoe, and that the students are forced to look at things differently and tackle unique design challenges.

I have known about PENSOLE for a few years, always thinking that when the time came and my skills were ready that I would apply; I’ve been following on social media and getting emails from Mesh01 so I wouldn’t miss a class I may want to attend some day. When the FN Platform Challenge registration went up with the Business & Branding role available, I knew it was my best shot since I don’t go to design school and haven’t taught myself sketching and rendering yet. It matched up perfectly with the end of semester and my plans to study abroad so it was now or never. I am eternally grateful that D’Wayne, Matt, and Suzette gave me the opportunity to attend.

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[Noah]: When did your love for sneakers transform into the want to design sneakers/shoes?

My love for sneakers was born of my love for sports…a number of sports. The more I played, the more I researched my footwear for the best performers, best value, most interesting materials, and design. I felt I needed a pair for basketball, soccer, indoor soccer, track and field, trail running, tennis, road racing, weight lifting, etc. so the collection grew and my interest in sneaker construction and materials was fostered. I became a performance driven shoe consumer and always looked for new, interesting companies with great ideas and product – no matter how small or unknown.

Over time, I realized that I wanted to align my obsession with sports and my shoes with a career. I wanted to work with and among athletes trying to make the human experience and performance in sport better. Not to be ignored in this progression towards wanting to be a part of the industry is my involvement with WearTesters, where Chris gave me a chance to come on board to write, think, and discuss shoes.

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Last tape ups and pattern making with Eustace Robinson of Danner boots

[Noah]: What’s a typical day like for you at Pensole? Take us through it.

It was a marathon. Alarm goes off at either 6:15 or 6:45 depending on whether or not I was getting up to get a quick calisthenics workout in. Nothing crazy, but you don’t have time for sports or much exercise for the entire month and I didn’t want to entirely lose my fitness. I’d get ready, grab complimentary breakfast at the hotel and then take the MAX transit train to a stop a few blocks from the school. For most of the month I either got there an hour early to get some work done in the morning quiet of the studio, or to sit in on an Illustrator class that D’Wayne’s intern provided for us on coloring up footwear.

At 9 a.m. sharp we would congregate around D’Wayne at his desk, strategically placed in front of a silhouette of Bruce Lee and his quote, “To hell with circumstances, I create opportunities.” From there we would listen to an insightful lecture ranging anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours. The book of the day, quote of the day, and website of the day would all be delivered amongst nuggets of advice and motivation for that day and many days beyond. I left our morning sit downs with more wisdom and advice than I’d received in the past year combined.

Beyond that 9 a.m. meeting (save for the last couple of days of project grind), every day was different. We had speakers coming in from different companies and backgrounds all of the time. Meetings and interactive lectures with Suzette Henry in her Material Lab. Demonstrations from vendors and other skilled professionals that were able to spend some time with us in the studio. We got about an hour or so for lunch at some point mid-day and official class hours generally ended around 6 or 7 at night. We were then left to our own devices to work with our teams, bounce ideas off one another, get project-related tasks done, and generally talk footwear.

Inevitably, some of these nights involved catching the NBA Finals games in the studio – with D’Wayne’s stories of Michael Jordan sprinkled into discussion and debate amongst fans. Then, at around 10 or 11 most nights, we would head out as a group to catch one of the last trains back to our hotel…..where I would continue to discuss projects, ideas, and footwear for the next hour or so with my roommates Ehfran (shoutout to the eventual 2015 FN Platform Challenge winner) and our resident footwear designer for 4F in Poland, Kuba (a super talented designer).

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[Noah]: From what we’ve discussed privately, you’re meeting the designers of so many shoes we all love. What is that like? Any good stories?

That was arguably the best part of some of the days at the academy. Having a legend like Steven Smith, currently the Innovation Director at Keen and the designer of the New Balance 574 and Reebok Pump Fury, walk through those doors and deliver a presentation to all of us was unforgettable. Hearing about his battle with upper management at Reebok when trying to put the Pump Fury design through was an incredible lesson in standing behind your ideas with confidence and vigor. Listening to him talk about his passion for smart technology (miCoach at adidas) and classic automobiles had my undivided attention.

Can’t forget Seth Peterson, currently a color designer for Women’s Sportswear at Nike. He was a professional YoYo master and worked in marketing and design for a YoYo company before attending Pensole and making it in the industry. He was a prime example of making your own path, fueled by your passions.

I have left out plenty of other guest speakers in the interest of moving on to the next question, but I will share the story that was told with more charisma and energy than any of the others in June.

E. Scott Morris came through the studio one day and I will never forget the excitement he had for the work that he had done and was currently working on. He is currently a Creative Director for footwear at Under Armour, but he told us the story about his design for Reebok, the ES22.

When designing for Emmitt Smith, he took into account the beating he gets while competing against so many powerful athletes. The iconic large foam support cradle on either side of the foot was meant to act as an extension of his football pads, so that he would be covered from all angles. Though it’s hard to say if they ever served that protective purpose, according to E. Scott, they once saved a boy’s foot that would have otherwise been crushed by a receding projector (or screen of some type) on a school stage. The ES22 saved his metatarsals from being obliterated, and earned him a visit from Emmitt and E. with a signed pair of the ES22’s. E Scott was most proud of that design and that moment because his shoes really helped someone.

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Steven Smith with his bag of goodies

 

[Noah]: What have been some of the best moments at Pensole?

This may not be the response you are looking for, but the absolute best moment for me at Pensole was kicking off my team’s power point presentation and then standing back and watching them conquer and succeed with a crowd full of those already in the industry. Few things make me feel as good as a solid team effort and seeing others perform well after hours of practice, lack of sleep, and nervous build up. Seeing someone who struggled with their words and their content get up there and kill it with confidence makes me happier than nearly anything else. It was the big moment, my eyes, and all the eyes there, lit up with a shared passion; that was the best moment.

A close second would be the moment D’Wayne chose the winners moving on to Vegas for the trade show. I was able to see some of the purest forms of joy and excitement (looking at you, Flavio) and receive the best gift Pensole and my classmates could possibly give me: the motivation and competitive fire that come along with losing and understanding that you have work to do.

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[Noah]: Where do you plan to go/work after Pensole? Have opportunities in the industry arisen?

I want to work within a culture that aligns with my passions and my energy. I want to be surrounded by sport, innovation, and human performance. I intend on applying to a number of footwear and product development related roles over the next six months, looking for an opportunity to intern in the summer of 2016. My challenge is to make recruiters know and understand what my classmates knew after a month spent working with and around me. I can’t be picky in terms of planning where to go, but all I need is a chance.

 



For four weeks there was no need for the snooze button, the passion was real, the friendships were organic, and the experience was one I’ll never forget. Shout to Noah and the rest of the WearTesters team for being a part of what got me to Oregon this summer.

 

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Some of the photos are taken from my teammate, CDKdesign – check out his website.

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6 Comments

  1. Thank you, glad you enjoyed it. I could talk about it for hours and it really broadened my perspective on footwear. And don’t worry, I repped my Warriors colors WearTesters shirt throughout the finals.

    1. We really appreciated your story and nuggets of advice and inspiration. I enjoyed hearing about your interest in the tech and engineering side of sports products. Wishing you the best with whatever you are working on now! Keep enjoying your hobbies too!

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