Roland “Ro Spit” Coit is anticipating extra traffic at his stores this weekend as hundreds of apparel and footwear creatives coalesce in Detroit for the National Black Footwear Forum.
“I know people who’ve never been to Detroit, but they heard about my store,” said Coit, owner of the popular Detroit-based shoe boutique Two 18 and the shop Burn Rubber in Royal Oak. “They’re coming to the forum, and that’s given them a reason to come to the store.”
The national forum is convening Sept. 21-24 at the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design to toast to the triumphs shared by Black people in the industry, guide the next generation of leaders, and work to overcome the diversity obstacles that still lie ahead.
The four-day event, hosted by the HBCU and the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America, is sponsored by brands like Nike, Adidas, and Foot Locker. The long list of guest speakers and panelists includes pioneers such as April Walker, the first woman of color to launch a clothing boutique and streetwear brand in the early ‘90s, and Ruth Carter, a costume designer who won Oscar awards for her work on the “Black Panther” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” films.
Larry Miller, former chairman of the Jordan Brand, and Brian Thompson, who designed the newest $100 bill released in 2013, are scheduled to take part in breakout sessions and panel discussions. Dr. D’Wayne Edwards, the national forum lead and founder and president of Pensole, calls the event the “industry’s homecoming.”
“We have the who’s who in the design industry,” Edwards said. “This is easily the most talented group of Black people that you’ll ever find in one place.”
This is the fourth forum and the second consecutive held in Detroit. This year’s theme is “Culture is Currency: Know Your Worth,” emphasizing Black America’s influence on the industry, both creatively and economically.
“We’ve always been creative at what we do,” Edwards said. “We started putting water on our shoestrings and ironed them out – that’s how they became fat laces; then [retailers] started selling them that way. We began putting graffiti on tee shirts; then [retailers] started selling them that way.”
According to a 2023 report from the McKinsey Institute for Black Economic Mobility, Black consumers’ spending on apparel and footwear is projected to hike by about 6 percent a year to $70 billion by the end of the decade. Furthermore, Black consumers have a strong preference for Black-owned brands and those that resonate with Black culture.
“We are the culture and the currency,” Edwards said. “It’s important for us to always know our value because if we don’t, we will always be undervalued.”
The first forum, which convened in 2019, stemmed from talks Edwards had with his peers about Black people feeling isolated and unvalued in corporate America, specifically in the footwear and apparel industries. Around that time, FootWear News touted its first-ever “40 under 40,” spotlighting “rising stars” in the industry. The list, which received backlash on social media, underscored the industry’s less-than-stellar track record when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
Edwards and friends recruited Matt Priest, founder and CEO of the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America, to help organize the inaugural forum in Washington D.C. About 300 people turned out from across the country.
“And it was really the first time we were ever in the room and were the majority,” Edwards said. “In our normal jobs, we never walked in a room and were the majority. It was just a magical feeling that we all needed from a healing perspective.”
Since then, the forum has continued to grow. Last year’s event drew more than 500 people to the city. Edwards expects the headcount to double this year.
He said it is significant to host the forum in Detroit, a predominantly Black city with a thriving footwear and apparel community, pointing back to 1993 when fashion designer Maurice Malone opened the Hip Hop Shop, a boutique on the west side of Detroit. There, an unknown rapper named Marshall Mathers battled during open mic nights. In 2014, that rapper – now famously known as Eminem – released the posse track, “Detroit vs. Everybody,” an ode to the eponymous clothing line founded by Tommey Walker.
Regarded as a legend in the industry, Edwards was raised in Inglewood, California, where he began customizing sneakers in high school. He got his first job working at LA Gear at 19 years old. From there, he worked for Karl Kani and later became the design director at Nike and The Jordan Brand.
He founded Pensole Footwear Design Academy, and last year he merged the academy with the then-defunct Lewis College of Business, Michigan’s only HBCU. This year, Edwards and DSW parent company Designer Brands Inc. opened JEMS by Pensole, the first Black-owned footwear factory in the United States, located in Somersworth, New Hampshire.
“This is what I always wanted to do, but I didn’t think it was possible,” Edwards said of his career. “Sometimes all someone needs is for someone to show them it’s possible – to see someone taking their passion and flipping it to become the lead designer for Jordan or the Vice President of Nike. This is what this forum is about.”
This resonates with Coit, owner of Burn Rubber and Two 18, where he designs shoes for Nike, the Jordan Brand, and Puma. Coit grew up a sneakerhead and worked at Puffer Reds, a Black-owned fashion boutique in Ypsilanti.
“Working there showed me that a Black man could own his own store,” Coit said. “So, it’s important to see people of color working directly with brands to design products from the ground level. It shows the kids coming up who may be into drawing or customizing shoes that it’s possible.”
Muralist Allison Sims developed an interest in shoe customizing in 2015 after she saw a pair of painted Timberlands boots on Instagram. Sims, who already knew how to paint, researched everything she could about how to customize shoes.
“Soon after, I went through my closest and grabbed a pair of old Converse to practice on, and I’ve been customizing shoes ever since.”
Today, Sims runs 10|7, an online art, customized sneakers, and apparel shop she founded. On this year’s Black Footwear Forum agenda is a panel dedicated to spotlighting women in leadership. Moderated by Carmen Andrade Hardaway, a director at Reebok, the panel will feature CEOs and executives from brands like Target, Premium Goods, Caleres, and Eumelanin.
Although registration has closed, Edwards encourages Detroiters who aren’t registered to come out and network at the opening night mixer, which is scheduled for Thursday at 7 p.m. at Pensole Lewis College.
“We want to make sure people in Detroit understand that we’re trying to uplift the folks here,” Edwards said.
People unable to attend in-person can watch the livestream at blackfootwearforum.com.