What was it like designing Carmelo Anthony's first signature sneaker? You'd have to ask D'Wayne Edwards, former design director at Jordan Brand, who created the first five Melo shoes and taught Carmelo the ins and outs of the sneaker business. And D'Wayne is still teaching people. Although he's not officially with the Jordan Brand anymore, D'Wayne is still educating. In 2011, he transitioned away from sneaker design to found the Pensole Footwear Design Academy in Portland, Ore.
With the Melo 1.5 celebrating its 10-year anniversary getting a retro for the first time (dropping tomorrow), it was the perfect time to talk with D'Wayne about designing the sneaker. The designer reminisces about working with a Carmelo Anthony, who was a rookie to the NBA and having a signature sneaker, and the future of Pensole.
Interview by Larry Gallagher (@Writing_Rambler)
The Jordan Melo 1.5 is hitting stores again. How does that feel to have a shoe you designed be retro’d?
It’s actually funny, I was up at Jordan Brand a few months ago when I found out. I was over there visiting some of the old designers and they were like, “You know they’re bringing back the [Melo]1?” I didn’t even know it had been 10 years. I didn’t even think about it like that. I didn’t even know they had plans on bringing it back or celebrating a 10-year anniversary.
Now that your’re an alumni of the Nike design team, what’s your relationship like with the Jordan Brand?
Jordan Brand emailed me a few months before because they were doing a history of the Jordan line. They were doing the display and needed some info. They actually didn’t have samples that they needed and I had them. I was there dropping off a lot of Melo’s game shoes because they didn’t have them in archives. It’s just cool man. I never really thought about it. There’s little bit of a flashback to when I used to design for Melo, where I would watch games differently. Back then, I was just watching him, I wasn’t even looking at the other nine guys on the court. It was kind of cool to just flashback a bit and watch him play in the shoes.
As a designer, I could imagine you would have to watch every game differently, watching his moves, style of play, etc. as opposed to just enjoying the game?
Yeah you just have to watch the games differently. ‘Cause back then I was just really trying to understand who he was as a ball player. How he moved, what his needs were and that type of thing so it was interesting. I don’t watch games like that anymore. So now I’m just watching it, actually enjoying the whole game.
It was kind of cool to just flashback a bit and watch him play in the shoes again
So thinking back to when Melo first came into the league as a rookie, what was it like designing for him?
He was always a triple threat guy, but it seems like he uses that a lot more to his advantage. I remember talking to him about how back in the early Denver days, George Karl talked to him about doing 10-10-10. He wanted him to shoot 10 jumpers, 10 free throws, 10 layups so if he could focus on doing that every game then he would have a pretty solid game. The free throw part means he was being more aggressive. He still moves that same way, but I can tell that his game is a lot more mature. He controls the defense a lot more now than he did back then. He is using the defender to his advantage. He’s attacking the defender and being smarter about his game, because he was still raw and new to the process. He was new to the NBA game but he was still legit back then.
When you were designing for him back then, was he very hands on or excited about the prospect of having his own shoe?
Yeah. Actually the first thing for us as a brand, was that we didn’t want to put a lot of pressure on him. With him coming out and it being MJ’s last year and everything, we didn’t want to give him that signature shoe and say, "OK, you’re gonna carry the torch of the brand."
How did the .5 Concept come about?
It was created by a designer at Nike, E. Scott Morris. He’s a legend in the industry. He came by and had this concept of “What if?” It was about his take on the original Air Jordans. I started talking to him, asking if I could use that idea for Melo in the sense of, “What if the 1 was designed for Melo instead of MJ?” And, “What if the V was developed for Melo instead of MJ?” That led to this whole concept of the 1.5. There was a leveraging our heritage and Melo’s game at the same time. It was a transitional moment for him--transitioning into the brand and into his own signature shoe. When we went to look at designing the 1.5 and the whole .5 series, it was always, “What if Melo was wearing the 1?” How could we make this shoe more advanced than when it originally came out but also spoke to Melo’s personality?
When I was designing for him, I would try to teach him the process. I would try to teach him what went into every detail.
What was it like pitching Melo the concept?
We also wanted it to give you a hint of where it came from as far as the actual Air Jordan franchise. That’s how we served it up to him, and he loved the idea. The process was all new to him. He was in college and now you're just like, “You’re gonna have your own shoe, tell me what you want." That takes a little bit of time to just understand that concept. He was great to work with. When I was designing for him, I would try to teach him the process. I would try to teach him what went into every detail. He wanted to be informed on everything that happened and give me feedback on every little detail, down to logos and the overall technology, fit, and feel. He was involved from day one. So every time we did it, every shoe we did together, it got better and better.
When Melo first hit the court with the 1.5s, he sprained his ankle. I know that had to send you into some type of panic. Even with it not being the shoes fault, I’m sure you had plenty of people looking your way just because it happened in your shoe.
Yeah man! As a designer, and I tell this to all of my students and my former designers that I used to manage, I always accept blame for everything. Embrace the fact that it’s your fault. Because when something goes wrong, everybody is gonna look at you. Even though you probably had nothing to do with it, it’s gonna be your fault. And when it goes right, everyone else who was involved in the process wants to take credit for it. It was his first game in the shoe, I think they were in Denver playing San Antonio and Bruce Bowen undercut him. Carmelo went up for his normal J, and he came down and landed right on Bruce’s foot and turned it. It was a nasty turn, too. It was just one of those things where there was nothing you could do about it. You're stepping on someone’s foot and it’s gonna turn.
Just a traumatic experience burned into your mind.
[Laughter] Aww dude, it’s just like he’s breaking out his first signature shoe. It’s on TV, and he tweaks his ankle. Then the emails start coming, “Melo twisted his ankle in your shoe.” And I’m just like, “Dude, it wasn’t my fault!” If he was in a cast it would have rolled over. We actually modified that shoe. So when he came back, it was modified. That was the only time that his on court shoe was different than the one that was at retail. Every shoe since then was the same exact one at retail that he was wearing on court. That one we had to modify, just to make the ankle part more stable because, at that point, it was more mental than anything else. Then he tweaked his ankle again later on in that season. Then, as you know, he tweaked it again recently, 10 years later. The whole time I’m just watching that game and I’m like, “Whoa." The whole time I’m thinking about him tweaking his ankle 10 years ago, and I hope it doesn’t happen.
The whole time I’m thinking about him tweaking his ankle 10 years ago, and I hope it doesn’t happen.
It has to just eat you up seeing that happen again.
[Deep sigh] Yeah dude, it’s just crazy. I sent him a text a few months back on his birthday and we haven’t spoken but I know he was probably like, "Fuck!” I wonder if he was calling my name out [laughter] even though I didn’t have anything to do with it. It just brought back those memories of how he tweaked his ankle, because I think he tweaked it like two-three times that season.
Now as far as the Melo line goes, how do you view the progression it’s had from when you were working on its start to where he’s at now with the M10 about to release?
I think it’s gone well. Justin Taylor, he’s taken over. He took over on the M6. I did 1-5. So we had the 1.5-5.5, and then we switched to the M series. The M series started at 3 and I stopped at the M5. During that transition, Justin Taylor started working with Melo so we could just transition easily. I knew I was going to leave and I wanted that transition to be smooth. I just didn’t want to show up one day and say I was out. Melo would have to work with somebody new, so there was a transition period, and JT did a great job. What he’s been able to do is kind of mirror Melo’s game. As his game matured, the shoes had to mature. Melo’s taste for the footwear had to mature as well. The first five were a lot cleaner silhouettes, they were focused on keeping the technology, like most Jordan products we used to do, internally based.
How was sneaker design different between Jordan Brand and Nike back then?
When I was a design director at Jordan, we didn’t really show the technology. That was what Nike did. That was our way of really separating the two brands. You could feel the technology, you could experience it. We didn’t broadcast it the way Nike did. I think Justin has done a good job of transitioning--keeping some of those hidden elements but yet bringing some more of that. JT has done a great job with that as he’s done with 6-9 and then Tinker [Hatfield] is doing the M10. JT did a good job of evolving Melo’s sneaker game with his physical game and the way that he plays on court.
When I was a design director at Jordan, we didn’t really show the technology. That was what Nike did.
Now as far as your own career, you started Pensole in 2011. How has that experience been for you? I’m sure some people would think you’re crazy to walk away from what you were doing at Jordan brand but it seems like Pensole was a natural progression of what you wanted to do with your career.
Man it’s been going amazing. I actually did the first pilot class in the summer of 2010 when I was still at Jordan. I did it during my break, I had taken eight weeks off for vacation. I just wanted to test out this concept that I had been wanting to do for a while. When I started working with Melo, I started showing him different design things. I was showing him how to use illustrator He was coloring up his own shoes at one point, too. I remember I was interviewing him and one of the questions they asked me to ask him was, if he wasn’t playing basketball, what would he want to do. He said, he would want to be a footwear designer. That kind of sparked just him wanting to know more about the product. At the same time, I launched in 2008 a program at Nike called Future Sole where he was the face of the competition.
What was that?
It was a national high school design competition. I asked him if he would be the face of this program, because I wanted to try and get high school kids more involved in footwear design. He was the face of the program because he loved design and he liked working with kids and giving back. That was the spark because I had a high platform being at Jordan. Being able to reach kids through that medium really helped propel my desire to pursue teaching full-time. I saw the reaction that kids had to the products and being able to design products. Since I started doing Pensole full-time, it’s been great. Like I told Michael and Melo when I left, I could help Jordan more being on the outside than I could being on the inside. Internally, I was designing products and managing design teams. Now I’m able to actually supply them with more designers and better designers.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how well the academic side of the industry has embraced me, because I’m not an academic.
How have Pensole students found the job market?
Since I’ve left Nike, I have about 15 former students that work at Nike. I’ve been able to help the overall brand a lot more by getting them talent that can design better products. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how well the academic side of the industry has embraced me, because I’m not an academic. I didn’t even go to college to study design. I never took a design class a day in my life. It was kind of strange for someone who didn’t go to school for design to start a design school. I’ve just been really, really impressed with how the college part has embraced what I’m trying to do. Then you have how the industry has embraced what I’ve been doing and now I’m able to work with everybody. So instead of just Nike and Jordan, I can work with any company and that part been going really well.