PLC Detroit Creates a Footwear Design Studio Honoring the ‘Design Jackie Robinson’ Wilson Smith III With Help From Nike


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Wilson Smith III is a beloved figure in footwear, recognized as the industry’s first Black sneaker designer. Pensole Lewis College (PLC Detroit) — the country’s first historically Black college and university (HBCU) focused on design — is honoring Smith’s legacy by opening a footwear design studio in his name.

On July 15, the school will unveil the Wilson Smith III Footwear Design Stu/deo by MillerKnoll and Nike. The studio — which PLC Detroit described as a state-of-the-art design space — was designed by school alumni and furnished by MillerKnoll.

“Since Wilson is a former architect, I connected him with Angel Buckens, one of our former students who designed some of the other spaces [at PLC Detroit]. The two of them have been working together to make it feel like his space,” PLC Detroit founder Dr. D’Wayne Edwards told FN.

Edwards cited a few of the personal touches within the studio, including murals of Smith and his parents, as well as ones of mentors and people he has mentored.

He also said there are five offices, and each one is dedicated to a specific athlete and shoe that Smith worked on, including looks for Michael Jordan, Andre Agassi, Serena Williams and Scottie Pippen. And there are walls dedicated to the story of the Air Jordan 17, Charles Barkley’s Nike CB 34 shoe and the Air More Uptempo “Thank You, Wilson” — also known as “Wilsonville” — that Nike created last year in his honor.

It was a “no brainer,” to honor Smith in this way, the executive said.

“When we decided to reopen the college, one of the things we realized was that there really is no building, or even a book or a website, that’s dedicated to Black creatives. The closest you’ll get at the Smithsonian in D.C. I want this school to be a history of Black creativity,” Edwards explained. “This is the beginning of highlighting Black creatives that are amazing at what they do in their given industry.”

He continued, “He’s the design version of Jackie Robinson. Without him, it would have taken a while for me to show up, and would have taken a longer time for others. Not enough people know about him, even in the industry. Wilson is a humble person, but he’s worked on some amazing product. He’s had very little exposure, and the exposure he did have was pre social media. This is almost like a reintroduction.”

This space will also serve as the hub for the Future Sole program at PLC Detroit, which is powered by Nike. PLC Detroit described Future Sole in a statement as “a nationwide HBCU industry certificate program.”

“We’re creating industry-certified programs, meaning Nike has certified what we’re going to teach this group of students,” Edwards explained. “This is what you need to learn to get closer to an opportunity at Nike. That’s different from other schools that have certificate programs. They’re not certified by industries. A lot of what we do, and we’ve done for the last 14 years, is directly with industry. We just never gave it a title. We’ve always been industry certified. This Future Sole program kicks off us launching by name what we do.”

The five-week Future Sole program was made possible in part by a $3 million investment that Nike made in PLC Detroit in 2022. The investment was part of Nike’s ongoing Black Community Commitment that the company launched in 2020.

“There was a conversation [with Nike] about how we can improve design at HBCUs as a whole, not just at PLC,” Edwards said. “One of the things I mentioned is I would love to leverage this gift as a way of creating an HBCU network of schools that have students interested in design. They can come to Detroit and learn what we’ve been teaching over the last decade.”

He continued, “The Future Sole program was something I created in 2008 when I was at Nike. To reintroduce Future Sole — which has birthed dozens of footwear careers since 2008 — as a program that’s focused on students from HBCUs, that is the gift. This class will kick off right after the ribbon cutting on Monday [June 15]. We have students from 15 different HBCUs in this class, and the majority did not study design. That’s the beauty of this program. We’re able to reach a kid that went to school for something that have an interest in, but they had this other interest that they didn’t get a chance to explore.”

Edwards said the investment from Nike — a company that was his professional home for more than a decade — to help PLC Detroit achieve its mission is humbling.

“Obviously, I was paid to do a job when I was there as a designer,” Edwards said. “But for our relationship to continue after leaving and stepping into this education space, for them to still want to invest in me as an education talent and our team as education talent, that speaks volumes. We have a unique position that other schools don’t necessarily have: From a footwear perspective, our main instructors were all design directors at Nike and Jordan.”

PLC Detroit will reveal more Stu/deo spaces in the coming months, including apparel design studios dedicated to streetwear pioneer April Walker and two-time Academy Award-winning costume designer Ruth Carter. They will be sponsored by Carhartt and Champion, respectively, and furnished by MillerKnoll.

These spaces will be completed or in progress when the National Black Footwear Forum returns to PLC Detroit from Sept. 26-29. This year’s theme is “Movement, Not a Moment,” and as always will feature a series of keynotes, panel discussions, breakout sessions and interactive activations.

About the Author

Peter Verry is the Senior News and Features Editor for Athletic and Outdoor at Footwear News. He oversees coverage of the two fast-paced and ultracompetitive markets, which includes conducting in-depth interviews with industry leaders and writing stories on sneakers and outdoor shoes. He is a lifelong sneaker addict (and shares his newest purchases via @peterverry on Instagram) and spends most of his free time on a trail. He holds an M.A. in journalism from Hofstra University and can be reached at peter.verry@footwearnews.com.



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