The First Ever African American Footwear Forum

BY: CIARA WELLS

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The first African American Footwear Forum (AAFF) was held by the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America and Pensole at Howard University and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the weekend of February 19-20. With a continued private tour of the NMAAHC, the event’s purpose was to “enhance access, education, and awareness to African Americans seeking opportunities within the footwear industry and community.”

According to the AAFF’s website: “The forum invited footwear industry professionals and supporters to share stories and ideas and to create a dialogue around the influence, leadership, and passion provided by African Americans in the global footwear industry... surrounding the forum were additional events including a career day that gave an inside look into the various roles and career opportunities within the footwear industry, an organized ice breaker enabling AAFF attendees to break barriers between brands, and connecting conversations for footwear brands to share concerns and solutions to help shape the conversation while bridging the gaps across the industry.”

I attended because my father was going to be in town for the event and I wanted to see this event firsthand. I was only able to attend the night of the twentieth which was originally supposed to be held at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, but was moved to the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill due to inclement weather.

From the second I walked in, I was greeted with a sea of fashion and melanin. The event was small, but for its debut it was actually really good. After nipping at hors d'oeuvres, we took to our seats and listened to a few speakers like Drew “Uncle Drew” L. Greer of Nike and Under Armour, panels of entrepreneurs and corporate spokespeople. With D’Wayne Edwards of Pensole Academy serving as the host and moderator, he asked the panelists about their careers, where they went to college, the importance of internships, and the power of networking.

The award ceremony was hosted in honor of an influential African American in the history of footwear, named Jan Ernst Matzeliger (as pictured below).

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Matzeliger, a Black inventor who created the shoe lasting machine, revolutionized shoemaking. In 1883, Matzeliger received a patent for his shoe lasting machine in Lynn, Massachusetts, a town well known for shoemaking and tanning leather. A skilled shoemaker could produce 50 pairs of shoes a day and anything between 150 and 700 pairs of shoes could be made daily with Matzeliger’s machine.

At the inaugural African American Footwear Forum, Wilson W. Smith III received the Jan Ernst Matzeliger Award for being a pioneer in the footwear industry and being the first Black footwear designer. Wilson W. Smith III is well known for his career at Nike that has taken him from designing buildings for Nike’s Beaverton campus to designing the Air Jordan XVI and XVII along with a number of other sports sneakers. Wilson is all about being his best and encouraging others to be their best. Congratulations again to Wilson for being a pioneer that has affected the world, the footwear industry, and the culture.

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It was a really great night, but the only problem was that it was quite late in the evening and was four hours long. I learned a lot about the people behind the scenes of the streetwear and footwear that I see all the time. I left during the intermission after a few hours, but what I did see was really great. I was impressed by these people and learned a lot about diversity in the footwear industry. I even got to meet the man who designed the first Yeezy’s. I can’t wait to see what Pensole and the Forum do for next year’s event and I wish them all the luck and success with it. DeJongh ‘Dee’ Wells perfectly summed the event: “As I moved through the levels of the museum and [saw] the many contributions, the journey that Blacks have made throughout history.....it was extremely profound and it made me stop and ponder all the people that came before me whose shoulders I’m standing on. It was an emotional experience that I’ll never forget and I look forward to visiting the Museum again soon.”