by Jeffrey Martin | photos by NashCo
If James Bleakley were being sensible, he never would have left Toronto. Not then, anyway. Not so soon after quitting his mind-numbing gig and its one-and-a-half-hour commute each way in stop-and-go traffic. And certainly not mere days after his father, who’d been a logger for twenty years and served as the family’s primary source of income, was laid off.
The timing couldn’t have been worse.
Bleakley, 22, had recently spent a transformative month at Pensole Footwear Design Academy in Portland, ingesting all that the short-term, intensive—and free—curriculum had to offer. Now another opportunity had popped up at the Academy, this time for an Adidas invent class, so he was heading back to Portland.
He wondered, though, with his family facing adversity, was he being selfish?
“I knew that Pensole was where I was going to make things happen,” said Bleakley. “Although money was going to be an issue, I had to fight through and make it happen.” Even with free education, travel expenses would quickly add up.
“Still, I had to do it for myself and my family. I knew this was where I had to be,” he said. Bleakley means Pensole, but also this city, with its quirky yet creative ethos in the Pacific Northwest, home to the largest brands in the sneaker industry.
Bleakley is hungry, a characteristic that D’Wayne Edwards, the ex-Nike and Jordan Brand designer who founded the academy in 2010, wants in prospective students. The sneaker industry isn’t for the meek. It is a revenue machine: Nike reported $30 billion in returns in 2015; Adidas expected at least half of that. Under Armour anticipates $7 billion in annual revenue by 2018, almost twice this year’s expected figure.
The Portland Metro area is home to this cluster of titans, currently ranked first, third, and fourth in domestic sales, respectively. Nike was founded in Beaverton; Adidas set up its North America headquarters in Portland; and Under Armour expanded its footwear division in the Rose City, as well.
Competition—for consumers and design talent—is fierce.
“You’re only as good as the talent you can bring into your company,” said Paul Gaudio, Adidas’ global creative director. “We’re constantly on a quest for young, creative people who can help us shape the future.”
This is where Pensole has been invaluable. In Edwards’ classroom, talent trumps all. It’s a true meritocracy, a finishing school the founder wishes had been available when he got his start in the industry.
Who you know won’t help you gain entry, but it’s imperative once instruction begins. The program gives students the opportunity to network as they receive hands-on experience. The creative ability is only part of the gig. Influence is the other. Each student is expected to cultivate a sphere of influence within the industry while at Pensole. It all starts with alumni.
Step inside the nondescript building near the Chinatown gate in Old Town and a wall of shoe boxes is striking—each bearing the logo of popular and lesser-known footwear brands. Every box represents a former Pensole student who is working in the industry. Edwards said there are currently 140 boxes, spanning thirty-nine companies and thirty countries, then made a verbal note-to-self to add the ones he hasn’t put up yet.
Edwards’ story has become lore—black kid from Inglewood, California, wins a Reebok design competition at age 17, is hired at L.A. Gear at 19 and becomes the youngest professional footwear designer in modern day, joins Nike a few years later, becomes design director at 30, achieves a lifelong dream by designing the incomparable Air Jordan (iterations XX1 and XX2). Most of this story is covered in an epilogue in Shane Snow’s book, Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success.
What elevates his personal story is what Edwards has done since he stepped away from the day-to-day grind. As the founder of, perhaps, the only institution in the country dedicated to footwear design, his second act is almost more indelible than the first. “This isn’t about me,” Edwards said more than once.
He hopes students remember him mostly for changing the way people get their start in the industry. There are no bachelor’s degrees in footwear design and only about six schools have classes focused on footwear design. Furthermore, Pensole is free.
Bleakley has heard the benefits spiel from Edwards twice and has taken note. The first time Bleakley attended Pensole, he had been a recent college graduate who needed experience. “In those thirty days, I felt like I learned more than I learned in my entire degree in four years, which is crazy,” said Bleakley.
Bleakley returned to Pensole in December 2015 for an opportunity to take part in an Adidas Invent class that spanned eleven days. There was no chance he’d miss it. He even quit his job designing shoes for emerging markets to attend—to revisit the feeling of inspiration that he had at his first Pensole experience.
But then his father lost his job, nearly derailing everything.
“This is the hub,” said Bleakley. “This is where you have to be. Portland is where it’s all happening … And this is the only place in the world like this. The fact that Pensole partners with the industry, it gives you real-life direction … These large, multi-million dollar companies—we get to see how they function. You don’t get this anywhere else.”
For Adidas’ Gaudio, the growth of the industry in the Pacific Northwest is still hard to fathom.
“With Nike and Adidas being here, it was inevitable,” he said. “Talent attracts talent. Opportunity attracts talent. It just builds. It’s amazing what has happened.”
In his early days with Adidas, Gaudio had to troll the East Coast for talent. Relocating to Portland was often a deal-breaker. “Guys would come from New York and say, ‘I have to live in Portland, Oregon—are you crazy?’” he recalled. “Now it’s actually a destination … It was a much sleepier destination thirty years ago.”
The same could be said to describe the now-booming footwear industry. At Adidas’ North America headquarters recently, bustle was de rigueur in Gaudio’s office, where Bleakley and his classmates proffered their various projects, while a leadership team from Adidas, including the global creative director, gave pointed critiques. While such a scenario might have been considered daunting to some of the students before they arrived at Pensole, they were mostly unflappable once the presentations began.
Reflecting on that day, Edwards smiled. “They’re hungry, man.”