All About CommunityOctober 7, 2021
Time and talent are crucial to success, but so is access to folks who challenge, inspire, and support each other. In industry, it’s called a pipeline. In the community, it’s called fam.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, nearly 20 African American and Latinx students enrolled in CCS Product Design (formerly Industrial Design), mostly from the famed Design and Architecture Senior High School (D.A.S.H.) in Miami, Florida. They bonded over their passion for footwear and the fact that they shared a hometown. They looked out for each other and shared information, heartaches and triumphs. They became a pipeline, moving on to lucrative industry internships and eventually footwear leaders like Nike. Adidas. Puma. Converse.
More important, these students became a community, paving paths for each other — reaching one and teaching one — in an industry where few other designers looked like them.
“All designers of color, black and brown people.”
Athletic footwear and accessories is a $60 billion-a-year business. Dr. D’Wayne Edwards is former Footwear Design Director at Brand Jordan and founder of Pensole Footwear Design Academy in Portland, Oregon, where students hone their design skills but also learn the soft skills of the business world. Edwards estimates that, of the many thousands of footwear designers who propel this business, perhaps only 160–175 of them are African American. Globally. In 2021.
“I am 100 percent sure that CCS has graduated the most black footwear designers in our industry of any school,” Edwards said. “The dearth of black designers — I started Pensole Academy for this exact reason. There I was, in the industry, looking for talent for a very specific field that most schools still don’t teach.”
Edwards has been a mentor to numerous footwear designers, of all colors, who have passed through CCS’s doors. Alumni like Edmund Holmes, Omar Bailey, Jonathan Johnson Griffin, Guercy Eugene, Bernadette Little and Ashley Payne. Having made it up the industry ladder without a formal college education, and understanding how few of these opportunities come the way of young black students, he has made mentoring African American designers his passion and his vocation.
Cheresse Thornhill (’07 Product Design) knows this well because she was one of them. A graduate of the famed Design and Architecture Senior High School (D.A.S.H.) in Miami, Florida, Thornhill arrived at CCS in the early 2000s, before footwear became the wildly successful and sought-after global commodity it is today and certainly before anyone knew how influential women designers could be.
“When I started at CCS in 2003, footwear design was still seen as fashion, not product design,” Thornhill recalled. “But when I got there, there was already a pipeline of talent that I could tap into: Duane Lawrence was there, Rommel Vega was there, I met Jason Mayden there — all designers of color, black and brown people. And we had such a family atmosphere. Sabrina Nelson [CCS Admissions Counselor and Fine Arts alumna], was a big part of helping to form that pipeline for us. She took care of us. I often spent Thanksgiving at her dinner table. A lot of us did.”
A Nike internship before Thornhill’s senior year turned, after graduation, into a full-time role as a footwear designer, where for nearly a decade she created shoes across multiple categories, countries and sports — including the Jordan 16.5, worn by Dwyane Wade, and the Zoom KB24, worn by Kobe Bryant.
“When I got to Nike, I reached out to Ashley Comeaux. When Ashley started working at Nike, she reached out to Precious Hannah. YouTube didn’t exist yet. Instagram wasn’t around. You had to foster community, you had to be mentored in order to connect and learn and grow. My purpose now is to help educate, mentor and create community, and then use my voice and advocate in these spaces and rooms with the people who are making the decisions.”
Thornhill now maintains her own design consultancy and, since January 2020, is Design Director at the School for Experiential Education in Design (S.E.E.D.). A partnership between Pensole Academy (it was Edwards who told her about the position) and adidas, S.E.E.D. is a unique two-year, footwear design program that mentors promising young women of color.
“The whole premise is to create new pathways into our industry for people who have been underserved. So, right now, that’s women in general. We focused on women of color this year, but moving into next year, we’re going to be focusing on black women specifically. The program is a two-year paid opportunity. After that, there’s a full-time role [at adidas] waiting for them to complete the program.”
“The impact is being able to see us.”
Precious Hannah (’12 Product Design) arrived at CCS about five years after Thornhill but had first encountered her during sophomore year at D.A.S.H. when Thornhill returned to give a talk and show her portfolio to students. The encounter was both professionally and personally life-changing for the young high school student. “When Cheresse came, she had just completed her internship at Nike that summer. I was a sophomore at the time and had just started Product Design,” Hannah explained. [Note: D.A.S.H. students carry concentrations much like college majors.]
“I honestly didn’t know that chicks could design shoes. That was never taught to me. Cheresse came, and she showed her portfolio. And, once again, I was the only black girl in my class, the only girl period in product design. And my question was, ‘How did you know that you could design footwear?’ Because I didn’t know. And at that moment, a connection happened. Because Kimberly Glover [not a CCS alumna] was also there, and Kim is basically one of the first African American footwear designers at Nike in the Jordan Brand.”
According to Hannah, by the time she arrived at CCS, “This sisterhood started to form. Ashley Comeaux and I were at CCS at the same time; when I was a freshman, she was a junior. Cheresse really stepped into the picture and kind of put the pieces together for both of us. And we’ve all remained very close-knit throughout the years.”
While at the College, Hannah slowly entered the now generational community of Product Design students of color that had nurtured Thornhill. She spent a summer studying at Pensole Academy, where according to Hannah, she had her boundaries pushed and her eyes opened — to the possibilities of what footwear could be and to her own creative potential. After that summer, Hannah returned to CCS for her junior year and was offered two internships: one at Hasbro and the one she accepted, at New Balance.
After graduation, Hannah landed her first job, as an equipment designer for Jordan Brand, and, in the last 8.5 years, she has continued to apply those early lessons to a diverse array of roles, including designing footwear for Jordan Kids and her current role as a footwear designer for Nike.
But for Hannah, as for Thornhill, the greatest impact their community and professional lives have had is the visibility they offer to aspiring black footwear designers.
“The impact is being able to see us,” Hannah emphasized. “Cheresse is the first black person I saw who was actually in the industry doing what I wanted to do. It’s important that young people see us. There is a seat at the table for all of us. You just have to know that there’s an actual table.”