In efforts to celebrate Black History Month, Designer Brands Inc. announced an investment of $2 million in the first Black-owned footwear factory in the United States – JEMS by Pensole – to produce shoes designed by PLC graduate students.  Designer Brands is the parent of shoe retailer DSW Designer Shoe Warehouse, and the shoes will be sold exclusively at DSW stores.

This amount of investment is part of the Designer Brand’s advancing action-oriented Diversity, Equity & Inclusion through a partnership with Pensole and footwear designer D’Wayne Edwards, President of Pensole Lewis College of Business & Design (PLC). Located in Detroit, PLC is the first and only Historically Black College & University (HBCU) in Michigan and the first HBCU with a focus on design. PLC, formerly known as the Lewis College of Business, is expected to reopen in May 2022.

The First Black-owned footwear factory’s name JEMS stands for “Jan Ernst Matzeliger Studio” – itself named in honor of the Black footwear pioneer who in 1883 received a patent that revolutionized footwear manufacturing, a process that inspired methods the industry still uses today.

Designer Brands also said that it has embraced “MORE THAN A MONTH” as the symbolic theme to recognize and pay homage to Black innovators and provide opportunities for Black designers. From now through Matzeliger’s birthday on September 15, DSW will chronicle the opening of JEMS by Pensole and the production of its first shoes.

“We see the footwear industry lacking effective representation by people of color, specifically Blacks, and this $2 million investment will address root causes to remove barriers,” said Designer Brands Chief Executive Officer Roger Rawlins. “Blacks represent less than 5% of those across all design industries, thus lacking much-needed diversity. Designer Brands and DSW’s commitment with Pensole will create a U.S.-based shoe factory, with the goal of all work leading to the launch of Black designers’ brands inside of DSW.”

According to Edwards, his partnership with Designer Brands and DSW is a new business model that truly empowers the consumer to influence the industry toward that goal. “Together with Pensole, Designer Brands and DSW will provide designers opportunities to offer new products directly to consumers. Along the way we will create careers and invest in talented aspiring designers to become the future of our industry,” he said.

Designer Brands is one of North America’s largest designers, producers, and retailers of footwear and accessories. Designer Brands operates a portfolio of retail concepts in nearly 700 locations under the DSW Designer Shoe Warehouse, The Shoe Company, and Shoe Warehouse banners.