MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we'd like to tell you about a legend in the world of sneakers. D'Wayne Edwards was one of the first black designers. He also created his own academy to give others a foot into the business. NPR's Mandalit del Barco spent time with Edwards when he visited one of his proteges in LA.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: At a storefront space in Venice Beach, cobblers listen to jazz as they handcraft limited edition and custom-made sneakers for the company No.One. Twenty-two-year-old Ari Montanez has designed some of the label's latest kicks, including a black and white leather sneaker.
ARI MONTANEZ: The Delta right over there is the one I first worked on when I first got here.
DEL BARCO: Montanez says he'd been a shy kid, who sometimes got into trouble in Orange, N.J.
D'WAYNE EDWARDS: Actually, Ari's dad reached out to me and was like, hey, my son wants to do some footwear.
DEL BARCO: That's D'Wayne Edwards. He's been mentoring young footwear designers through his program Pensole Design Academy, which is free for students. It partners with sneaker companies and schools like the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena.
EDWARDS: I didn't have the money to go to college.
DEL BARCO: Edwards was the youngest of six children. And times were tough in Inglewood, where he grew up. In the 1980s and '90s, the LA community was known for street gang violence and poverty.
EDWARDS: All of my friends were either gangbangers or athletes. So I tried to stay out of it. I love to draw.
DEL BARCO: Edwards also loved basketball and used to watch the LA Lakers practice at his high school.
EDWARDS: I would see Magic and Kareem every other day. They were just gigantic people.
DEL BARCO: So were you looking at their shoes?
EDWARDS: Oh, of course. Not only that, a friend of mine, he was a ball boy. And he would get me the shoes after the game.
DEL BARCO: He says back then, sneakers mostly came in just white with red or blue, never with green - his high school colors.
EDWARDS: I would get some green shoe dye and duct tape and tape up all the white and paint the swoosh green.
DEL BARCO: His classmates started paying him to customize sneakers. Edwards says wearing the latest style was everything.
EDWARDS: It was your self-expression. It was your car. People look down first, and then they scan the rest of the body after that. And, you know, there's there's two things you didn't want to hear - what size do you wear? Because that means they were about to take your shoes. The second one was, where'd you get them? And you never answered either question. You just kept moving.
DEL BARCO: Edwards wanted to make a career out of designing sneakers, but his high school guidance counselor was no help.
EDWARDS: She's like, you're a better shot at joining the military. No black kid from Inglewood would ever become a footwear designer.
DEL BARCO: But Edwards proved her wrong. At 17, when he worked as a file clerk for LA Gear, he put a new sneaker concept in the company's suggestion box every day until the owner appointed him as a designer. Then for Skechers, he devised shoes for rappers like Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg. Finally, Nike hired him to design for Michael Jordan's line of sneakers. Edwards started with the Air Jordan 21.
EDWARDS: So Michael loves cars, and he had just bought a Bentley GT Continental - well, two of them. And he was like, hey, I love this car. Can we build a shoe based on this vehicle?
DEL BARCO: Edwards flew to London to see how the car was made. To design the Air Jordan 22, he examined the F-22 fighter plane made of titanium.
EDWARDS: The atomic number for titanium is 22. And so I built this titanium platform within the shoe, paying homage to the actual aircraft.
DEL BARCO: Edwards says he's always gotten strength from his mother, who once gave him a small card with an inspirational message. For 32 years, he's kept that card in his wallet.
EDWARDS: It says, believe in yourself, in the power that you have...
DEL BARCO: Edwards gave his protege Ari Montanez a copy of the card, which was like getting handed a diploma. They read it together.
D'WAYNE EDWARDS AND ARI MONTANEZ: There is no limit to what you can do.
DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIR FORCE ONES")
NELLY: (Singing) I said give me two pairs because I need two pairs... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.