Sheree R. Curry
Chances are, you have Jan Ernst Matzeliger to thank, at least partially, for the shoes on your feet.
Matzeliger, an immigrant from what is now the country of Suriname, in South America, revolutionized the business of shoe manufacturing with a patent he earned in 1883 at the age of 30 – an innovation that underlies the methods shoe companies use today.
At one time, the upper part of a shoe was typically stitched to the sole by hand. A cobbler could churn out perhaps 50 shoes a day through the stretching and stitching process known as “lasting.” The lasting machine that Matzeliger invented allowed a shoemaker to complete more than 10 times as many shoes a day, according to the Smithsonian Institution and the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Shoes became more affordable.
“He was truly an entrepreneur, doing what he did in the late 1800s, facing such discrimination and racism at the time,” says D’Wayne Edwards, a former Nike executive who has designed footwear for such athletes as Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter and Carmelo Anthony and who is founder and president of Pensole Lewis College of Business & Design in Detroit. Pensole is a successor school to Lewis College of Business, a historically Black institution that closed in 2015.
“For him to have the vision and foresight to want to improve an industry and do something bigger than himself was truly amazing,” Edwards says. “He has been a pioneer for this industry that has been overlooked.”
Matzeliger was born in 1852 in Dutch Guiana, now Suriname, to an enslaved mother and the slaveholder in whose house she worked. He moved to Massachusetts in the 1870s.
Edwards got his start in the shoe business at age 19 as a temporary file clerk at LA Gear. Though he didn’t have a college degree, he was transferred to the design team after showing several of his designs to the company founder Robert Greenberg who went on to found Skechers.
After learning that a Black man was behind a key industry invention, Edwards wanted to honor Matzeliger in a way that would keep his legacy front and center. The solution: incorporate Matzeliger’s name into a shoe brand.
“JEMS by Pensole” — the acronym standing for Jan Ernst Matzeliger Studios — will open its factory in March, marking 140 years since Matzeliger received his patent. Edwards says the company expects to launch its first shoe in September. Shoe designs will be the result of collaboration between Edwards and Pensole students.
The name “JEMS” has additional layers of meaning, Edwards says. It represents gyms — where athletic footwear is often worn — and gems, which is what Edwards calls the primarily Black and brown students at Pensole who are being mentored.
“We really do feel that the people we’re going to serve and honor in this factory are truly the hidden gems of our industry who have been overlooked, and/or have not ever had an opportunity,” Edwards says.
The new venture is backed by an initial $2 million investment from Designer Brands Inc., parent of shoe retailer DSW . JEMS by Pensole shoes will be sold exclusively in DSW retail stores nationwide.
“The reason we’re partnering with Pensole is to get the next generation of designers, and very specifically, African American designers, in the footwear industry, and using DSW as a tool,” says William Jordan, Designer Brands Chief Growth Officer. “Less than 3%of designers in the footwear industry today are African American. We need to change that.”
Story Credit: usatoday.com