Step Into History: Black-Owned Footwear Factory In The U.S. Releases Its Product

Designer Brands Inc., a world-renowned footwear and accessories collective, has announced the future release of the FIRST JEM. This inaugural shoe will kick off the JEMS by PENSOLE brand and will also be the first item released by one of America’s first-ever Black-owned footwear factories.

The new manufacturing studio will be a partnership between the footwear giant and Pensole Lewis College of Business & Design, the first and only HBCU centered on building careers in the design industry. The Black-owned factory was established in New Hampshire in early 2023 with the mission of building spaces within the industry that promote and champion Black designers and manufacturers. The brand’s launch also aligns with this purpose, as the FIRST JEM takes inspiration from a marginalized but widely impactful Black designer, Jan Ernst Matzeliger, for which his initials were also used in the company’s naming.

“The FIRST JEM celebrates Matzeliger’s little-known legacy,” shared designer Dr. D’Wayne Edwards, founder of JEMS by PENSOLE and Pensole Lewis College of Business & Design. “His invention of the Lasting Machine in 1883 revolutionized how shoes are made and is still used today. We’re celebrating his legacy and embodying that same revolutionary spirit, seeking to bring opportunity to new design talent and influence the face of the footwear industry.”

Its inclusive sneaker, complete with hand-crafted leather, seeks to restore the legacy of Matzeliger by bringing it into the future. Incorporating The Lasting Machine on the sock liner, the JEMS badge logo on the shoe is shaped like a diamond, as Matzeliger was a gem to the industry that has inspired future iterations. The shoe was released on his birthday, Sept. 15, to further honor his influence on design.

Dr. D’Wayne Edwards. Courtesy of Designer Brands

Designer Brands’ president also expressed excitement over the shoe and the new brand’s launch.

“Diversity drives innovation and brings new thinking, designs, and products to consumers, yet
Black representation sits at less than 5% across all design industries,” said Designer Brands President Bill Jordan. “We’re excited to partner with Dr. Edwards on the JEMS by PENSOLE line. FIRST JEM is just the beginning step in our goal to forge entrepreneurial opportunities for underrepresented footwear designers and make their vision and designs accessible to our customers at DSW stores.”
As their expansive portfolio includes household names such as Keds, Lucky Brand, and Vince Camuto, this venture prioritizes designers of color and grants opportunities to improve equity in the footwear industry. For shoe-lovers who want to support this new Black-owned brand with a mission of upliftment, the FIRST JEM is sold exclusively at DSW, with expansion toward in-store purchasing to be included in future collections.


RELATED CONTENT: Designer Brands Joins Pensole Lewis College of Business  Design for Ribbon-Cutting of JEMS by PENSOLE, One of the First Black-Owned U.S. Footwear Factories