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Navajo designer aims to spark revolution in shoe industry

Dewayne Dale hopes to change the way people view footwear

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
The Fifth X RockDeep M.1 Trail shoe designed by Shiprock native Dewayne Dale will be released in March but is available for preorder now.
  • Dale is a 2003 Shiprock HIgh School graduate.
  • He is Navajo of the Red Running into Water Clan, born for the Water's Edge Clan.
  • He collaborated with the Black-owned company RockDeep on the new Fifth X RockDeep M.1 Trail shoe.

FARMINGTON — Even though the turquoise-colored cord lock featured in the new trail shoe he has created is only a small element of the product, Shiprock native Dewayne Dale acknowledges it plays an outsized role in his design — both visually and symbolically.

"It's a small piece, but it plays a very, very important part overall," he said.

The Fifth X RockDeep M.1 Trail shoe designed by Dale — a Navajo of the Red Running into Water Clan, born for the Water's Edge Clan — is styled after the traditional Native moccasin, with a rustic suede finish and dark-hide color. That allows the turquoise cord lock, positioned squarely in the middle of the tongue, to pop out, making it the shoe's most prominent and appealing feature.

The effect is striking, perhaps helping elevate Dale's new shoe to something revolutionary. He admitted he wouldn't mind if people perceived it that way.

"As designers, at least for me, that's what you hope to change in the way people view a product," the 2003 Shiprock High School alum said Dec. 30 from his home in Minnesota.

The shoe won't be released until March, but preorders for it are being taken on the website of RockDeep, the footwear/apparel company that is marketing and manufacturing it. Dale, who runs his own small footwear company called Fifth, said he was invited to collaborate on a new shoe shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began by Rocky Parrish, the CEO of the small, Black-owned firm.

Dale already had been working in the industry for several years, serving on the innovation team at other, better-known shoe companies. But this was the first time he had been invited to collaborate on something that reflected his heritage and provided him with so much creative freedom.

Dewayne Dale

"One of my objectives was, you always want to design something that comes natural," he said. "And I've always loved southwestern footwear. I loved the moccasins I grew up with."

Given his insider's position in the industry, Dale said he had seen other shoe designs by major manufacturers that were based on southwestern or Native foundations. But those elements never really made it past the inspiration boards that designers use to chart the various stages of the development of their products, he said.

That always bothered Dale.

"It's cool to be an inspiration, but it always hurt that we never made it off that board and became more than an inspiration," he said.

Dale looked at those Native-derived products and believed he could do better.

"This (shoe) is not Native inspired," he said. "This kind of footwear is part of who I am. It's just been elevated and modernized a bit."

RockDeep's Parrish indicated in a press release heralding the product's release that his company's association with Dale already feels like more than a mere business venture.

"I am usually tempered in my excitement regarding collaborations, but there were so many parallels in my culture and Dewayne's that this project hit me emotionally, which I really didn't expect," he stated.

'Take back the moccasin'

Dale says the shoe is suitable for a variety of uses, ranging from playing softball to strolling through a mall. But it is being marketed as a trail shoe and obviously was influenced by the kind of footwear he grew up. He hopes it fills a void he believes exists in his business.

"When you're in this industry, you see something that's missing," he said. "But the road to make it real is definitely not easy. Your goals may not be the company's goals. And I always found myself alone in this idea of what I call 'taking back the moccasin.'"

Desinger Dewayne Dale describes his Fifth X RockDeep M.1 Trail shoe as an "elevated and modernized" take on the traditional moccasin.

The moccasin is a product that has stood the test of time, Dale argues, holding a practical and aesthetic appeal to that extends beyond a solely Native market.

"My muse is, I want to take back the moccasin," he said. "It led me to this space of, you realize no one is doing this. This is open territory."

Dale's design doesn't just mimic the outward appearance of a moccasin. It takes that foundation and beefs it up considerably.

"When you're designing a shoe, you're not just handing over a sketch, you have to be an engineer," he said, explaining that his final design had to include explicit plans for how the shoe would be constructed. "You have to design how it folds over, how it's stitched."

Dale compared some elements of his design to a burrito, explaining the intricate way the shoe folds together. He said the way it wraps around the wearer's ankle is especially reminiscent of how moccasins have been designed for centuries.

While the interior incorporates modern materials such as nylon webbing, the shoe's exterior features two kinds of suede — what Dale likes to refer to as "hairy suede" — instead of the polished leather used in most athletic shoes.

'I want to see it out in the world'

He believes elements like that are what give the shoe its authenticity. And when it came time to design a method for binding the shoe to the foot, he got even more creative, opting for a wrap-around lacing system of leather cords crowned by the aforementioned turquoise cord lock, rather than the standard shoelaces or Velcro straps.

The contrast between the blue cord lock and the rugged, dark-brown hide of the rest of the shoe gives it an exclamation point.

"Turquoise, the stone, is very important to people around there, even non-Natives," Dale said. "For us, it represents so many things. I wanted those two (elements) to contrast with each other. You don't see a lot of companies put those colors together."

Dale said the color contrast was nothing short of a statement on his part, and he is anxious to see how the shoe is received — by the general public, certainly, but more so back in the desert Southwest that he still considers home.

"I really want this to be an experience," he said of how people feel when they put on the shoe. "I want to see it out in the world. I want people from New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado to wear it. I want to see it contrasted on the lands they're on."

The Fifth X Rockdeep M.1 Trail shoe retails online for $134.99, plus shipping. It can be preordered at that price through Feb. 28 at rockdeep.com. Dale said the price of the shoe likely will be increased after that date.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.