Demetrius Mensah, artist turned sneaker designer

Growing up, Demetrius had always used art as a means of escape. Now he’s making it his business.

At the age of 11, struggling to overcome grade school bullying and harassment, Demetrius Mensah had reached a point where he wanted to give up. Desperate to find an escape from his pain, he started thinking back to third grade, when he drew a freehand still life of a boot. At the time, the drawing surprised him — not only because it was good, but because he felt so free while drawing it. At 11 years old, he picked up the pencil again, started drawing, and hasn’t stopped since.

“When I was drawing, I really felt this feeling of, you know, you’re okay. You’re in this world where nothing else matters, nobody’s making me cry, nobody’s saying that nobody likes me, nobody’s calling me names,” he says. “It just felt cool, like I was behind every stroke.” This realization empowered him to explore his artistry and conjure up a dream of one day owning a design house that he calls 723.

Demetrius worked in Portland, Oregon, in retail at the Adidas corporate campus, designing custom footwear and apparel on the side. He’s also designed shoes for his friends, NBA coaches, and hip-hop artists. His ultimate goal: to be able to unapologetically express himself through his creative talents.

Shoes were a way to stand out

Demetrius’ love for shoes and style started at a young age. His earliest memory is of his parents putting him in his first pair of Jordan sneakers when he was just two years old. Growing up, he remembers building his wardrobe by coordinating his brothers’ hand-me-downs with thrift store pieces, carefully selected by him and his mother.

When he started school, shoes became a source of self-expression, as everyone was required to wear a uniform. Shoes were the one way for him to stand out from his classmates. But, he couldn’t always get the shoes he wanted. This fueled his desire to learn more about sneakers and start creating his own designs. During the summer between his junior and senior years in high school, he took his vision from the sketchpad to customizing real shoes.

“As long as I have the vision or know what I want to do, the numbers will get there.”

The money will follow

Upon graduating and going off to college, Demetrius challenged himself to take the road less traveled. He started out studying business at college in his hometown of Milwaukee but left to pursue his passion of being a self-taught designer. It wasn’t easy.

He faced financial hardships that put him in tough predicaments, but he never stopped working. “As long as I have the vision or know what I want to do, the numbers will get there.” Money isn’t his primary focus; building his brand is. Though that’s not to say he doesn’t understand the importance of finances when running a business. “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, so taking your time, trusting your pace, and just moving forward with what you have — the money will follow.”

Moving to Portland has had a positive impact on Demetrius’ self growth and on 723. “When I came out here the first time to visit, it really had my creative juices flowing. I couldn’t stop thinking about what I wanted to create,” he says. Portland offered him a seat at the table where people want to help each other grow. This was monumental considering how he struggled to find his place in the crowd throughout grade school.

Trusting his vision

Now his inspiration comes from being able to get outside of his own head and let his reality drive his creativity. “It’s not just a pair of shoes then, it’s like you’re gaining a chunk of my vision,” he explains. Once he has a concept, it can take 40 to 80 hours to design and construct a pair of shoes.

Combined with his unique vision, this laser focus and attention to detail — a trait his father instilled in him — is what sets his shoes apart. “I just think it brings a different element to the market. It brings a different element to the game.” The big picture for Demetrius is relaying that vision to the masses — without sacrificing integrity.

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