At only 31 years, NYC-born and raised sneaker designer Salehe Bembury already boasts an impressive resume. From starting out at traditional men’s footwear company Cole Haan to working on Yeezy Seasons 3 and 4 all the way to being appointed Versace’s new head of footwear design, the young visionary already is one of the most ambitious creatives in the footwear industry. In our conversation, Salehe opened up about being a sneakerhead, working for Kanye West and Donatella Versace – and he told us why people should pay attention to the toothbrush section at their next visit to the grocery store.
When did it dawn on you that you would be more than a consumer in this footwear industry?
I thought I was ready for the big leagues (Nike) at like 10 years old. I would sketch a sneaker, take a look at it… and think, “Nike needs this”. I may have been delusional, but I always felt that I was more than just a consumer. I appreciated sneakers on a higher level than my friends. While they were excited about their new Jordans making them play basketball better, I was amped about all of the detail molded into the outsole. At the time I didn’t realize it was an appreciation for design; it was more just a love of sneakers.
I would say the Internet really took being a “sneakerhead” to another level. Prior to that it was really underground and word of mouth. There was this one store, Nom De Guerre, that literally had no signage, and you had to walk down an unmarked, subway-like stairwell that felt like trespassing. Back in those days there was this great underground sense of community. Forums like NikeTalk made you feel like you were a part of this big thing that mainstream media did not know about. It was like a secret society. It was easy to tell who was grass roots and who bought some Jordans to keep up with appearances. These days the majority of people fit under the latter. I’m not sure I had a defining moment, but I use those days as both fuel and motivation for what I do now.
When you grew up, streetwear and high fashion weren’t linked in the way they are now. Now it seems they are feeding off of each other. Why is this interesting to you as a designer?
I believe that this blending represents a larger shift happening in culture. Simply, “less rules”. There was a time that if you had an office job, you had to dress a certain way. There was a time that if you were wearing sneakers you couldn’t enter formal establishments. This shift in culture creates an endless amount of design opportunities. A sneaker and a dress shoe used to mean one thing. Now there are fun classifications like “ath-leisure”. With such an impactful shift happening with the consumer, brands need to follow suit. As a designer, it’s exciting because it allows me to problem solve with a brand new consumer insight.
In general, you seem to seek out endeavors that are in some way on the edge of a certain segment. With Cole Haan you helped reimagine men’s footwear, Yeezy was disruptive by its very nature, and Versace is again a striking contrast. Why do you choose this – or why did they choose you?
I’m not sure I can pick either option. I used to think there was an aspect of luck to it. However, luck is simply when opportunity and preparation align. Footwear is my passion, so I always feel prepared. Many designers’ creativity is stif led by merchandisers, salespeople, or outside inf luences trying to control the design conversation. The brands that succeed are the ones that let their designers…design. Cole Haan, Yeezy, and Versace are all drastically different brands; however, the one thing they have in common is they want to make “cool shit”. Simple.
You helped create Yeezy Season 3 and 4. Please tell us what it was like working with Kanye?
I believe that credit is to be given and not taken. I’m just happy that I was able to help bring Kanye’s genius to fruition, while being a sponge in the process.
The gift that all designers bring to the table is perspective. Sometimes one can gain the most insight on a design from the most unexpected source. I’ve had the pleasure of working for a diverse group of brands. A small start-up, a giant corporation, and…a Yeezy. Having the opportunity to work at so many types of companies has made me versatile in my design execution and conversation. The best thing a young designer can be is a sponge. I’ve been fortunate enough to soak up a lot of good liquids thus far.
What was the biggest lesson you learned as a designer – or in the general area – in that time working on Yeezy?
Someone once said, “A designer is only as good as his or her ability to research.” I would say I learned the importance of that. As a designer, it’s important to understand what came before to determine what comes next. Ultimately, that research can inspire, influence, and educate.
His work ethic. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Just like Kanye, Donatella Versace is also known to pick amazing talent at the right time. And of course she knocked on your door. What is the most interesting thing for you to work for Versace from a designer perspective?
The heritage. Most brands don’t have it, or try to fabricate it. However, the rich heritage of this brand is extremely inspiring and really fuels the design conversation. It’s also great to work with someone that has such a clear vision of what they want to bring to fruition. The level of support and trust that I’m given here initially made me emotional… it’s nice (#piscesproblems).
Back in the day, designer labels’ take on footwear was oftentimes not very creative in the sense of designing silhouettes from scratch. Are we witnessing a reversal where the influence can come from that direction as well?
I think designer labels now realize the opportunity in the footwear space – more specifically, sneakers. Footwear design these days is almost like a break dance battle. It’s like, “Here’s my move, what you got!?” Not only is it very exciting to be a part of, but it feels like designers are indirectly pushing each other to be better. Whenever I see a great design, I’m usually thinking, “Why didn’t I think of that?” The Chain Reaction is absolutely a participant in said break dance battle…and I’m trying to nail a head spin.
Please tell us something about the Chain Reaction – what was your inspiration for it? Am I wrong if I see a hiphop connection and images of rappers with a huge gold chain?
The Chain Reaction was spawned from trying to interpret branded details of Versace and make them functional. I was coincidentally listening to “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx” by Raekwon so I definitely had chains on the brain. I challenged myself to create something that hadn’t been seen before in footwear. I believe this was accomplished with the Chain Reaction. Hip hop is a big influencer of culture, period, so I’m sure there’s an aspect of it in the shoe…but again, I’m just trying to make “cool shit” while learning as much as I can in the process.
Footwear design – the Chain Reaction is good proof – is becoming bolder and more “architectural”. Where do you see it going in the future?
More attention will be given to “shape”. A few millimeters can make or break a design. I think that we will see brands obsessing over last shape, tooling contours, and overall execution. This has not seemed to be a priority for brands in the past. I also believe the “break dance battle” will continue. I always have my cardboard handy. *Insert Curtis Blow ad-lib here*. “A ha ha ha ha.”
As a designer, what is your favorite product outside of the realm of footwear – anything from a car to a refrigerator – and please explain why.
Toothbrush design and execution is really interesting. The molding techniques, the ergonomics, and the material usage. The toothbrush is something that we overlook but use (hopefully) twice a day, every day. Its design ensures the success of its function. The next time you find yourself in your local drugstore, go check out the toothbrush section…you’ll be amazed.
What are the next projects you are working on?
Versace, Versace, Versace.
Footwear design is my lifelong passion and I hope that can be seen in what I create. Thank you for the conversation.
This interview first appeared in SNEAKERS MAG #38 – Released in April 2018