Sneaker Design's Rising Star: A Look at Salehe Bembury
Sneaker Design's Rising Star: A Look at Salehe Bembury
- Words Mikelle Street
- Date October 24, 2017
Watching a slow, but gradual, tidal shift is a pretty amazing process. In fashion it’s sort of a thing that happens every few generations; one slate of heads are gradually moved out for another. You see it in magazines, in the ambassadors and, of course, on the design end. In menswear design, this latest wave has seen a slate of creatives who are influenced by—or even previously worked in—what we collectively call “the culture” or the industry refers to as “the street.” Those individuals moving into “the establishment”—defined by the traditional luxury houses and the network that supports them year-after-year—are able to inject an occassionally stuffy fashion strata with a sense of modernity. Case in point, Versace’s new head of sneaker design: Salehe Bembury, a designer who has previously worked with brands including Greats, Cole Haan and Kanye West’s Yeezy.
In the earlier phases of his career, Bembury—the self-professed shoe addict and Syracuse University Industrial Design major—logged time at Payless, Cole Haan and Damon Dash’s DD172. And sure, while that sounds like he got his start in the typical fashion trenches, Bembury denied that line of thought when I spoke with him. “I definitely don’t come from a high fashion sort of foundation,” he told me when speaking for an earlier interview for Vice. “I would say I’m more streetwear based.” That base goes back to before he was designing, back to his childhood in TriBeCa when he was sporting and sketching Jordans of his own.
“The reason I'm a footwear designer comes from basketball and watching NBA with my dad when I was a kid,” he told me while working on a piece centered around the Pyer Moss Spring/Summer 2017 runway show. “It's about ‘90s rap culture and that sort of stuff; I'm selfish with my design where I’m always trying to make the five-year-old kid inside of myself happy.” Those formative years included him trading and camping out for shoes and lining up outside of the Supreme store. The impressions created then still influence his designs today.
At Damon Dash’s DD172, Bembury made it a point to work hard. What started off as an intern role was quickly converted into a senior footwear design position—a direct result of his personal dedication. As an intern, Instead of waiting for his opportunity to formally join DD172 design team, he reportedly bought a TV dinner table from Duane Reade and put it in the designer’s room as an impromptu desk. The sheer panache of the act got him hired on the spot.
Bembury wasn’t idle at Cole Haan either. He worked on a team that would create the LunarGrand—a now well-known dress shoe with a casual, runner-like sole, emphasizing comfort. That formula has since been rolled out into an entire series of shoes, becoming a Cole Haan signature.
But after three years—and contributing to other projects like a Theophilus London partnership and creating a concept for an Air Max style—he would join the team at Greats. Bembury would head up a variety of projects for the young Brooklyn brand, including the design behind the “Reebok-meets-Valentino”-inspired Pronto sneaker, working on Nick Wooster-approved Carnasie slide and a few other Greats designs..
When I first encountered Bembury’s work, though I wasn’t aware it was his at the time, it was while he was the design director at Greats, the Brooklyn-based sneaker company founded by Ryan Babenzien and Jon Buscemi (currently, Buscemi is no longer with the company). In that role, amongst other projects, he was working on his Greats collaboration with Pyer Moss , then a young brand still making its name before the controversial, Spring 2015 breakout collection. The resulting runner was sleek and color blocked, made of Italian nubuck and featured the words “Foul Play” printed across the heel. They were sharp sneakers for sure, but are only a small bullet in Bembury’s resume.
Then came Yeezy. Whether you appreciate or do not appreciate Kanye West’s Yeezy as a brand, the success of the footwear from the label is indisputable. Bembury did more than his part contributing to that success, designing styles that appeared on the Madison Square Garden jumbotron for Season 3 (which was a particular treat as a basketball fan) as well as sneakers and boots that hit shelves under the banner of Yeezy Season 4. If you ever want to see Bembury’s work in the wild, look no further than street style shots of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian.
As recently as the Spring/Summer 2017 runway season, Bembury was back to collaborating with Pyer Moss. Working with the brand’s founder Kerby Jean Raymond on that collection’s footwear, Bembery dipped the runway shoes in silicone, extending the soles. It was an attempt at making an analogy to worldly burdens. The creations never went into production but they proved an interesting gateway to introducing me to a designer whose work I had unknowingly been seeing for years.
Perhaps his most notable achievement to date, this September, Salehe Bembury was picked by Donatella Versace for his new role as “Head of Sneaker Design” at Versace—an appointment which includes the offshoot Versus Versace line. This is nothing short of complimentary for Bembury, as Donatella has shown a knack for picking talent. She tapped Anthony Vaccarello to design for Versus before he went on to take over at Saint Laurent. She signed J.W. Anderson before he went on to be hired at Loewe. She recruited Christopher Kane before Kering invested in his namesake label by buying a 51 percent stake. Donatella has an eye for future movers in the industry, and while she wasn’t the first, she’s certainly spotted undeniable talent in Bembury.
It will be interesting to see how things proceed from here. There’s no doubt that Bembury is a chameleon, able to adapt his designs to a brand while also bringing a sensibility that is in line with the consumer. Whether a higher profile role at Versace will mean that he is given the room to inflect a bit more of those ‘90s hip-hop inspirations into Versace sneakers will only be discerned over time. Considering the amount of time and dedication he’s spent investing in his craft (during his time at Payless he was tasked with designing both men’s and women’s footwear, ultimately forcing himself to spend five hours in heels to create better women’s footwear), he could walk out of this appointment with time running whole Versace footwear department under his belt.
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