Salehe Bembury doesn’t want to be known as the sneaker guy.
But the designer’s chops in kicks has yielded coveted co-creations like the Cole Haan meets Nike LunarGrand, his namesake collaboration with Crocs on the Pollex clog, plus a stint at Yeezy and a role as vice president of sneakers and men’s footwear at Versace (which he cold pitched his way into by way of a LinkedIn proposal, yet somehow still says, “I don’t know if I take that many risks”).
This year, Bembury, now a free agent, is carving out space for his creativity to extend beyond shoes, tapping his industrial design training for forthcoming collaborations with Canada Goose (he teased a product image on his Instagram in January), his personal brand Spunge and more with Crocs. “I’ve created a pretty strong design language for the Pollex that I believe has potential to evolve or be used for different silhouettes,” he said.
Plus there are tie-ups he can’t yet speak about, but they certainly won’t be without range. “The recent conversation has potentially been in furniture, there’s been some opportunities in tech and even automobiles…,” Bembury told WWD via Zoom from his design studio in Los Angeles, where he’s swapped his signature fisherman’s beanie (a Spunge-branded version of which he’ll be selling in the next few months) for a colorful cap that came out of his “Universal Communication” partnership with New Balance.
“I guess I’m just really trying to evolve my brand so I’m not necessarily just the sneaker guy. And with the training that industrial design gives you, I believe that I have the tools, it’s just really about being given the opportunities,” he said.
To gain some insight into what makes the versatile creative tick (and cringe), the three fashion icons he’d invite to dinner and why he can’t name a favorite sneaker, WWD here kicks off its new “10 Questions With” interview series with Bembury, who fashion until now has known for footwear but who will soon be making a bigger footprint.
1. OK, let’s start with the three threes: describe yourself in three words, your design ethos in three words and your greatest inspirations in three words.
Salehe Bembury: Myself: Creative, observant and curious.
Design ethos: Color, function and shape.
Greatest inspirations: I have to be honest, from a design perspective “Nike.” That was probably one of the reasons I chose my life’s craft. Two would be “youth” because that was when life was most magical and I think all of these sneaker design seeds were planted. And then the third would be “solution,” I guess because I was just trained that design is used to solve problems and so to be able to use design as a problem-solving tool — yeah, that’s the third one.
2. If the fashion industry were a country and you were its ruler, what’s the first law you’d introduce?
S.B.: Oh, I like that question a lot! That you’re not allowed to give false praise of design work — you actually have to like it. One thing that bothers me is when everyone’s like, “Yo, you killed it, you killed it” and I think that’s just such a commonly used feedback piece and often people did not kill it, they didn’t even beat it up. So I’m sometimes insulted if I’m told I killed it because I almost want more insightful feedback. So that’d be the law of the land.
3. What makes you laugh more than anything else?
S.B.: My guilty pleasure is Worldstar (IYKYK).
4. If you could dine with any three fashion icons, living or passed on, who would they be, why and what would you want to say to each of them?
S.B.: I guess one would be Donatella [Versace] because she played a huge role in changing my life and supercharging my design career and putting me on a different platform, so it’d be great to have her at that dinner just to tell her thank you.
Virgil [Abloh] — it might have to be a thank you dinner because for Virgil it would be a thank you for blazing the path and being a pioneer and giving a blueprint and model of how to move in the space that we both found ourselves in at a certain time.
And then lastly it would be Jeff Henderson, who was my boss at Cole Haan and who worked at Nike for 20 years and he kind of gave me my first real opportunity and also just instilled a lot of significant design practices and foundations in me at a young age.
So, this would be a thank-you dinner and it would be me thanking all of these people for opportunity and role model-ship.
5. The fashion trend you’d love to never see again?
S.B.: I’ve never been a fan of — there’s a type of person that loves to just step into their shoe and make it a sandal even if it’s not a sandal — I can’t stand that. And I think it’s just ‘cause it just feels like it’s such disrespect to the shoe and they’ll just smash the back of it down — I can’t stand that. That drives me crazy.
6. What is your favorite sneaker of all time?
S.B.: Favorite sneaker of all time? That’s tough. I don’t know if I have a favorite sneaker of all time, that’s a tough one…’cause I have so many shoes, and for me, the excitement comes from all of the shoes. You know how you’re kind of like a different person every day? So, like some days you just feel like wearing all black and other days you might want to wear a really colorful dress? I think it’s kind of the same with sneakers…it depends on the day.
7. What is one thing you’d love to do but never have?
S.B.: One is I want to collaborate with Dr. Bronners [the soap company; Bembury said, “It is important that my collaborations come from a place of authenticity. I have used Dr. Bronners my entire life, it would be an honor.”] And two is I would love to make furniture.
8. What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done and would you do it again?
S.B.: I would say that one of the most recent craziest things was cold reaching out to Versace for a job. And it was also crazy because I was kind of like at the end of my funds. It was a year of unemployment slash here and there freelancing and I kind of just reached out to Versace for a job and then it worked out and then my life changed.
I was on LinkedIn and I saw a Versace design director and I proposed an opportunity. I messaged him and explained that the sneaker industry is a multibillion-dollar business and within the past five years or so (well, maybe 10 now because this was five years ago) that this billion-dollar consumer is aware that fashion houses can make sneakers because of Comme des Garçons x Nike and Raf [Simons] x Adidas and [Raf Simons and] Balenciaga making cool shoes.
So, I was, like, “You guys have so much brand DNA, the Medusa, the baroque print, that this is an opportunity and you should participate.” And I didn’t think I’d hear back, I’m just trying to create opportunity, and like two or three days later Donatella wrote back and was, like, “I love your ideas; I want you to come to Milan and tell me more.”
And so I was going to put together a few pages of trend, like this is what I think is cool but then, strangely, the week leading up I spoke to some individuals that encouraged me to put some design work in the presentation, encouraged me to go to the store, see what’s selling, do your market research, reminded me that there aren’t too many people that look like us in high fashion, that it’s bigger than me and I’m paving a way, take it seriously. So all this feedback made a three-page presentation turn into a 40-page presentation and I went out to Milan, presented to Donatella one-on-one in her regal, beautiful office and then she hired me on the spot.
And then she was very casual about what the work setup was like, if I was going to travel to Milan or live there or what it was, and then I proposed having my own office in L.A. and then going to Milan once a month and she said yes. Then I was ecstatic because I turned literally nothing into something. I think I had like two months of rent left, it was like my rations were low, if you will.
Then, yeah, I got that job and started grinding.
9. What’s one thing you could not go a day without?
S.B.: Being outside. Since moving to California, I really enjoy the outdoors, so maybe if it’s not like a proper hike, which I do often, I still enjoy the outdoors, fresh air. I spend a lot of time in front of a computer and sitting in front of a pad in a dark studio so it’s nice to just get outside and go for a walk.
10. When you eventually retire as a designer, what’s the legacy you want to have left behind?
S.B.: I think versatility is one. I’d like to be someone who was known as being able to enter different areas of the design space and introduce new ideas and surprise people. There was a recent Tyler the Creator interview where he said he felt like he was blessed to be able to present things to people that makes people stop and say, “What the f–k is that?”
And while humorous, I thought it was great because that’s really rare in the world we live in, where someone introduces design that’s not only sound and checks all the boxes of a product that you’re trying to create, but at the same time, it’s new and it’s compelling and it makes people stop and maybe it even makes people smile. I think it’s nice to bring joy to people through design.
I’m striving to be an individual as a creative. I think a lot of creatives kind of fall within a current of what the consumer wants and there’s the famous Steve Jobs quote of “the consumer doesn’t know what they want until you show it to them.” [“Some people say give the customers what they want, but that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. — Steve Jobs] and I love that because there’s a lot of things that when you initially see them you think that they’re hideous, and then you see them a second time and you raise an eyebrow, and you see it a third time and you slowly become attracted to it and I love that kind of poetic introduction of product to the consumer.
This year, I would say [what’s on my bucket list] is evolving and growing my namesake brand and my personal brand. For the longest time, I saw myself as an employee — a good employee, but an employee — and then I was given opportunities to be a designer that puts his names on things and I never really pictured that for myself. And now that I’ve been given the opportunity and the lane I want to respect it. I have a lot of work to do. I feel like I’ve been given a really rare opportunity and I have a lot to do.