Salehe Bembury: the designer inspiring a generation of sneakersheads
Bembury hiked the same trail most days his early years in LA After the COVID shutdown, another hiker briefed him on another trail, much more difficult but that would take him even higher, some 4,000 feet above Los Angeles. Bembury was up to the challenge, and it became the hike the creator does almost every morning. At the top, it is above the clouds. The hike is so intimidating (or maybe just unfamiliar) that you hardly ever see anyone else on it. Distrustful of pumas, he carries an air horn, a Taser and a knife.
Although the hike started out as a crucial tool for his mental and physical health, he photographed the getaway often enough that it was part of his brand. His fans analyze the photos he posts, wondering if he will make shoes inspired by clouds or purple cacti. A few lucky and famous fans, including John Mayer, rapper Amine and Oscar nominated actress Cynthia Erivo, join him. He prides himself on being able to find his place with anyone. “I’m one of the few people who can relax with Migos backstage and drink tea with Donatella at her home,” he says. “I did both comfortably and I was in my shoes.”
Bembury knows better than anyone that his distinctive talent isn’t necessarily designing sneakers. Instead, he has a combination of skills that were never needed for a designer until now, when suddenly critical. “There are sneaker designers who are way more talented than I am, but they might not be the best at branding or the best at social media or the best at marketing,” he says. “Because I would say that what makes me the designer that I am is a combination of 10 things. While I know some designers are fucking sick designers, but they’re really clumsy or they just don’t know how to dress, or people don’t like being around them. [They] I don’t have the other nine things.
He posts on social media what he wants you to see: the life of the venerable Sneaker Designer. “You see the life of Salehe Bembury, the shoe designer,” he says. “So if I’m with someone you’d expect Salehe the shoe designer to be with, I’ll probably document it.” But if I’m with someone you don’t need to know, like I’m about to see my dad, he won’t be on my Instagram. Because it’s none of your business.
Bembury finds it hard to think of a contemporary, not because he considers himself exceptionally talented, but because he has essentially established himself in this whole new way of designing sneakers, reaching maturity at the exact moment a role like hers became possible. At Cole Haan, he made sure sites like Hypebeast knew he was working on the brand’s Nike-infused LunarGrand. “It was my front door to have a little name,” he says. He took a wooden briefcase wherever he went – an object so strange that it was almost impossible to forget. Now he goes with a less bulky cap. When I notice one sitting on a chair in his studio, it looks like it has suddenly evaporated.
Meanwhile, Nike’s flamboyant collaborations with designers like Virgil Abloh have proven that fashion figures can move sneakers just as successfully as prominent artists. That’s why Bembury’s name appears on his New Balance sneakers, rather than being buried somewhere in the company’s corporate directory.
“Everyone’s dream was to work for Nike, Jordan or Adidas,” says D’Wayne Edwards, founder of the Pensole shoe design academy. “But over the years, kids are now like, ‘I want to have my own business. “The rise of the collaboration makes this dream seem easier to grasp than it is – just change a few colors and you’re good to go. “A lot of these kids,” Bembury said, “just want the instant response to ‘How can I become you overnight?’ “