Salehe Bembury: The Designer Who Was at Versace and Worked With Kanye
Salehe Bembury: The Designer Who Was at Versace and Worked With Kanye West

Salehe Bembury: The Designer Who Was at Versace and Worked With Kanye West

At just 31 years old, New York City born and bred sneaker designer Salehe Bembury already has an impressive CV. From his beginnings at traditional men's shoe company Cole Haan, to working on Yeezy seasons 3 and 4, to being named Versace's new Head of Footwear Design, the young visionary is already one of the most ambitious creatives in the footwear industry. In a conversation, Salehe talked about what it's like to be a sneakerhead, working for Kanye West and Donatella Versace - and he also revealed why you should look out for the toothbrush section on your next trip to the grocery shop.

When did you realise that you would be more than just a consumer in the footwear industry?

I thought I was ready for the big leagues (Nike) when I was 10. I drew a trainer, looked at it and thought, "Nike needs this". Maybe I was delusional, but I always felt I was more than just a consumer. I valued trainers on a higher level than my friends. While they were excited that their new Jordans gave them a better basketball game, I was excited about all the details that were built into the outsole. At the time, I didn't know it was an appreciation for design; it was simply a love of trainers.

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What were the defining moments of your childhood in relation to sneakers?

I would say the internet has taken being a sneakerhead to a new level. Before that, it was really underground and word of mouth. There was this one shop, Nom De Guerre, that literally had no signage and you had to walk down an unmarked, subway-like staircase, which felt like trespassing. There was this great sense of community underground back then. On forums like NikeTalk, you felt like you were part of something big that the mainstream media didn't know about. It was like a secret society. It was easy to see who belonged to the base and who bought a few Jordans to keep up appearances. Nowadays, the majority of people fall under the latter. I'm not sure I had a formative moment, but I use that time as drive and motivation for what I do today.

When you were growing up, streetwear and haute couture weren't as closely linked as they are today. Now they seem to cross-pollinate. Why is that interesting for you as a designer?

I think this blending represents a bigger change in culture. Quite simply, "fewer rules". There was a time when you had to dress a certain way for an office job. There was a time when you couldn't enter official facilities wearing trainers. This cultural shift creates an endless amount of design possibilities. It used to be that trainers and dressy shoes meant the same thing. Now there are fun classifications like "ath-leisure". With such a drastic change taking place among consumers, brands have to follow suit. It's exciting for me as a designer because it gives me the opportunity to solve problems with a whole new understanding of consumers.

In general, you seem to strive for projects that are in some way at the forefront of a particular segment. With Cole Haan you helped redefine men's shoes, Yeezy was disruptive by nature, and Versace is again a striking contrast. Why did you choose this company - or why did they choose you?

I'm not sure I can choose one option. I always thought there was also a bit of luck. But luck is simply when opportunity and preparation go together. Shoes are my passion, so I always feel well prepared. Many designers' creativity is stifled by merchandisers, salespeople or outside influences 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 completely different brands, but they have one thing in common: They want to make "cool shit". Simple.

You helped design Yeezy seasons 3 and 4. Please tell us what it was like working with Kanye?

I believe in giving credit and not taking credit. I'm just happy that I was able to help bring Kanye's genius to life and be a sponge in the process.

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Kanye is obviously a genius, also because he has a clear vision and the talent to choose the right people. What did you bring to the team you were part of in the first place?

The gift that all designers bring is perspective. Sometimes you get the best insight into a design from an unexpected source. I've had the pleasure of working for a variety of brands. A small start-up, a huge corporation and....Yeezy. Having had the opportunity to work for so many different companies, I have become versatile in my design execution and conversation. The best thing a young designer can be is a sponge. I've been lucky enough to soak up a lot of good fluids so far.

What was the most important lesson you learned as a designer - or in general - while working on Yeezy?

Someone once said, "A designer is only as good as his ability to research." I would say I've learned how important that is. As a designer, it's important to understand what came before to determine what comes next. Ultimately, this research can inspire, influence and teach.

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Can you name one thing that inspired you when working with Kanye? It could be anything from a habit to a general trait.

His work ethic. I've never seen anything like it.

Just like Kanye, Donatella Versace is known for picking amazing talent at the right moment. And of course she knocked on your door. What is the most interesting thing about working for Versace for you, from a designer's perspective?

The heritage. Most brands don't have it or try to fabricate it. But the rich heritage of this brand is extremely inspiring and really stimulates the design discussion. It's also great to work with someone who has such a clear vision of what they want to achieve. The level of support and trust I've been given here has really moved me in the beginning... it's nice (#piscesproblems).
In the past, when it came to shoes, designer labels were often not very creative when it came to designing silhouettes from scratch. Are we now seeing a reversal where the influence can also come from that direction?

I think designer labels are now realising the opportunities they have in footwear - more specifically sneakers. Designing shoes these days is almost like a break-dance battle. It's like, "Here's my move, what do you have?" Not only is it very exciting to be a part of it, but you also feel like designers are indirectly pushing each other to be better. Whenever I see a great design, I think, "Why didn't I think of that?" The Chain Reaction is definitely a participant in said breakdancing battle ... and I'm trying to take a header.

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Please tell us about the Versace Chain Reaction - what was your inspiration for it? Am I wrong to see a hip-hop connection and images of rappers with a huge gold chain?

The Chain Reaction was born out of trying to interpret brand details from Versace and make them functional. Coincidentally, I was listening to "Only Built 4 Cuban Linx" by Raekwon, so I definitely had chains in mind. I challenged myself to create something that hadn't been done before in shoes. I think I succeeded with the Chain Reaction. Hip-hop has a big influence on the culture, so I'm sure there's an aspect of that in the shoe.... but like I said, I'm just trying to do "cool shit" and learn as much as I can.

Shoe design - the Chain Reaction is a good proof of that - is getting bolder and more "architectural". Where will this go in the future?

More attention will be paid to "form". A few millimetres can make or break a design. I think brands will focus on the shape of the mouldings, the contours of the tools and the overall finish. In the past, this didn't seem to be a priority for brands. I also think the break dance battle will continue. I always have my cardboard at hand. "A ha ha ha."

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What is your favourite product as a designer outside of shoes - from a car to a fridge - and why?

The design and execution of toothbrushes are really interesting. The shaping techniques, the ergonomics and the use of materials. The toothbrush is something we overlook but (hopefully) use twice a day, every day. Its design ensures the success of its function. Next time you're in your local drugstore, check out the toothbrush section... you'll be amazed.
What are the next projects you're working on?

Versace, Versace, Versace.
Last words?

Shoe design is my lifelong passion and I hope you can see that in my creations. Thank you for the interview.

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