From Payless to Versace: Salehe Bembury is Redesigning the Sneaker World

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Salehe Bembury is doing it all. From his day job as Versace’s VP of Footwear to dropping collaborations with New Balance and ANTA, the designer is the overseer of many in the sneaker world.

His craft, focused on function fused with an innovative design, is unmatched and undeniable in terms of execution and overall influence.

We caught up with Bembury following the announcement of the Salehe Bembury x ANTA SB-01 and SB-02. Learn what the designer had to say about his year, his vision, and much more.

Keep it locked on Nice Kicks for more on Salehe and his creations.

Salehe Bembury on His Ability to Transcend Footwear

NK: You’ve been able to tap into multiple facets within the sneaker world from Yeezy to Versace and even Cole Haan. What have these projects and the versatility that they come with mean to you and your innovative creative process?

Salehe Bembury: I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to work at such a diverse array of companies. It has turned me into somewhat of a corporate chameleon.

Each of the aforementioned jobs required a drastically different set of skills and presented many different obstacles. Cole Haan prioritized innovation, while Yeezy prioritized product. Versace was about establishing a new sub-business, and Payless was about maintaining one. Having dealt with these different environments has equipped me with tangible and intangible skills. 

A recently frequently used narrative for my career has been, “from Payless to Versace.” This comparison of brand displays the versatility in design I have achieved over the years. 

Salehe on What Makes the ANTA Collaboration Special

NK: Your ANTA collaboration might seem like a surprise to those who might have just heard about you. What drew you to work with the Chinese athletic brand?

SB: The ANTA collaboration was a unique one because it lived in uncharted territory. We rarely see successful collaborations occur with lesser-known brands. I saw this collaboration as an “opportunity” for both parties. For ANTA, it was a chance to further and more broadly inject their brand into the American market. I wanted to prove to both myself and the audience what I could bring to fruition from scratch.

The market is flooded with re-colors and re-fabrications but bringing a product from concept to shelf is a different obstacle. With ANTA’s level of development, I was confident that I could bring a product to the consumer that was not expected. 

NK: You’ve mentioned that many have been fond of your work in past interviews, but the price point was high for some of your fans. The SB-01 and SB-02 aimed to fix that. What were that thought process and discussions like both internally and with the brand?

SB: First and foremost it is for my audience. I often receive comments that my work is appreciated but not obtainable. Working in high fashion I was not able to significantly impact this conversation. However, working with ANTA, I was able to break down that wall. I vividly remember what it was like to be a sneaker consumer, love a sneaker, and not be able to get it. You stress, you lose sleep, it can haunt you.

Ultimately I made it less than $100 dollars for the person reading this that understands exactly what I’m talking about. I made it a requirement that ANTA meets this price point in order to realize this goal. 

The Goal of the Salehe Bembury x ANTA SB-01 and SB-02

NK: The timing of the ANTA collaboration fits with this socially distant world we now live in. There’s been an uptick in appreciation for nature. What’s the goal for those who pick up your sneaker?

SB: Despite the fact that a sneaker is specifically designed for an activity, lifestyle use often outweighs the intended use. This year my time in nature has increased. Furthermore, that time spent has significantly influenced my design output. The ANTA project was 100% inspired by my time spent in nature and hiking.

The intended use of the silhouettes are for hiking but they perform equally as well on the street. I have personally consistently used them for hiking because they function at such a high level. Some friends have wear-tested them and the feedback has been the same. The achieved goal is to completely surprise the consumer.

“People don’t know what they want, until you show it to them.” – Steve Jobs

Salehe’s 2020 Recap

NK: Footwear News named you as the designer of the year, and rightly so. The Versace Trigreca, the New Balance 2002R, and now the ANTA SB-01 and SB-02 are just the latest achievements. What’s the importance of these collaborations for you, the future of footwear, and your creative ethos?

SB: I’m currently attracted to displaying versatility and improving my shortcomings as a designer. A few years ago I made a point of focusing on specifically tooling execution. An example of the result of this prioritization is The Chain Reaction. More recently I have decided to focus on color theory. An example of the result of this focus is the color offering of the ANTA collaboration.

The projects that I work on successfully live in dramatically different areas of the market. Despite the fact that I have been in the industry for 10 years, I see these recent projects as “the beginning.” This product bears my name, is my brainchild, and holds my design signature and ethos. 

NK: This year has been challenging, to say the least. What’s kept you motivated during these months? How did that translate to your work? 

SB: Since moving to California 5 years ago, I have spent an increased amount of time in nature. Starting the majority of my mornings with hikes, I am often inspired by the color palette, aesthetic, and juxtapositions of the environment.

The foundation of the ANTA project was inspired by the Bird’s nest. I was fascinated by the idea that a single twig is weak, but when multiplied and organized it obtains strength and structure.  

Salehe on What to Expect and Advice for the Future of Footwear

NK: We know you’re just getting started. What can we expect from you in 2021?

SB: I promise to keep surprising whoever is paying attention. 

NK: For those looking to carve their own lane in the world of footwear design, what advice do you have for the next generation of creators? 

SB: Remain curious and never grow up.

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