×

Salehe Bembury Is the Brightest Design Star of 2020: How He Made the Leap From Payless to Versace

On Dec. 8, Salehe Bembury will be honored as Designer of the Year at the first virtual FN Achievement Awards. Below is an article from the magazine’s Dec. 7 print issue about Bembury, who revealed a pair of collabs bearing his name that had sneaker enthusiasts yearning for more while continuing to create stunning silhouettes for Versace.

For more than a decade, Salehe Bembury has worked for footwear industry heavyweights such as Yeezy, Greats, Cole Haan and others.

In 2017, he landed a major job at Versace, now serving as VP of sneakers and men’s footwear. Under his direction, the Italian fashion house has become a serious player in the sneaker game, with its super-sized Chain Reaction style, introduced in 2018, and more recently the Squalo. And though 2020 has been a challenging year for the high-fashion market, Bembury still managed to turn heads with a statement luxury sneaker: the Versace Trigreca.

The look was first spotted in February during Versace’s fall ’20 runway show and made its retail debut in October. “It’s essentially our next peacock or big deal product. Funny enough, it goes back to life imitating or influencing art,” said Bembury, who has taken up hiking since moving to L.A. in 2015. “It’s a hiker-inspired shoe — there’s a topographical map detail on it and it has an aggressive hiker-looking outsole. It goes back to my day-to-day influencing my design work.”

Although hesitant to label 2020 as his breakout year, Bembury has garnered a great deal of attention in recent months. Much of the fanfare was for his first independent collaboration — a new-look New Balance 2002R bearing his name.

The outdoor-inspired sneaker, executed in a color palette reminiscent of Antelope Canyon in Arizona, released — and quickly sold out — on Oct. 23.

To help tease the project earlier in the fall, Bembury got some help from friend and musician John Mayer, who told FN, “What makes Salehe special is that he can be playful and a little subversive, but never at the expense of the core meaning of the product. It’s really easy to go with what I call ‘third sleeve’ design — anyone can take something traditional and blow it up, and that’s fun sometimes. But if you pull away and look at what he’s doing, the overall composition of the thing hits in this very balanced, solid way. Fun in the details, serious in the philosophy.”

However, Bembury told FN he wasn’t certain the sneaker would be a hit. “I didn’t really know what the reaction was going to be,” he said. “I was very confident in my selling power and my ability to create product under a brand, but in regard to people buying it because it’s coming from me, that I wasn’t sure about. This was a temperature test for me to see how the audience responds to product that I make. And the results were good.”

Salehe Bembury New Balance 2002R
Salehe Bembury in his New Balance 2002R collab.
CREDIT: Jonathan Mannion

For New Balance, Bembury provided an opportunity to tap into a fresh vision. “Salehe represents a new wave of kids who are aspiring to be creatives in this space,” said Joe Grondin, New Balance’s senior manager of global collaborations and energy. “We identified Salehe early as an interesting voice in the sneaker community that we wanted to work with before someone else did.”

The collaboration also gave the 115-year-old sneaker company an unprecedented level of visibility. “Impressions are something not everyone takes as the most serious measure, but we got over a billion impressions on that project — our biggest collaboration ever with regard to exposure,” Grondin said.

With momentum behind him, Bembury has been working on the release of his second collaboration, a project with Chinese athletic label Anta. Though he said the pressure is lower for this project, Bembury confessed that working with a brand that has a small presence stateside presented an interesting challenge. “Anta, with them being unknown [in the U.S.], I saw that more as an opportunity to make a brand known in a different country,” he said.

The project also gave him an opportunity to design from scratch and tap into the deep capabilities of Chinese production.

“The beauty with Salehe was that he really embraced the brand; it was truly 50-50,” said Sandra Romboli, Anta creative director of sportstyle. “When he understood that we wanted him to create something new without providing an advanced new compound or technology, he was like, ‘Let’s try to find something more structural.’ We know that China is the factory of the world and everything is possible with a low price, so Salehe had the opportunity to really explore.”

In the process, Bembury — ever the problem solver — crafted his Anta project for fans who often get priced out of his Versace designs.

“I constantly get comments like, ‘Hey, I love your work, I wish I could afford it.’ That’s obviously understandable in regard to high- fashion product,” he said. “That’s something that I wanted to speak to.” The high-cut SB-01 and the SB-02 low, which will debut in January via his own forthcoming e-commerce platform, will be priced at $120 and $90, respectively.

Also this year, Bembury unintentionally found himself at the center of the conversations around social justice, when he was stopped by police on Oct. 1, after exiting a Versace store in L.A. The encounter, which the designer recorded and posted on Instagram, garnered widespread outrage as another case of racial profiling.

“It was an unfortunate situation that we have all seen play out way worse. I am lucky that it did not go that way for me,” Bembury said. “The positive is that the incident was used as a viral vehicle to spread awareness.”

He continued, “Ultimately, the video did a great job of telling the story and I felt doing any additional interviews would have simply been a representation of my ego. This is why I have not spoken about the incident publicly until now.”

Amid all the ups and downs of 2020, Bembury has used the downtime created by the pandemic to recharge — which bodes well for more best-selling designs.

“The comparison I would make is when a painter is painting something — sometimes they leave the room and come back and it will look completely different,” Bembury said. “I was in this existence of planes and cars and schedules — and it was nonstop. When you’re living a specific existence all the time, it’s hard to look at something from a different perspective. This time allowed me to view everything — from the way I live to how I’m creating — in a completely different manner.”

RSVP here for the biggest night in shoes! 

For 34 years, the annual FN Achievement Awards ­— often called the “Shoe Oscars” — have celebrated the style stars, best brand stories, ardent philanthropists, emerging talents and industry veterans. The first virtual FNAAs will air online Dec. 8 and are presented in partnership with The Style Room Powered by Zappos, and sponsors FDRA, Deckers Brands, Soles4Souls and Foot Locker. 

Vionic Sponsored By Caleres

Shoe of the Month: Vionic Talks Spring in its Step

Vionic takes FN through its upcoming spring collection and shares a big giving moment for fall.
Learn More

Access exclusive content