Supporting Independents: Salehe Bembury on His Newest Sneaker Collaborations + Finding Inspiration in the Outdoors

As Versace’s VP of sneakers and men’s footwear, Salehe Bembury has been behind some of the fashion house’s most compelling silhouettes to date. But lately, his independent design work has been gaining greater — and much-deserved — recognition.

“The majority of my time and attention is spent on Versace — that’s the thing that inspires me the most and what I have my head buried in most of the time,” Bembury told FN. “And because footwear is my passion, I’m able to work on the side things without really seeing it as extra stress. It’s just more fun for me. Because I manage my time and my work well, [Versace] was nice enough to let me juggle these different projects.”

Last week, Salehe shared with FN the outdoor-inspired story behind his upcoming project with New Balance, one of the brand’s most-anticipated collaborations of 2020. While the buzz is strong for the launch, it’s not even Bembury’s only design project for the year — he also has something brewing with China-based athletic company Anta.

Below, Bembury provides insight into his collaborative process and his outlook for the industry in this current moment of uncertainty. He also gets candid about the responsibility he feels as a successful Black designer to “open up a few more seats on the bus.”

What independent design projects do you have coming for the rest of 2020? 

Salehe Bembury: “What’s coming up is New Balance and Anta. New Balance is obviously a brand that most of us are familiar with him, and Anta is a sportswear brand based out of China. Both of the collaborators offer different opportunities, and I think I bring something unique to both of the opportunities as well. With collaborations, both parties need to be able to be taken to a place that they wouldn’t have got to by themselves. I believe by joining the Anta initiative and the New Balance initiative, I can help both brands achieve new goals.”

What can people expect to see from you with New Balance and Anta?

SB: “New Balance is a brand that has a lot of investments in function and problem solving through design, and with my background being industrial design, a lot of our priorities align. While they may not have a history of being the most flashy company in the world, I think that they’ve done a great job of solving for function, and the fact that I went to school for that really attracted me to the brand — not to mention that it’s also a brand that I’ve worn my entire life, and that’s when you can also tie in nostalgia to that conversation. Furthermore, I think New Balance is in an interesting place in their lifespan because they’re trying to change the narrative. I would say within the last two or three years, they made some shifts and have caught the attention of the sneaker consumer, so I believe this is happening at an appropriate time. [My collaboration] is releasing in a few months — and obviously, outdoors and nature, those color palettes and themes, are a big part of my personal lifestyle, so in order for my collaboration to come from a genuine place, it makes sense for those themes to potentially show up in my work. This is my first time showing the consumer what I can do as an individual. Before this, I’ve always kind of been under an umbrella, whether that be Yeezy or Versace.”

“In regard to Anta, I would say the opportunity is a little different because I would argue that there is a large consumer [base] — at least in America — that is not familiar with Anta. I think the opportunity there is to increase awareness. I was really excited about sharing my take on silhouettes and how they execute footwear. And furthermore, going back to my industrial design background, they gave me the ability to create a proprietary cushioning technology for them. Not only was it a collaborative exercise from an aesthetic standpoint and building a full shoe, but I also created a technology that they’re going to use across the brand.”

How have you been spending your time during this period of forced isolation?

SB: “I work remotely for Versace — my office is my personal office — so I’ve been able to maintain a somewhat regular lifestyle. I’ve actually stayed pretty busy both working on Versace and then also my collaborative projects. [The collaborations are] launching in the fall, so there were still things to get done in regard to marketing and sample corrections and approvals and whatever. Additionally, I spent a significant amount of time in nature. I try to start my day with a good three- or four-mile hike and take advantage of all the things that are in such a close proximity to me living in California.”

What is your outlook on the footwear and fashion industries for the rest of 2020?

SB: “It’s interesting because I just went on a hike with two good friends of mine who both are Black business owners, and we were having a conversation about how they’ve been doing during this time. They both have said they’re doing like 300% of their business in the last month. And I’ve seen collaborations that are selling out, so it seems like people are still spending money‚ and strangely, even more than usual. I don’t know if this is because people are in front of screens more, so they’re making more purchases or what it is. And a few friends with stores in Los Angeles have told me that their sales are going insane. I’m not a business owner, so I can’t speak to it that much, but it seems like the outlook is positive. Obviously, by doing these collaborations, I’m dipping my toe into that world, so I definitely feel good. I think I have a point of view and it seems like people are anticipating what I’m going to do, so I’m hoping that momentum can carry on.”

How can you use your platform to help other Black men and women looking to enter the footwear industry? And do you feel a responsibility to do this?

SB: “We are all tasked with unique roles in this fight. It’s monolithic thought that got us into this problem in the first place. I’d like my role to be education. Resources, perspective and insight are some things that could really shape who we are, and if you don’t have those things, you can be left behind. So I would like to use the position that I’m in, the resources that I have and the people I know to — I don’t want to just call them classes or something — but I think I would take an educational perspective of this massive fight that we have ahead of us. My mom was a teacher, so maybe that’s where some of the passion comes from, but that’s where I’d like to take it. And that can exist everywhere from me teaching footwear-focused classes to going back to how there isn’t diversity in the outdoor experience, as I’ve been talking about for a while now. [So it’s] maybe taking kids from the L.A. area and doing some kind of hiking experience slash make something, because I remember the look on the faces of family members and friends when they’ve experienced things they’ve never done before. It’s really powerful, and it’s a million times more powerful when you’re a kid. This experience would ultimately open their mind to a world that does not normally see diversity. Offering that to them would be significant. And then the No. 1 thing I’ve been told many times is that me just being in the position that I’m in is an inspiration, so if I can be a resource — which I can’t do for everyone because it becomes an issue of lack of bandwidth — but if I can have an organized initiative to give back to my people, that’s 100% on my agenda for my career.”

How, if at all, have the recent events concerning racial equity changed how you either do business or what you hope to accomplish with your own business?

SB: “This period of time has made me realize that I have a little bit more of a responsibility to bring Black people with me. That was something I already realized, but I guess maybe I’ve got to open up a few more seats on the bus. At the same time, it’s weird because it’s all of sudden an issue in the past three months. This has been my life experience; I’ve been privy to these things for so long. It was initially something that caused pain, but now I am numb. Now all of a sudden, there’s a sense of urgency, but I’ve felt this urgency for a while. And I find it a little strange, and maybe even a little disingenuous, when I see certain brands — and I’m not saying any specific brand — wanting to do things and it’s like, ‘You need to see someone murdered to make a move?’ This easily could have been communicated through simple conversation. It’s disappointing, ultimately.”

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