Salehe Bembury isn't your ordinary sneaker designer. With more than a decade of experience, Bembury's résumé includes a veritable who's who of the footwear industry. Starting with humble beginnings at Payless, Bembury would go on to create traditional shoe designs with Cole Haan and Greats before dipping his toes into more experimental work with a brief stint at Kanye West's Yeezy brand. In 2017, Bembury took over sneaker design at Versace, where he currently serves as the vice president of sneakers and men's footwear. There, he's led numerous projects, most notably the 2 Chainz-endorsed Chain Reaction model.
Like many people in the footwear industry, Bembury's social media offers a behind-the-scenes look at his design process. Followers are privy to sketches and sole molds, along with glimpses of production lines and unreleased prototypes. But on his stories, Bembury deviates from the all-product, all-the-time narrative we're used to on Instagram. Instead, you'll find the designer watering his house plants and hiking high into the Hollywood hills, listening to music that ranges from Toro y Moi to Béla Fleck.
These two worlds—high-end, at times flashy designer product and the grit (and beauty) of the outdoors—don't often go hand-in-hand. Yet, with his latest endeavor, Bembury has merged them seamlessly. For his first official collaboration, Bembury is teaming with New Balance on a new version of the brand's recently reissued 2002R model. Combining his decade-plus in footwear with his love of nature, the "Peace Be the Journey" sneakers, which release on Oct. 23, represent a milestone in the designer's career.
Ahead of the release, we spoke with Bembury to discuss the inspiration behind the collab, his history in footwear design, what he's been up to in quarantine, and more.
Can you describe the "Peace Be the Journey" theme in your own words?
So, the "Peace Be the Journey" thing is kind of about the fact that the great equalizer is time, and we all have the same amount of it. And it really comes down to what we do with that time. And we're all kind of on the same journey. And I believe that the destination of that journey is peace, because that's where we all ultimately began, in the womb in a peaceful state. So whether the goal of your journey is money or love or anything else, ultimately that is your peace. So I believe that we're all on the same journey of peace.
Is there any connection to that and the hiking content you often post on Instagram?
In regards to the hiking, it definitely has a few layers to the meaning. I just started doing this two-hour, 4,000-feet-up hike every morning. And really it was during an interesting time because it was right when COVID was going on. It was right when a lot of the protests began and there was a lot of just turmoil and dark energy just in the world. I think everyone could kind of feel it. And I would do these hikes. And then at the end of the hike, I would be 4,000 feet above the ground, but also 4,000 feet above COVID. 4,000 feet above, I guess, racism. And I found myself in this extremely peaceful place sometimes actually above the clouds. So it literally almost felt like heaven. That's where I kind of came up with concept of "Peace Be the Journey," because I was taking these long journeys to this peaceful, almost utopian-like place. I would say I probably started around maybe June when I really got…I mean, I've been hiking I ever since I moved to L.A., but this hike in particular and being above the clouds, every morning and 4,000 feet and two hours, has been since June.
What spurred the decision to have John Mayer debut the sneakers?
Well, whether it comes down to collaborations or outsourcing work or whatever it is, I always try to work with friends so it's organic and it kind of feels a little bit more genuine. I feel like when you kind of just use any individual, it feels forced. So John's a friend, and we were on a hike, actually on the hike that I do. And I kind of just asked him if he wanted a pair of the shoes and I gave him a pair of the shoes and then he posted them. And I guess obviously the internet articulates that moreso into "John Mayer shares first look of the shoe." I don't know if there was that much, I guess, calculation put into the move. It was more so just me giving shoes to a friend and then he showed them in a good light. He was the first friend of mine that I gave a pair to. And I've been just kind of rolling them out slowly, ever since.
I know you have a long history in footwear design. What are some things that you picked up at other brands that you applied on your work here?
That's an interesting question. I don't—it's weird. I don't know if there's anything in particular that I could say I picked up, but because I've gotten to work at so many different kinds of companies, it's made me an extremely versatile designer, and I'm a chameleon. So I do believe that whatever the, at least for now, the footwear design task that's placed in front of me, I feel very confident that I'm able to kind of tackle that. And so in regards to this project, I've spent a lifetime being a sneaker consumer. I spent a lifetime getting excited by different marketing campaigns from different companies. So I'm very familiar with both putting out product, but also receiving it and experiencing that emotional, I guess, experience that happens when shoes are released. And when brands do it the right way, it's way more than just product. It's like a lifestyle. It's something you want to live and be a part of. So, because I'm 34 years old, I'm really familiar. I've been designing shoes for a decade now, but I've been a consumer for three decades. And more importantly, a sneaker lover. So this is definitely a language that I speak very fluently.
Your past designs, they've covered this wide spectrum of colors and materials. You've done plaids, I've seen all sorts of stuff from you. So with the New Balance 2002R, why did you land on this particular color palette and these materials?
In the past two years, I would say, three years, I've been doing a lot of traveling to national parks. And in that time, I've just been extremely inspired by the color palettes that are found there. They're somewhat similar, but also drastically different. There's also really beautiful juxtapositions of colors that you can really only find in nature, places like Bryce Canyon or Antelope Canyon, or the Grand Canyon, feature some really beautiful gradients of maroons, and burnt oranges, and ambers, and yellows. But then right next to it, you have a vibrant blue, which is the sky. I think both the harmony that a lot of those palettes create, but a lot of the beautiful contrast that they create as well, definitely inspired a lot of the colors of the 2002R, and the packaging.
How did you choose that specific model, the 2002R? Was that a New Balance decision or was that something that you sought out?
Well, when I got to go to the office, they showed me kind of like the lineup for the year and…well actually, let me take a step back. I knew that it was important. I wanted to work on a classic New Balance model, because I had some opportunities to work on newer silhouettes. And I was kind of wanting to work on something that spoke to my connection and nostalgia with the brand. Then kind of once I saw the lineup of what was to release this year, I noticed that there was a lot of 992s, which is obviously like a classic shoe, probably one of the fan favorites of New Balance. But for me, it's kind of just important to stand out, this being my first collaboration. So I just knew that I didn't want to do a 992 and that if I went with the 2002R, it would sit a little bit more alone.
You mentioned it being your first collaboration. How does that feel?
I mean, it's surreal, man. Like I said, I've been a consumer my entire life. Late nights on Niketalk, I waited in lines. I saw people stabbed in lines. I remember when Dave's Quality Meat opened. I remember walking underground to Nom de Guerre, and Classic Kicks. And I could continue to list all the stores. Being scared of going into Alife because Kunle [Martins] was manning the door. So, I lived through all that, and these days, not to take away from any of the kids that are into it now, but they experienced a lot of it through a screen. And in those days, it was like a lot of discovery and searching, and you really lived it in reality. Because of that, this was the most insane, surreal thing in the world. I am so humbled and can't believe it and it makes me emotional, man. Yeah, this is like…because there was a time in my life that I would have been very happy with a humble, associate designer job at "insert sportswear sneaker brand." Now that I have a new—I've been kind of given a new opportunity that I want to really, that I will seize and it's really special to me. So yeah, it's definitely this emotional, emotional thing for sure.
What can you share about the friends-and-family items such as the Modernica chair?
The Modernica Chair is super [limited], like one of five…I gave one to John Mayer, and one to Lena Waithe. Then there's a friends-and-family T-shirt and a water canteen that friends and family have been getting. I also included seeds so that every person can plant something and see what they get. That just kind of, again, going with the branding and storytelling, because I've been spending a lot of time in nature. Also a big part of my social media has been watering my plants and people really enjoy that. I thought the seeds was just a nice touch to let people in on the experience or the lifestyle, if you will.
Can you elaborate a little more on the packaging?
I noticed, again, going back to being a consumer for so long, I've just noticed that, strangely, packaging is an area where a lot of creators, they don't really utilize it. And it's insane because it's such a large amount of real estate that can not only elevate product, but can really kind of set the stage before someone even opens or sees the shoe for the first time. So I would argue that maybe some of my experience in high fashion has taught me how to elevate product, but I just knew that when they received the box, I wanted it to be a special moment. And as soon as they received it, that they knew what the story was and what they were getting. A lot of the time, strangely, when you open a brand's box, you don't really know what the shoe is until you see the shoe. I think there's something cool about seeing the box and knowing the story right away. I should probably give all praises to Deon Point, who's the packaging master, storytelling master. I've been a fan of what they've been doing over at Concepts for so long. So I'm just trying to keep the energy the same way.
Walk me through putting the seeding list together. How did it feel to handpick the people who got first dibs?
I think I had my biggest experience with a successful seeding execution with the [Versace] Chain Reaction, which was the first time I ever did it. I pretty much had to from the ground, in degrees of separation, reach out to people. So through my experience with that and just seeing how people responded to it in both positive and negative ways, I feel like, three years later, I'm just that much more equipped to, I guess both market my shoe as well as create a seeding list. First and foremost, I think it's extremely important to make sure that you're distributing your work through a diverse group of people. I think diversity is just important in life in general. But if we're talking about the success of a shoe, you want to make sure that you're kind of getting different markets and not only giving it to basketball players, or only giving it to models, or whatever it is. You just want to make sure that you're sprinkling it out. Or at least that's how I feel. At this stage in my career and life, I have a large network of creative, passionate friends that are in all, I guess, areas of the industry. So at this point, it's pretty easy to put together a list, but again, I just wanted to make sure that it was diverse. I just I didn't want it to go to any specific area of the industry, so that it felt special, and I think that I did that pretty successfully.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Arrest the killers of Breonna Taylor. Yeah, I would say that's about it.