A Day in the Studio With Salehe Bembury

LOS ANGELES — Salehe Bembury’s studio in Downtown Los Angeles was filled with the smooth sounds of Erykah Badu’s Tiny Desk Concert, which was streaming from his computer. An electric griddle, Hawaiian rolls, onions, ground beef and several condiments were stationed on a wooden rollaway table in the middle of the room.

Mr. Bembury, a shoe designer, wanted my help to make chopped cheese sandwiches, the controversial New York fare. The best chopped cheese can be found in Harlem or the Bronx, but in Los Angeles, Mr. Bembury is far from his local bodega.

“I recently discovered the chopped cheese maybe like four years ago,” Mr. Bembury, 35, said, excitedly. “I mean, it’s amazing and it also gives me an opportunity to hold on to my New York roots.”

Mr. Bembury, who grew up in TriBeCa, has always been able to discern the cool, even if at times he was misunderstood. His taste and design acumen have steered his career from designing for Payless to developing a sneaker line alongside Donatella Versace.

“I was very familiar with how shoes made me feel from an early age, so I knew that I wanted to be a part of it.” Mr. Bembury said, as he sliced a white onion thinly in his sunny studio. “They made me feel powerful, they made me feel like I could fly.”

Mr. Bembury wanted to make chopped cheeses, a New York delicacy.Credit…Celeste Sloman for The New York Times
He chose Hawaiian dinner rolls instead of the traditional hero.Credit…Celeste Sloman for The New York Times

Mr. Bembury stands out as one of the few Black designers in the industry, whose work has shifted sneaker culture. Last year, he was searched by police officers on Rodeo Drive after leaving a nearby Versace store, where he picked up a pair of sneakers he designed. Mr. Bembury recorded the encounter, during which he told the officers that he felt “a little nervous.”

“Being a 35-year-old Black man I am 90 percent numb to these kinds of experiences,” Mr. Bembury said. “This is by far the most extreme and it stuck to me a little bit after, but I tried to heal and move on.”

Mr. Bembury did move on, later releasing his second collaboration with New Balance. Those two shoes sold quickly, and they often resell for at least $200 higher than their retail price.

“Three years ago, that wasn’t happening,” Kevin Trotman, an associate product manager of global collaborations at New Balance, said in an interview. “It just speaks volumes to Salehe and our other partners — people are very excited about it because they trust him. He’s proven himself to the point where it’s like, OK, this is going to be fire, whatever it is.”

His first collaboration with New Balance was a bright, burnt orange furry sneaker he called “Peace Be the Journey.” This year’s collaboration was a lime green, cerulean blue and tan leather pair that he named “Water Be the Guide.”

And he has another highly anticipated shoe release in December — a collaboration with Crocs. His design is a significant departure for the brand: Lines, not holes, flow in a wavy pattern and wrap around the design.

“The fingerprint is my brand identity,” Mr. Bembury said. “It relates very closely with wood grain, which I love, and it speaks to the organic lines of a fingerprint.”

He is the first designer to completely reconfigure the style of Crocs. In July, when Mr. Bembury shared the design on social media, the photo was reshared by sneaker-head news sites like Complex and his post swiftly racked up more than 70,000 likes.

While several celebrities, including Justin Bieber, Bad Bunny and Saweetie, have designed Jibbitz to be plugged into the holes of Crocs, Mr. Bembury created a new mold that included a heel capture fastened with a strap, for the first time. The new iteration, called the Pollex, comes in three muted tones: spackle, a plaster-like shade; menemsha, which resembles cafe con leche; and cucumber, a deep olive.

“Salehe is the first partner that we engaged with to really have the ability to create their own shoe,” said Michael Sarantakos, the senior director of global design at Crocs. “He brought a new design language, but uses our DNA. Salehe really helped us push the envelope.”

“The fingerprint is my brand identity,” Mr. Bembury said.Credit…Celeste Sloman for The New York Times

Mr. Bembury said: “This shoe is the most overt execution of the fingerprint because it is made up of three different fingerprints.”

His designs are informed by his lifestyle, which revolves around mindfulness, self-care and enjoying the outdoors. “Peace Be the Journey” was inspired by the deep oranges, browns and reds he saw himself engulfed by when he hiked Antelope Canyon. The color palette for “Water Be the Guide” was influenced by the sienna and aquamarine hues he was enveloped in during a camping trip to Havasu Falls.

“There is an emotion attached to design for me, and it is related to me wearing it and seeing it,” Mr. Bembury said.

Mr. Bembury, who was wearing his iconic thick rolled beanie, traveled between TriBeCa and the Upper West Side almost daily as a student at Calhoun High School. After he graduated in 2004, he studied industrial design at Syracuse University. His father urged him to learn a skill he could use anywhere, so he wanted to learn how to design with purpose, he said.

In 2009, he found work at Payless, designing heels and formal shoes for adults and children. A few months later, he started working at a licensing company that used his work for brands like Steve Madden and Beyoncé’s now-defunct label House of Deréon.

“I was pretty excited to just work on brands that I knew,” Mr. Bembury said.

Mr. Bembury’s studio is a reflection of his eclectic taste.Credit…Celeste Sloman for The New York Times

He did a six-month stint designing graphics for Dame Dash’s DD172 gallery in TriBeCa in 2010, before taking on a role at Cole Haan and then moving on to freelance work. In 2015, he moved to California and started working with Kanye West.

“It was extremely fast paced, demanding and constant,” Mr. Bembury said. “You needed to have the ability to be flexible with what was going to be thrown at you at any point. That job taught me I can do anything. Kanye also really just got me to rethink approaching product.”

Mr. Bembury designed for the third and fourth seasons of Yeezy, and his work for the label made him more confident. He keeps pairs of all the shoes he has designed over the years in his studio.

After a year at Yeezy, Mr. Bembury had the itch to leave. “It was just time to move on,” Mr. Bembury said, as he began to chop lettuce for our sandwiches.

One day in 2017, he was surfing around LinkedIn and found the director of design at Versace. He pitched him on an idea: “What if Versace made sneakers?”

Mr. Bembury collects toys and displays them.Credit…Celeste Sloman for The New York Times
After meeting with Donatella Versace, he was hired to develop a line of sneakers.Credit…Celeste Sloman for The New York Times

Three days later he received an note from Donatella Versace herself, asking if he would be willing to present his ideas to her in Milan. Two weeks later, he arrived at the meeting with a 3-D printed version of the sole of the sneaker, which looked like a magenta colored Cuban link chain, inspired by the brand’s iconic gold chain motif. He was hired on the spot, he said.

“Once they hired me, it was about creating something impactful,” Mr. Bembury said, as he placed the onions on the sizzling ground beef for our sandwiches. “How was I going to scream from the mountaintops that Versace is making sneakers? I thought about what the brand DNA of Versace was.”

The position at Versace helped Mr. Bembury’s name recognition. During his time there, he proposed his “Peace be the Journey” shoe to New Balance. At the end of 2020, he resigned from Versace and started Spunge, his own line of clothes and shoes. His first line of apparel in collaboration with New Balance will be released on Oct. 16, alongside his latest shoe: the Yurt, a hiking sneaker with a built-in whistle, in case the wearer is lost.

Mr. Bembury knew he wanted to design shoes from a young age. “They made me feel powerful, they made me feel like I could fly,” he said.Credit…Celeste Sloman for The New York Times

Mr. Bembury is a storyteller through his designs, but he’s also very pragmatic. It’s important to him that his products have some soul, a purpose. Striking out on his own has been risky but he’s willing to take the chance.

“I’m equally intimidated as I am motivated and inspired,” Mr. Bembury said. “And now it’s like, who am I going to give shoes to, to impact the culture? What’s going to be the look for this campaign? There’s just so much that’s now a responsibility. I’m just adapting.”

The chopped cheese sandwiches were finally done. The buns were buttered and grilled, the cheese on the beef had melted and the onions were translucent. Mr. Bembury grabbed a large bottle of Martinelli’s apple juice, the finishing touch to a true New York deli meal.

“These are valid,” Mr. Bembury said after he took a bite. “But the amount of New York respect I’m going to get for making a chopped cheese during this interview?”

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