The Designer Inspiring a Generation of Sneakerheads
With a few white-hot shoes, a canny sense for social media, and a little help from Donatella Versace and Kanye West, Salehe Bembury has turned the formerly anonymous job of sneaker designer into the kind of gig every hypebeast would love to have.
Recently, while visiting New York from his home in Los Angeles, the sneaker designer Salehe Bembury decided to look up his pal Action Bronson. They met up to go bodysurfing at an indoor wave pool in New Jersey, and then they took in a few Knicks playoff games in seats nearly kissing the hardwood. At one game, Bronson, wearing a ’90s Patrick Ewing jersey, received a standing ovation; on the broadcast you could see Bembury wearing his signature rolled-up beanie. Bembury and Bronson’s relationship began, as so many do in Bembury’s line of work, with a pair of sneakers. “A lot of the relationships are like, ‘Hey, I send you shoes,’ ” he says. “But I definitely have some buddies now that are pretty well known.”
Bembury himself is increasingly well known, too, thanks to his standing as one of the sneaker industry’s most in-demand collaborators. He doesn’t run a luxury label or operate a buzzy store. Instead, he is simply very good at designing and selling shoes, a skill he burnished at Kanye West’s Yeezy label before building out Versace’s sneaker catalog. Along the way, he built a public profile as a new breed of sneaker designer: one nearly as popular as the famous people who love his shoes. Now, on his own, he is chasing grander ambitions.
We meet back home in Los Angeles at the base of one of Bembury’s favorite hiking trails. He’s made his two regular hikes such an integral part of his brand that he closely guards their location, worried that there are hordes of people interested in figuring it out. When we reach the plateau at the top, Bembury buzzes past the gnarled tree that serves as the hike’s ready-for-Instagram set piece, and strides to a secluded resting spot he likes. Bembury moved to L.A. six years ago and would come to this very spot almost daily to meditate and be still. He is comfortable in solitude.
But during that trip to New York, something strange happened. People were recognizing him. Frequently. “I was being approached on the street every three to four blocks, and it was freaking me out,” Bembury says. Kids asked if they could have a pair of his shoes. They asked to show him their own designs. They kept bugging him, even when he requested to be left alone. Even though he has more than a quarter-million Instagram followers, the attention is surprising. “It damn near takes me off guard every time,” he says. “So when I’m approached, I’m thinking, like, What the hell do you want? And then I’m like, Oh, it’s because of the shoe thing.”
Given the role sneakers have played in our culture for three decades and counting, it’s a little strange that being a street-recognized sneaker designer is such a new thing. But until very recently, sneaker designers have mostly been anonymous employees of global megabrands. Maybe if you were really into the scene you knew of legendary Nike designer Tinker Hatfield, the man behind the Jordan 3 and Air Max 1. Probably you didn’t. But now, thanks to the social-media-fueled culture that surrounds anything and everything related to sneakers—and our culture’s still-new obsession with the tastemakers, influencers, and guys-behind-the-guys—someone like Bembury can be that new kind of niche-famous, at least in atmospheres possessing an unusually high density of sneakerheads.
Simply put, for legions of streetwear fans, designing sneakers is the ultimate dream job. It provides you with famous friends and digital clout, not to mention access to one of the most treasured assets in the world: rare sneakers. And Salehe Bembury is living that dream. He practically invented it, one Instagram-capturing sneaker (and one Instagram-conquering post) at a time. But Bembury is learning that the job requires much more than a knack for making great shoes. His occupation requires almost round-the-clock nurturing: He needs to be with the right people, at the right events, and posting the right photos. Eventually, even hanging out with Migos starts to feel like a professional obligation.
And so Bembury is preparing to climb up to a higher tier. While kids may now dream of becoming Salehe Bembury, he’s dreaming of something else entirely: a job not just as a sneaker designer but as a designer, period. Someone who makes whatever he wants. It might sound grand, but why wouldn’t he aim high? Whenever Bembury reaches a summit, he’s already looking for the next mountain to climb.
nspiring a Generation of Sneakerheads
From our hike, we head back to Bembury’s office. He showers, changes into a new outfit with Yeezy slides the shade of clotted cream, and gives me a tour of the space. It is full-on Hypebeast Batcave: Here are a quintet of Bearbricks; there stand a few fan-made figurines of Bembury himself. In one corner, a shelving unit is piled high with unopened boxes containing sneakers that would fetch a fortune on the resale market. Elsewhere, a glass display case holds a pair of sneakers (not designed by Bembury) autographed by LeBron James.
He’s accumulated these trophies over a career of constant grinding. After graduating with an industrial design degree from Syracuse University, the man with the golden dream job began by snagging himself a gig somewhere a little less rarefied: Payless. He did little more than create new colorways for existing shoes; it is hard to imagine a gig less consonant with contemporary sneaker culture. Still, Bembury was in heaven. When he first started, he thought: They make shoes here!
He carved out a solid career working for respectable hype-free brands, moving to Fortune Footwear, Cole Haan, and the direct-to-consumer Greats. For a man with seemingly limitless ambitions, Bembury was surprisingly content at each spot. He was learning how to make shoes, even if they weren’t necessarily his.
In 2015 he scored a fairy-tale break after a former boss at Cole Haan recommended him for a new job. Kanye West was ramping up his Yeezy project at the time and liked what he saw in Bembury’s designs. He offered him a gig. Before Bembury knew it, he was standing in a sparkly new office in Calabasas, organizing his desk and pinning designs on a mood board. One day, he says, Kanye walked in. Bembury recited a spiel he had rehearsed about how thankful he was for the opportunity. Kanye looked up from his phone, said, “Just change the world,” and immediately walked away.
“I’m one of the few people who can chill with the Migos backstage and drink tea with Donatella [Versace] in her home. I’ve done both comfortably and I belonged.”
Bembury’s own world would never be the same. His primary output at Yeezy was a beefed-up military boot in Kanye’s favorite dusty orange-brown. All of a sudden, the most famous rapper on earth was wearing one of his designs everywhere—and including it in his massive fashion show at Madison Square Garden. Strange things like this soon became normal, even mundane. The first time Kanye called on a Friday night to summon Bembury to the airport for a last-minute flight to Italy, he was thrilled. He called his friends to brag, and assembled his freshest outfits. And then Kanye called him out of the blue again with this request again. And again. “[It] changes to, I’m watching my favorite movie and I’m comfortable in my home and I have a nice bowl of ice cream, and then I get that call, and I got to go to Italy and then it’s no longer fun,” he says. After just over a year with the brand, and a new combat boot on his résumé, he left Yeezy.
Not sure what he’d do next, he sent a Hail Mary LinkedIn message to Versace’s design director, outlining the brand’s opportunity to make a killing in sneakers. Three days later, Donatella Versace reached out to arrange a meeting in Milan. She hired him on the spot, and on his terms: He’d remain in Los Angeles and come to Milan once a month.
The design that sold Donatella, and that defined his time at Versace, was a sneaker called the Chain Reaction. The sole was pulled from a 3D scan of a Cuban-link chain; design elements like animal print and gold filigree were pillaged, seemingly, from the Versace mansion. The shoe encapsulates Bembury’s design philosophy: “I needed to create the perfect balance of polarizing and familiar.” For the familiar, Bembury reached for the lace cage popularized by the Adidas Ultra Boost and a rubber-toe detail borrowed from another company’s “top-selling model,” as Bembury cautiously puts it. The chunked-up sole was the polarizing ingredient—but also one that led to a partnership with 2 Chainz. This is Bembury’s elite skill: Trojan-horsing the strange into sneaker consciousness. For a collaboration with New Balance, he covered a traditional dad-shoe silhouette in hairy orange suede—and sparked a bidding war on the resale market. He doesn’t shy away from using cheetah print. Naturally, when we meet, he’s excited about an upcoming collaboration with Crocs.
The shoes he made for Versace put him on the map as a designer willing to go there. “As soon as I sit down with these brands, they go, ‘You’re going to make something crazy, right?’ ” he says, contorting his deep voice to impersonate a solicitous middle-manager type. Bembury is a funny storyteller, often animating characters in his tales by mimicking, say, an aggro hiker-bro, or a squeaky-voiced customer, or a well-heeled Italian. He considers himself a master presenter, often slipping little jokes into his corporate PowerPoint decks. He incorporates something into his shoes many sneaker brands actively attempt to avoid: humor. His shoes are fun—bigger, fuzzier, or more colorful than the competition. “Humor is a great vehicle to get people’s attention, get people to understand, get people to potentially even, like, fuck with you,” he says.
At Versace, Bembury could feel himself levitating into the global creative elite. “I was flying business class to Milan and getting picked up in a Tesla or Mercedes and eating great food and all that shit, man,” he says. “I enjoyed the hell out of it.” He knew that tactfully sharing the view from this illustrious new perch would only help him. And so Bembury documented his travels on Instagram, ever aware of the important brand he was building for himself. He wanted to signal to his followers that he “must be of value,” he says, for a fashion brand to go through all this trouble. Rappers started posting photos of him and his shoes. Migos wore the Chain Reactions to perform at the NBA All-Star game. Life was beautiful.
With time, though, the dream job became…a job. “There was a time where to be around a rapper was like being around royalty, and I felt like I was being blessed to be in their presence,” he says. “But then it becomes normal and you become jaded.”
There were other, weirder things to adapt to, like the kids asking for free sneakers over Instagram.“The amount of kids that DM me telling me it’s their birthday so I should send them some shoes,” he says, a little ticked off just thinking about it. “It’s a 10-times-a-day occurrence. They should understand that no one gives a fuck it’s their birthday.” He doesn’t want to be rude to the fans on the street who run up to him, but he’s also trying to enforce boundaries. “A friend of mine put it amazingly the other day,” he relays. “He said, ‘They think they own a piece of you because you live in their pocket.’ ”
Bembury left Versace in January of this year to pursue his own personal projects. By that time, he’d tested the waters for solo success with his best-selling New Balance—a technical running shoe recast in fuzzy orange shades inspired by the Antelope Valley—and a hiking shoe designed for the Chinese megabrand Anta. After all those sneakers he made for other people—sneakers he says he’d never wear, sneakers so outlandish he can’t believe customers exist for them—Salehe Bembury was finally able to start making sneakers for himself.
Bembury hiked the same trail nearly every day his first few years in L.A. After COVID shut it down, another hiker tipped him off to a different trail—much more difficult but one that would take him even higher, to some 4,000 feet above Los Angeles. Bembury was up to the challenge, and it became the hike the designer does almost every morning. At the peak, he is above the clouds. The hike is so daunting (or maybe just unknown) that he hardly ever sees anyone else on it. Wary of mountain lions, he carries an air horn, a Taser, and a knife.
Though the hike began as a crucial tool for his mental and physical health, he’s photographed the jaunt often enough that it’s become part of his brand. His fans parse the photos he posts, wondering if he’ll make shoes inspired by clouds or purple cacti. A few lucky famous fans—John Mayer, the rapper Aminé, and Oscar-nominated actress Cynthia Erivo among them—get to join him. He prides himself on an ability to find his footing with anyone. “I’m one of the few people who can chill with the Migos backstage and drink tea with Donatella in her home,” he says. “I’ve done both comfortably and I belonged.”
Bembury knows better than anyone that his distinctive talent isn’t necessarily designing sneakers. Instead, he possesses a combination of skills that were never necessary for a designer until now—when they are suddenly critical. “There are sneaker designers who are way more talented than me, but they’re maybe just not the best at branding or the best at social media or the best at marketing,” he says. “Because I would argue that the thing that makes me the designer that I am is a combination of 10 things. Whereas I know some designers are sick fucking designers, but they are awkward as fuck or they don’t know how to dress, or people don’t like to be around them. [They] don’t have the other nine things.”
“It’s really great watching him turn this corner where all these eyes are on him and he’s doing project after project that gets better and better. This guy’s on his way.”
He puts on social media what he wants you to see: the life of the venerable Sneaker Designer. “You’re seeing the life of Salehe Bembury, the Footwear Designer,” he says. “So if I’m with someone that you’d expect Salehe the Footwear Designer to be with, I’m probably going to document that. But if I’m with someone that you have no need to know—like, I’m about to see my dad—he ain’t going to be on my Instagram. Because that’s none of your business.”
Bembury struggles to think of a contemporary—not because he considers himself unusually talented but because he essentially muscled his way into this whole new way of designing sneakers, coming of age at the exact moment when a role like his became possible. While at Cole Haan, he made sure sites like Hypebeast knew he worked on the brand’s Nike-infused LunarGrand. “That was my gateway into having a little bit of a name,” he says. He took a wooden briefcase everywhere he went—an object so strange it is nearly impossible to forget. Now he goes with a less unwieldy beanie. When I notice one laid on top of a chair in his studio, it looks as if he suddenly evaporated.
Meanwhile, Nike’s flaming-hot collaborations with designers like Virgil Abloh proved that fashion figures could move sneakers just as successfully as A-list entertainers. It’s the reason Bembury’s name appears on his New Balance sneakers, rather than buried somewhere in the company’s corporate directory.
“Everyone’s dream was to work at Nike, Jordan, or Adidas,” says D’Wayne Edwards, the founder of the footwear design academy Pensole. “But over the years kids now are like, ‘I want to have my own company.’ ” The rise of the collaboration makes that dream appear easier to grasp than it is—just change some colors around and voilà. “A lot of these kids,” Bembury says, “just want the instant answer to ‘How do I become you overnight?’ ”
When we speak, Bembury is ramping up his own brand, which he’s calling Spunge. The new imprint will allow him to continue collaborating on sneakers but also transcend that world. From his studio, we jump into his Jeep and wind our way through South Los Angeles to a warehouse so he can look at a sample of his first product: a pair of sweatpants covered in tufts of mossy shearling.
Bembury has learned a lot during his time in the sneaker industry, including the nefarious trickery that goes into moving shoes. As he was ascending, the sneaker world morphed dramatically around him. Resale platforms like StockX, Goat, and Grailed made it possible to treat sneakers as assets, which only intensified the frenzy around them. Brands happily fanned the flames with “leaked” pictures of hotly anticipated shoes, which Bembury says are often staged and taken by the brands themselves. Those unstoppable bots that seem to snag your Jordans right out of your cart? They are likely stoppable. “My message to the consumer is that a lot of the things that may annoy them, most likely that’s on purpose,” he says. Armed with the kind of insider knowledge that has made him so capable of selling sneakers, Bembury is ready to start selling other things too.
He says his dream collaboration is with Dr. Bronner’s soap—an idea that sounds silly until you recall that Abloh is a creative adviser for Evian. At one point, Bembury jokes, “I’m trying to get a Disney check.” The designer Mike Amiri, one of Bembury’s buddies, tells me that kids used to look up to skaters or rock stars, because those guys led culture. The new generation, though, recognizes that fashion and sneaker designers are leading things now. These days, brands want to employ people like Bembury as wide-ranging creative directors, forging a whole universe of trademarks, emblems, and easily traceable language. If you can distill a welter of symbols and signifiers into a hit sneaker, why can’t you apply the same knowledge to Disney’s catalog of characters and products?
And Bembury is the guy many are betting on to make the leap. “It’s really great watching him turn this corner where all these eyes are on him and he’s doing project after project that gets better and better,” Amiri says. “This guy’s on his way.” The musician will.i.am, another friend, is even more effusive. He references something Interscope Records cofounder Jimmy Iovine once told him: “You could fight to have a seat at the table, or you could fight to be the table.” The table, he explains, is the reason everyone is there, the thing they’re gathered around. Will.i.am clocks the way Bembury hops from project to project and sees the table: a guy who can talk to anyone and connect everyone. “He’s the next dude,” he says.
This is the sort of arc Bembury plots on his hikes. But when he gets to the top, he likes to look out over Los Angeles and slow down. On our own outing, we finally rose from our meditative perch. After an early start, the broiling Los Angeles sun was now overhead, signaling our time to go. We ambled back up to the plateau and took a final gulp of the skyline. It was not hard to understand why he comes up here every day: The moment was perfectly serene.
And then, just as we were preparing to make our descent, Bembury paused. He took out his phone, angled his camera down for a selfie, and said, “Gotta let them know I’m here.”