Perched on a fancy highchair across a small round table from Salehe Bembury, it comes to me as our conversation progresses, how easy it is to relate to him. As he speaks, one almost gets a sense of celebrity conceivably within reach.
The American designer, primarily of footwear but hardly restricted to it, began his career with aspirations towards an ‘associate design job in Nike, make a certain amount of money and that would’ve been it for me’.
A decade and more later of ‘just making things I like’, Salehe, 36, has assembled an impressive collection of branded work — Versace, Yeezy, Cole Haan, New Balance, Vans, Crocs and, very soon, Clarks as well. So that now Salehe Bembury is the brand. That when fashion houses think of footwear, they think Salehe. That his design ethos is gaining expression beyond feet to embrace apparel, accessories and soon the home space as well. That he is actually in a position to not only leave his fingerprint on fashion and pop culture but move conversations around them towards nature-inspired comfort and functionality. In Salehe’s words: ‘A lot of the stuff I create is ultimately for myself. And I’m lucky enough to have a consumer that really seems to enjoy my taste. Whereas a lot of companies are chasing a trend or have created this model consumer that they are trying to please, I often just make things I like.’
When we meet it’s at Sole DXB, a lifestyle and fashion event held annually in Dubai Design District. Salehe is here as the showstopper for the Apparel Group’s footwear brand Crocs. It’s the official UAE launch of the Salehe Bembury Crocs Pollex Clog Sasquatch.
Accordingly, a giant replica of the Sasquatch is on display inside a cavernous pavilion. An array of them occupies niches grooved into the pavilion’s back wall. (See box)
Salehe, hat and Prada sunglasses on, appears at ease in a breezy looking chequered robe — a gift from a photoshoot he just did with fellow creative Hassan Hajjaj. Underneath are his trademark cropped pants and, for shoes, what else but Crocs Pellox in sandy beige.
In an interview to Friday, Salehe offers a view of the arc of his journey thus far that’s taken him from anonymity to ever-expanding fame. Like a coin held between forefinger and thumb, with a single turn we see both head and tail.
Salehe is not a salaried man these days; he is tasting the freedom of being one’s own boss as founder and creative director of Spunge, his brand that he announced on Instagram last year. Through it, he channels his creativity independently alongside regular high-stake collaborations such as the one with Crocs.
‘I left Versace about two years ago, after almost four years,’ he says. ‘While I was there I had the opportunity to do two collaborations, with Anta which is a Chinese sneaker brand, and then New Balance. Both collaborations sold out instantly. So that was kind of like proof of concept … that wow I can be an independent designer!’
Salehe, however, continued holding down a full-time job even while taking stabs at independent projects. He recalls being repeatedly told ‘you know you could do this on your own’ to which he would respond: ‘Nooooo! I need a paycheck… I need a salary.’ Salehe feels he needed those ‘convincing moments that made me feel a little more comfortable with taking such a scary leap’.
From there to here
So how do you go from: ‘I never really saw myself as someone that would put their name on a product!’ to: ‘I definitely now understand that I am a brand … I have a consumer, an audience and a community and they’re very curious and very interested to see what’s next.’
There is of course, Salehe’s overriding interest and passion in product design right from childhood, topped up with a degree in industrial engineering from Syracuse University New York. New York is also where he grew up, spending 29 years in the city before moving to California. Then came stints in Payless and Cole Haan.
A measure of luck and making best use of opportunity besides, one other factor seems to have worked well in Salehe’s favour. That is the mostly reassuring idea that ‘people are becoming more comfortable with the idea of being comfortable’ — more so post-Covid. ‘For the longest time sweatpants were seen as a ‘no’ … but now with a slight tailor it’s acceptable,’ says Salehe.
This is also what’s impelling Salehe into newer product categories. ‘Maybe one of the few positives that Covid had on our society was that we as a people became more aware of our home environment … why is this pillow sitting here? Do I need this, right? So, that ultimately created an opportunity for designers, because now we can step inside the home. I think one opportunity is to make something that people wear on their feet, and they decide to wear it for the day... that’s an honour. But creating something that someone decides to keep in their home permanently and when their friends come over they celebrate it with them … I think that’s a whole different opportunity for product, and I’d like to plan this space.’
He’d have been doing this alone, say a couple of months ago. But now Salehe has a team helping out.
‘Up until six weeks ago, I’ve been a one-man team,’ he says. ‘Anything you’ve ever seen from me I did by myself, which I really hung my hat on for a long time. It made me feel very able. I just felt so versatile as a creative … . But it really came down to time management.’
I ask him about his near obsession with early morning hikes up hills back home in Los Angeles. ‘It’s just a beautiful way to start the day, 4,000 feet in the air. I hike to the top. I meditate for 10 minutes. And then walk down.’
Turns out it is Salehe’s way of calming his mind down.
‘From the moment I wake up to the moment I sleep my mind is going 1,000 miles a minute,’ he says. ‘I’m just really trying to find peace … to get back to thinking from a more calm, peaceful place.’