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When you know your diet, it's easy to pick your meals
Salehe Bembury the design visionary on dressing like yourself, cult-fave '96 Nikes, sexy monstrousness, Super Shredder mindset & more
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Salehe Bembury — no one’s designing shoes like him. A sneaker obsessive since he was a kid growing up in downtown Manhattan, he majored in industrial design at Syracuse University, got a design-assistant gig at Payless Shoe Source (!) and a few years later — in a dramatic swing from “low to high” — made a name for himself concocting footwear at Yeezy and Versace.
Since then, Salehe’s whipped up a clutch of beloved New Balances, including fuzzy 990v2s (below top right) and radiant, as-yet-unreleased 1906Rs (below middle right); the oozy, undulating smash-hit Crocs Pollex (below top left), which comes out in a new deep-navy hue called “Como” this Thursday; the Anta SB-02 (below bottom right); and the hardbody haute-GORP Trailgrip (below middle left), as part of a recent apparel capsule with Moncler…
Whether it’s the solar-flare-orange hues mixed with earth tones, or the organic silhouettes and textures — swirling lines that evoke topographical maps and protozoan blobs, hairy suedes that evoke furry beasts and mossy woodland tufts — you can see Salehe’s signature crunchy-biomorphic-cyborgian-Gaia vibes at play across wildly different contexts and use cases…
Also?? The man looks mad cool and wears clothes well. So the other day I (Jonah) was stoked to hop into an encrypted SpyMeeting with him to chop it up about the first shoe that ever blew his mind, the cult-favorite ‘96 Nike banger that doesn’t get enough credit, where he finds inspiration, how to develop a uniform that leaves you some breathing room, and more “unbeatable topics.”
Blackbird Spyplane: I’ve written about this before in the newsletter, but the first sneaker that ever made me think about design was the Air Max 97. It registers as “normal” now, but that silver-on-silver-on-silver color scheme, arranged across different materials in concentric rings instead of panels, and then stacked on top of the full-foot airbed, all felt so radical and weird to me when it came out, to the point I actually got queasy looking at it. It’s when I realized that sneakers — even extremely popular, mainstream ones — could be a place for wild creative swings. Is there a sneaker that felt pivotal in that way for you?
Salehe Bembury: “Design evokes emotion, right? And it can evoke emotion even when you don’t realize you’re perceiving design. So yeah I have lots of memories of sneakers, specifically, pulling this emotion and curiosity out of me, and I didn’t know why at the time, but looking back, it was design pulling at my heartstrings: the articulated forms, the color palettes, the so-wrong-they’re-right details.
“My number one was probably the Nike Air Ndestrukt — the Dennis Rodman shoe.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Those were crazy. What was it about them that grabbed you?
Salehe Bembury: “The first thing was that, on all the sneakers and footwear I’d ever seen, the lace row went up the front of the shoe, but this had an asymmetrical lace row from, like, the middle of the toe up to the medial of the malleolus. I was like, ‘Wait, what, you can’t do that! I just learned how to tie my shoes and you’re already flipping the script!’ From there, it had this very sexy shape reminiscent of Jordan 11s — which I would argue is one of the sexiest footwear shapes of all time — but the outsole was more aggressive, so it felt like a monster.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Sexiness + monstrousness is a powerful combination…
Salehe Bembury: “I was a big fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a child, and I remember being fascinated by the concept of Super Shredder. You know, Shredder was the villain, but in one of the movies he turned into Super Shredder, and I was, like, ‘How is this possible? Shredder is already so crazy and scary — and now he’s super?’”
Blackbird Spyplane: I remember that, he drinks the ooze or something and gets crazy brolic…
Salehe Bembury: “Yeah, blades popping out of his muscles. In the weirdest, childlike way, I related that to design: Like, ‘Wow, you can have this thing that’s the best — but you can make it better.’ Making what’s already the scariest even scarier. If I ever have a fashion show, it’ll probably be called Super Shredder.”
Blackbird Spyplane: We’re getting at something that’s so interesting about the role of sneakers in the culture, which is that for some dude who might be fairly conservative or risk-averse, stylewise, sneakers are the one part of his outfit where he’ll feel license to go nutty and wear some off-the-wall, outré, extra s**t in terms of colors, materials, architecture…
Salehe Bembury: “Totally.”
Blackbird Spyplane: What’s a weird, brilliant sneaker design you think never quite got its due?
Salehe Bembury: “Hmmm. Maybe the Footscape. That’s one of my favorite shoes, and again, maybe this is why I like newness so much, but it’s very un-traditional: another asymmetrical lace row, this kind of woven raffia, quarter toe-panel — it’s very moccasin-like in construction, but also very familiar, and I love when designers accomplish that balance of playing with newness but maintaining some familiarity. Real sneaker aficionados, we all love the Footscape, but it’s definitely not a mass-consumed shoe. I’m not sure, I think Tinker Hatfield designed it?”
Blackbird Spyplane: There’s a story of how Hatfield saw the exposed heating ducts at the Centre Pompidou during a trip to Paris back in the ‘80s and came away with the idea for the exposed chambers of the original Air Max. Are there things like that for you, where you can point to external references that directly influenced your designs?
Salehe Bembury: “One sec, I’ve got something to show you. [Goes and grabs old sketchbook.] So as a kid, I thought it was so cool how designers would take literal inspiration from, like, animals and cars — you’d hear about how the Scottie Pippen whatever was modeled on a Cadillac, or how Tinker was designing off jets and buildings. At first, I thought that’s what designing was — identify a thing, and then make a thing that’s like that thing.
“So I have old sketches where, like [flips to a page, screenshot top below] this was a sneaker I drew inspired by a stegosaurus: This very literal thing. This is from early high-school, late middle-school, probably. Or [flips again, screenshot bottom below] this is a Praying Mantis inspiration — it obviously looks a lot like the Air Flight ‘95.
Blackbird Spyplane: D*mn, the Praying Mantis joint looks sick.
Salehe Bembury: “That’s how I first perceived design. But once I learned more, I realized that’s not what it is. If you can say, like, ‘This color comes from my travels,’ or you find some utilitarian insight based off how nature functions, that’s cool, but that’s extra credit. You don’t see that all the time. It’s funny, though, I actually went back to that way of thinking when I designed the Chain Reaction for Versace — looking at the core elements of their brand identity for inspiration, focusing on the idea of the chain for the outsole. But it’s usually nothing that direct.”
Blackbird Spyplane: I asked you to share a unique, cherished possession, and you sent along a little ceramic Air Jordan XI, below right. What’s the story?
Salehe Bembury: “This is a clay sculpture I made when I was 9 or 10. I think it’s a great representation of how impactful sneakers were to me at a very young age: It wasn’t about design for me, not consciously, even if that’s exactly what it was. I think it’s so cool that you can affect someone with a craft and they don’t even know it’s happening. I’ve been thinking about getting this bronzed.”
Blackbird Spyplane: It’s very charming. And it’s appropriate because before CAD software a lot of industrial designers used clay to sketch. Some of them probably still do. Is this the first thing you ever sculpted?
Salehe Bembury: “Probably not, I was a very artistic kid. But the fact that it wasn’t, like, a mound of clay that I told people was a volcano? The fact that it was very clearly a Jordan 11 — and very clearly the Concord Jordan 11? I was just hyper-focused on sneakers at the time. So this lives at the crib, as a reminder. I look at my space, and I’ve got wooden Crocs [above left], models that are way more ‘executed,’ but this was the beginning.”
Blackbird Spyplane: There’s an echo in how lumpy and globby it is, too, because your recent designs, especially for Crocs and Moncler, are obviously more refined, but there’s a lot of abstract organic forms there — swirls, globs, shapes that look like biological facts and fossil records…
Salehe Bembury: “Yeah, that’s me drawing from literal and less-literal things I’ve seen in nature, and it’s become my comfort zone, whether it’s a finger print or woodgrain or topographical maps. They’re all in the same family, and cohesive, and recognizable.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Speaking of abstractions derived from nature, what’s the wall hanging behind you?
Salehe Bembury: “This is a piece by the artist Vanessa Barragão. I believe she’s based in Portugal — she’s extremely talented, she makes these by hand, and you can use them as carpets, but I thought, ‘This is way too beautiful to put on the floor.’”
Blackbird Spyplane: Finally, tell me a bit about your own style, what kinds of clothes you’re gravitating towards these days, how you approach building an outfit. Looking at recent pics of you, I see a lot of layering, cropped pants, some lovely bandana work …
Salehe Bembury: “I think we all get to a place in our lives where we’re familiar with our tastes, with what looks good on us and what doesn’t, and from there you can really establish a uniform — some might be more recognizable than others. I’ve recently, within the last 5 years maybe, realized I’m a cartoon character on a TV show, and maybe before 5 years ago I might have been a guest appearance, but now I’m a main character. So having acknowledged that, I’ve leaned all the way in to exploring my uniform and being myself no matter where I am: I strangely feel the most power in a stuffy fashion room where everyone’s trying really hard and I’m just wearing what I wear, doing what I do. It feels like freedom.
“It’s what I feel comfortable in, it feels somewhat elevated but casual, and all the pieces are very interchangeable.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Once again we’re talking about more- and less-literal approaches to things — because when people think about quote-unquote uniform dressers they tend to think about something super locked-in and unbudging, like Bill Cunningham’s blue work jacket or Steve Jobs’s black Issey mocknecks. But your version of a uniform isn’t as restricted. It’s more like you’ve created a “rule set” and left yourself room within it to maneuver, for different elements to travel in and out.
Salehe Bembury: “Once you know what your diet is, it’s not hard to pick your meals.”
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