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.”
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?’ ”