To those who exemplify a passion for art even prior to their formative years, Salehe Bembury can be looked upon as a one who managed to go from enthusiast to thriving professional at a young age. Born and raised in Tribeca, one of New York City’s premier garrisons for the creative, Salehe was brought up in an environment that encouraged him to tap into his inner artist. His aptitude for design was also due in part to his father, who made his living as a professional photographer. During his years attending Syracuse University, Salehe found moderate success with his streetwear line Duane NYC, but it wasn’t until graduating that things started to take off and he began racking up collaborations with the likes of Adidas, Ron English, Damon Dash, and Only NY. His drive eventually lead him to live out a passion for footwear design, earning him a full-time position in the design department at Cole Haan, a company under the Nike umbrella.
A proud New Yorker, in recent years Salehe has also found notoriety with his New York Knicks illustration series; an ongoing project comprised of prints based on the Knicks and some of the team’s most memorable moments. The sharply-illustrated NYK highlights even garnered attention from a handful of media outlets, including the Knicks organization itself, who continuously display the young artist’s drawings on the team’s official website. TheSource.com spoke with the burgeoning designer/illustrator for an in-depth look at his inspirations, aspirations, and his views on the current state of his favorite NBA squad.
TheSource.com: How hard was it growing up as a Knicks fan and how were you able to stay sane?
Selehe Bembury: I would say the most difficult part of growing up as a Knicks fan is the lack of change. For the last 15 years or so the Knicks have been pretty much the same team. Despite the fact that we have had about 100 different players, it somehow turns out to be the same team as the last. We don’t penetrate, rebound, play defense etc. Every team has had these issues, so weather it was Marbury, Stevie Franchise, or even Marty Collins running the point, the team demeanor has been the same. That is why I was so happy when Wilson, Danillo, Raymond, and Landry brought life and new blood back to the garden…may they rest in peace. I am able to stay sane because I have “hope,” something only true Knicks fans have. I refuse to talk to anyone about the Knicks that wasn’t a fan before Melo, Amar’e, or Lin. I’m definitely not 100% on the Lin wagon just yet, but I will say that this team has more assets than any Knicks team in the past 15 years. I can confidently say we have the deepest bench in the NBA, and Steve Novak will take your life one three at a time. Shout out “Discount double check.”
TS: Who is your favorite Knick of all time?
SB: I’m not sure if I have a favorite Knick, but rather a favorite time period. The mid to late 90’s were an amazing time for the Knicks. Every moment from Starks dunking on Jordan, to Houston hitting that last second lay-up to win against Miami, to Van Gundy using Alonzo Mourning’s leg as a fire pole, it was all amazing. It seems like back then there was more of an emotional attachment to the team, and more passion from the players. These days the players don’t seem to care whether they win or lose, which ultimately makes me more jaded. Don’t get me wrong I am still and will always be a die-hard fan. But when I see Melo hugging Lebron post game, after Lebron hurt a fellow Knickerbocker…there’s just something not right about that. I’m not saying opposing players can’t be friends, but take it outside.
TS: What do you think of the Knicks season so far?
SB: Not to be cliché, but it’s been kind of a roller coaster. We started the season with championship aspirations and the sky as the limit. Then we start losing games and fans were ready to give up on the season and fire D’Antoni. Then we go on a 9 game winning streak because of a no-name (Lin) that could penetrate and drop dimes. And now it seems like we’ve settled back into our non-penetrating, stagnant, no passion selves. I honestly can’t call it. What I do know is that Lin will have to make his game a little more complex if he plans on balling w/ the elite. Teams are slowly figuring him out and he won’t be able to go right and throw his body into the paint his entire career. I also think the starting line-up needs a slight tweak. The 2nd squad has been outscoring the starters. My starting line-up would be the following: Baron David PG, JR Smith SG, Landry Fields SF, Amar’e Stoudemire PF, Tyson Chandler C. I think Melo being a 6th man would do a lot for the team and his ego.
TS: Your love for the Knicks has inspired you to create several art pieces inspired by Knick players past and present. Can you shed light on some of your notable pieces and the process behind them?
SB: I was at my friend’s house and mentioned how bland his apartment was. There was absolutely nothing on the walls and [it] was depressing. So he said that I should do something for him based on the Knicks. Then I mentioned how I loved those World Basketball Festival illustrations from a couple of summers ago. He said that I should do a Knicks piece in that style. I proceeded to start and finish the ’94 Finals Print in about 4 or 5 hours. I put it on my blog (saleheblack.com) and I instantly started getting emails about it. It then subsequently popped up on Hypebeast, Freshnessmag, The Knicks Blog, and other online publications. This made me realize people liked it and there was a demand for it, so I started to sell them. I then re-posted it on my blog saying it was available for purchase and I received about 100 orders in about 24 hours. This made me realize that I should continue with the series. I proceeded to capture iconic Knicks moment in this style. I also made sure to note with every release that this was not my style. I was paying homage to those illustrations and most importantly, The Knicks. As for my process I essentially sketch first and then digitize.
TS: Who were some of your inspirations growing up?
SB: I would have to say my father. He is a photographer and owns his own business. Growing up I witnessed firsthand what it took to not only survive as an entrepreneur but also how hard it can be. He was not only where I got a lot of my creativity from but my drive as well. I know a lot of people that are talented but have absolutely no drive. I think it’s important to have the right balance of both. Also growing up in the artist community of Tribeca really inspired me on both a conscious and subconscious level. As for designers, I would have to say Tinker Hatfield and Jeremy Scott. They both are perfect examples of designers doing it “their way.” A lot of the time design can be determined by trends, consumers, money etc. That is not to say that you can’t leave your mark on a design with those influences, it is just a different battle. In their case it seems like they gave everyone a big middle finger and did things exactly how they wanted to. Something about that intrigues me.
TS: You are also a shoe designer and have had your footwear designs sold in stores. Did you always wanted to design footwear or did it come about later in life?
SB: Footwear consumption and design has probably been my biggest passion my entire life. I can honestly say that I am working my dream job. I can’t predict the future, but I hope to have a long, successful, and most importantly impactful career in the footwear industry. The things that I have gotten the opportunity to do and see would probably make 15-year-old Salehe die from excitement. And I am only 3 years into my career. Life is good, no complaints.
TS: What is your creative process?
SB: Design is all about problem solving. Find an insight, and design for it. So ultimately when faced with a project I research and experience as much as possible involving that subject, and from my findings hopefully reach a solution. That can take anywhere from 1 day to 1 year. I recently wore size 14 heels for a few hours to fully understand what it feels like to walk in heels. To truly design something, one must first understand it. So in order to design a successful heel…I had to wear them. Am I proud of this? I’m not sure. But did it help me reach a solution that I wouldn’t have without doing it? Definitely.
TS: Seeing the massive popularity of sneakers right now and how at times it causes riots (see releases like the Air Jordan XI Concords and Galaxy Foamposites), do you feel the sneaker culture has evolved for the better or worse?
SB: It has definitely evolved. For better or for worse I’m not sure, but it is different for sure. I would say a lot of the differences have to do with the Internet. It’s not hard to know product, have product, or find product. The consumer and the “sneakerhead” specifically are more informed than ever. Any Joe Schmo can find and purchase whatever they want. 10 years ago if you had a pair of Space Jams let’s say, that meant something. If you saw someone wearing them, there were a lot of connotations that went along with that. These days, any fool can walk into a flight club or hop on eBay and purchase them. Is that a bad thing, I’m not sure, but part of me wishes things would go back to the way they were.
The company I design for [Cole Haan] recently released a shoe called the Lunar Grand. The response to it has been great. You might even be able to say there is hype around it. However, one thing I realized is that people have been asking if people are going to line up for it. This question perplexed me because it used to not be about what other people were doing. If you liked a shoe you would do whatever you had to do to get it. It seems these days consumers are worried less about themselves and more about others and hype.
TS: If you could wear one shoe/sneaker which would it be?
SB: The Cole Haan Lunar Grand.
TS: You now work for Cole Haans, how’s it been so far?
SB: Great. I am an Innovation Designer out of the Innovation Closet. Not only does the position keep me versatile, but the projects are extremely stimulating. The Lunar Grand is an example of what comes out of the Innovation Closet. Stay tuned for some great product from our team in the near future.
TS: You got the opportunity to work on the Theophilis London collaboration. What makes the Air Theophilus represent Theophilus himself?
SB: A successful collaboration is when two brands work together to reach a destination that they couldn’t have alone. This collab went together like Macho Man Randy Savage and Slim Jim, It just worked.
TS: What should we expect from Salehe Bembury in the future?
SB: At this point in my career I want to try and kill it in as many ways as possible and learn as much as I can in the process. I am way too young to expect anything, but I plan on continuing to work hard to reach my goals. I also want to open up a sauce shop in like 10 years…because who doesn’t like sauce.
– Argenys Collado (@aKiDnamedHENNY)