Interview – GREATS Brand Footwear Design Director | Salehe Bembury

GREATS brand is looking to turn the footwear industry dynamic on it’s head with it’s disruptive, ‘direct to consumer’ business model. By cutting out the middle man, consumers save on the final cost as they have lower margins to deal with and quicker development times. No matter how disruptive a business model is though, the brand is only as good as it’s product, and the main man behind the design of that product is the super talented, Salehe Bembury.

Some time ago we featured some of Salehe’s work, the Cole Haan x Nike Lunagrand mashup that he masterminded, for which he seemed very appreciative of. It goes without saying that Salehe is mad creative, but he also seems to be a straight up nice guy to boot. Something we always have time for at CK.

Check out what Salehe has to say about what inspires him, where GREATS is heading in the near future and much more, below.
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Can you tell us a little about yourself?

My name is Salehe Bembury. I hail from Tribeca, New York. I am a lover of shoes, a footwear designer, and a lobster eater. I love what I do, so my job does not feel like work.

I read you played ball in high school, is that what got you into footwear initially?

Basketball definitely played a part in my love for footwear, however it goes back earlier than high school. I am fueled by the nostalgia of NBA on NBC, The ’94 Knicks, The Jordan era, Space Jam, The Fresh Prince, Seinfeld, pretty much 90’s basketball culture all together.

What are your main points of focus when designing a shoe for Greats?

The ethos of Greats is to celebrate the classic (or great) silhouettes that we have all come to love and reinterpret them through our lens. Weather that be through design lines, signature details, or color palette. Every brand has their reinterpretation of a classic but we want to own that space.

How does Greats’ disruptive business model effect you when it comes to design & development? Are your timelines different than most?

When I was an Innovation Designer at Cole Haan I was working on an 18 month development schedule. At Greats I work roughly on a 4 month development schedule. Strangely I haven’t found much of a difference between the two. The majority of that 18 month timeline is used for marketing, merchandising, and sales. So in the regards to how it effects my process, it really doesn’t. It’s nice to see your ideas go from paper to shelf in a shorter period of time.
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Can you explain what your typical design process is like when coming up with new styles?

Design is about problem solving. Weather that problem is functionally, fiscally, or aesthetically driven, I tackle each project differently. Currently at Greats the majority of my process involves research. Figuring out where the market and consumer was, is, and will be. A designer is only as good as his ability to research.

I saw in an interview that you have a tattoo of the Jordan 3, why is that such a favorite of yours?

We all have those sneakers that made us stop and say, “wow”. When I was in like the 6th grade, The Merrell Jungle Moc was easily the coolest shoe I had seen in a while. The AJ III was the first sneaker I remember that gave me that reaction. There have been many over the years, but that sneaker was the first. It being the shoe that ignited my passion to pursue footwear as a profession, it seemed appropriate.
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How do you see Greats moving forward?

I see our disruptive business model doing exactly that…being disruptive. In the short time that I’ve been here I’ve seen exponential growth and awareness. There is a void in the footwear industry and we are aggressively filling it. We are innovating the quality vs. price equation, and so far we’re succeeding.

What inspires you?

An old boss would always tell me, “People travel from all around the world to get inspired by NYC, and you have it right outside of your door…get up from your desk, and go!”. While I am inspired by traveling as well, being born and raised in NYC has been the ultimate influence. During my morning commute alone, the amount of inspiration I get is extremely stimulating.
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Whats next for you?

Strong product and collaborations. We have some really great collaborations on the horizon. A lot of the collaborators are friends of Ryan (Babenzien) or myself. None of the projects are forced and I think the organic nature will show through the product.

A recent accomplishment?

I collaborated with a shoe customizer to make custom Knicks themed shoes for Spike Lee. He liked them so much he wore them to a few Knicks playoff games. He shouted me out during an interview and they got a bunch of attention. The feedback was so positive we made him a second pair and the same thing happened. Being a huge Knicks fan that was definitely a “harlem shake” moment.
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Whats your biggest design pet peeve?

When you’re design is baked and then gets drastically changed because of sales or merchandising reasons. It’s a part of the business so I am used to it, but I have definitely had my heart broken in the past.

Any advice to designers just starting out?

Research. Document. Communicate. I think that if a designer can do all of those things successfully than they are in a good place. If a designer can look at your portfolio and understand everything without you explaining it, you’re golden.


Mr. Bailey

Product Designer + Footwear Architect | Founder of @ConceptKicks |

  • Pierre - 5 years ago

    Have been following this shoe brand for a little while now and love what they do. Great design and price / value since they only sell direct.