Living in NYC is described as a sponge-like experience according to Saleha Bembury – queue his organically inspired footwear designs. The mind of Bembury is just as absorbent in displaying his latest creation this year at Art Basel Miami Beach 2023. He is unveiling a new vinyl toy design that represents the aesthetic fans have become familiar with – sneakerheads, at the least.
With the help of American Express Platinum, Salehe Bembury has manifested his interpretation of a puffer fish, which he recognizes for its sponge-like ability. This inspiration and organic transformation have been informing the footwear designer for some time as he ascended to the artist he is today. Collaborating with PlayLab, Inc., the gallery will showcase reimagined iconic toys as limited edition collectibles and art pieces from artists, including the puffer fish toy from Salehe Bembury.
“My toy is my brand’s logo is Spunge, spelled S-P-U-N-G-E,” Bembury explains the inspiration for his creation. “The brand mascot, if you will, is a puffer fish, which, in itself, is a sponge. I think the most valuable thing you can be in life is a sponge – constantly absorbing. Ultimately my brand is a representation of those learned experiences. I think [it’s] an important idea to communicate to the audience and for people to adapt to their own lives.”
Born in TriBeCa New York, the downtown kid, meticulously crafted his way into streetwear with shoe designs that have wowed the masses. American Express Platinum is set to host PLAY, an interactive gallery during Art Week in Miami. “I am from New York City. Born specifically in Tribeca, New York. Oh, nice. Born and raised, very proud. Native New Yorker. Moved to Los Angeles seven years ago for what was the dream job of designing sneakers for Kanye West.”
Before that, the footwear savant was at Cole Hann, where he followed his then-design director out West to join the Yeezy production team, ultimately reaching a career-high, at the time. Bembury notes, “It was more than just sneakers. It was inspiration, it was culture. I submitted some work – then after some time, I became the head of men’s shoes for Kanye.” Bembury would then move on to Versace, where he designed Iconic footwear for the brand that featured a notable rap artist, 2 Chainz, in its rollout.
Being the sponge that he is, Bembury hindsight of his New York upbringing offered more than he expected. This amalgamation of culture was subversively fluid in its delivery for the designer. He explains, “Well, it’s interesting because I think that [and] a lot of the things that enhance, inspire, and or influence New Yorkers are things that we don’t notice.”
He points over to his right, “This is my operations manager [he’s from Colorado] and we’ve just been walking around, and he’s just been telling me about the things that he sees and notices about New York that I don’t notice at all because I’m from here.” Subconsciously, Bembury absorbed the eclecticism of the city that helped foster streetwear.
“They’re like those intangible things. I think just being from [New York City], the people, the melting pot of cultures, the different fashion senses, it’s just – is! It, literally, is the difference between being in a place where everyone is the same and being that outlier. And then being in a place where everyone is the outlier and feeling comfortable and feeling free,” Bembury explains of the Big Apple scene.
The exhibited artists and their creations include Salehe Bembury’s Spunge Vinyl Toy, a three-dimensional art piece; Eny Lee Parker’s “Benny,” a bunny-shaped plush toy made from high-end leftover upholstery fabrics; Serban Ionescu’s “City of Canals,” a unique chessboard and hand-sculpted chess piece set; Surin Kim’s colorful toy car with a Korean inscription, conveying good luck and wealth; and Kumkum Fernando’s “Tomorrow,” a wooden toy robot employing traditional Vietnamese techniques.
Bembury feels adolescent in the art space. As a footwear designer, his pivot into toy creation is novel, following in the footsteps of toy designers like Frank Kozik. “I just ventured into entrepreneurship and [I] got used to seeing my name on things, which is strange. Before that, I worked for a brand, and what was initially somewhat intimidating, turned into a very fruitful situation. Now, I find myself as one would call an independent designer. Given my background in industrial design, I’m extremely versatile in what I can create. Perfect transition.
“This [has] given me the tools to participate with American Express Platinum in this toy project,” Bembury details of his partnership. “For the longest time, I’ve introduced myself as, and been proud to raise my fist as a footwear designer, but I have many other skills, and this project helps me access that.”
He continues, “I think product serves different roles. I am very humbled by the fact that people choose my sneakers to purchase and wear, but often the relationship is a 24-hour one or a 12-hour run. What’s really cool about toys or even products for the home is that they live in the home, and it’s a different relationship with the consumer because they decide to celebrate that.”
Bembury ironically has a passive relationship with his footwear designs in regard to its purpose. “You really can’t celebrate a shoe. You celebrate it for the night, you celebrate it for the day, but a product that you keep in your home, like a high-end toy, or something that one of the other [PLAY exhibit] collaborators have created. That’s a more intimate relationship. I’m just excited to be a part of that because I went from this 12-hour product relationship to a now more intimate.”
The gallery will offer a playful experience for ‘Amex’ Card Members, inviting them to interact with oversized playground installations inspired by the artists’ works. These installations, designed by PlayLab, Inc., include classic playground elements like a see-saw, slide, and ball pit. Additionally, attendees will enjoy contemporary twists on childhood snacks and drinks. PLAY by American Express Platinum seeks to provide a unique blend of art, play, and nostalgia during the Miami Art Week.
The artworks will be available for purchase at the gallery, with select toys offered online from December 10 for a limited time. The event, taking place at The Miami Beach EDITION from December 7-9, 2023, aims to blend art and nostalgia for Platinum Card® and Centurion® Members and their guests, featuring play-ready collectible toys.