TREMAINE EMORY

THE WARDROBE OF TREMAINE EMORY

He just revealed a collaboration with Dior. Founder of Denim Tears, named Supreme's creation director last february, Tremaine Emory is the man of the moment. Here he tells us about culture and fight beneath his style and work.

By Alexandre Stipanovich. Photos Sean Thomas.

L’ÉTIQUETTE. What are your earliest memories of clothes?

TREMAINE EMORY. The first thing that comes to mind is seeing my parents getting ready for a night out. They didn’t go out much, but when they did, they’d make an effort, and I got to stay up late and watch them dress. They were both from a little one-stoplight town in Georgia and had moved to New York in 1981, after I was born. You could see those two influences in the way they looked. They had that laidback southernness, along with a more out-there, big-city style. They were cool without trying too hard. Everyone had a real sense of style in my family. My uncles Ray and Jackie dressed really sharp, too. And then there was my big brother, who’s nine years older than me. He had that whole New York look going on— sneakers, logos, streetwear...

É. How about you?

T.E. I soaked up influences from the people I knew and from my environment. We lived in Flushing, Queens, for eight or nine years. Then we moved to Jamaica, also in Queens. So I was a city kid, a real New Yorker. But I spent every summer in a little place called Harlem, Georgia, with a population of less than 2,000. People don’t try as hard down there; they’re not trying to prove anything or impress anyone. I’ve kept that part of me, that couldn’t-give-a-damn attitude toward what I wear. I don’t give it much thought. It’s like my clothes choose themselves—I’ll put on whatever appeals to me in the moment. I just go by how I’m feeling.

É. How’s your wardrobe organized?

T.E. It’s not. I throw everything in a closet. And when I don’t have time, I leave it all on the floor. Getting dressed is just seeing what I can cobble together.

É. Do you feel that your style today reflects where you’ve come from?

T.E. I’m constantly being brought up sharp against my background and my identity. The other day, I rented a car and left it in a parking lot across the street from Lafayette House, where I was staying. This white guy—he was European—came up to me and said, “I parked my car here yesterday. Can you get it for me?” I was wearing a Japanese belt, something by Balenciaga, with cut-off jeans and a linen shirt. I had on a vintage wide-brimmed hat and a pair of shades. I didn’t look like a fucking parking attendant—not that there’s anything at all wrong with being a parking attendant— but he saw a Black dude in a parking lot and immediately assumed I must work there. It happens to me about once a week, in New York or wherever. People take me for an Uber driver or a security guard or something. It’s exhausting. But if you get annoyed, then you’re “the angry Black man.”

É. So, to fight discrimination like that, you weaponize clothing as a political statement?

T.E. I’ll tell you something, there are more than enough clothes on this earth. Objectively speaking, we don’t need any more. The only reason to produce more is that they signal a struggle. They’re a means of progress, in one way or another... What’s happened is that, nowadays, clothes have become a really effective medium to get across activist messages. People are totally immersed in fashion, more so than they’ve ever been in the entire history of humanity. Thirty or forty years ago, maybe I’d have been a writer, but in today’s world, clothes are a more powerful way of getting your message across, especially to young people. I use my designs to tell stories that won’t get told otherwise. My own journey is nothing major compared with the lives of my grandparents or my parents or my ancestors—my life’s been a walk in the park compared to theirs; but I feel it’s my duty to speak out, because there are so few of us who are in a position to do that. In the society we’re living in, the majority of Black people never manage to extricate themselves from their surroundings. My own path has been completely unprecedented, and I need to use that.

É. What’s your ultimate goal?

T.E. We, as people of color, help to sell fashion, but our community never reaps the benefits from it. We need to fix that. We’re a culture with its own aesthetics and moments of glory. There are good things and bad things about it. I want people to know our stories. Our culture is beautiful and broad-ranging, but it’s also fragmented between African Americans, Africans, West Indians and others, so part of my creative practice is aimed at unifying and inspiring.

É. The jeans you designed for Levi’s with the cotton wreath print have become iconic.

T.E. I wanted to highlight how the United States was built on slavery and the exploitation of Black labor in the cotton fields. I love that the jeans are being worn not just by Blacks but also by Latinos and Chinese people. I’m hopeful that through these jeans, the kids will learn something about our country’s history. There’s no end to the stories that need telling. I’ve also designed pieces that shine a light on the history of our dances, and clothes that showcase the heritage of Black Seminoles—members of the Seminole tribe who are also descended from escaped slaves from South Carolina and Georgia. I research and read a lot and talk to experts. I’ll never run out of stories to tell.

É. You also hijacked the American flag...

T.E. I took a Ralph Lauren sweater and reinterpreted it by changing the Star-spangled Banner to the colors of the Pan-African flag— red, green and black—which was designed as a symbol of Black pride in 1920. The idea was to put a Black filter over something that’s considered very white because we need to find a way of living together if we’re going to make any progress. We can’t each erase the other. They’re in us, and we’re in them. That’s the way it is. We have to make it work.

É. Where do you get your design inspirations from?

T.E. My parents ran a video store in East Elmhurst for three or four years. I was only a kid at the time, but I watched a lot of movies during those years, grownup movies like Chinatown. That was my cultural awakening. But very quickly, music became the most important thing for me. I listened to a lot of music from a very young age, I’d examine the album covers and spend hours discussing certain artists with my friends. That’s how I got into design. I think music influences everything and obviously fashion as well. I’ve always been interested in what musicians wear onstage. Take Miles Davis—he used to dress the same whether he was onstage or out in the streets. Same for Lou Reed, and his was one of the most inspiring styles. I worked for Yeezy, too, and it was a very organic process. We just helped him get his ideas out. First I served as creative consultant and then they made me brand director.

É. Who would you say are your style mentors?

T.E. I have lots. Acyde [Ade Odunlami, his long-time partner in the multidisciplinary creative duo No Vacancy Inn], Miles Davis, Diane Keaton, my father, my uncle Ray, my uncle Jackie. Andy Warhol also had a superb style, André 3000, Du from Bstroy, Brick from Bstroy, Venus X... There are so many people who have great style... Erin Magee, our VP of design and production at Supreme runs a brand called Made Me; she’s very cool, too. And his wife, Nicole, has great style. And then loads of people I don’t know, who I see in the streets, in New York, London or some little town in Georgia. But New York is where it’s at—it always will be.

É. What would you say to a young person trying to find their own style?

T.E. I’d actually tell them to just be chill with it. It’s not the most fundamental thing in life. When you’re at a funeral, if someone died, what is it people talk about? They reminisce about whether he was funny and kindhearted, that’s all. I’ve been to a lot of funerals, sadly. People never say, “Oh, he was well dressed.” They say, “He was entertaining, he helped me out, he was a friend, a good brother. That’s it. All the rest of it, you’ve just got to take it as it comes.

Alexandre Stipanovich

He just revealed a collaboration with Dior. Founder of Denim Tears, named Supreme's creation director last february, Tremaine Emory is the man of the moment. Here he tells us about culture and fight beneath his style and work.

By Alexandre Stipanovich. Photos Sean Thomas.

L’ÉTIQUETTE. What are your earliest memories of clothes?

TREMAINE EMORY. The first thing that comes to mind is seeing my parents getting ready for a night out. They didn’t go out much, but when they did, they’d make an effort, and I got to stay up late and watch them dress. They were both from a little one-stoplight town in Georgia and had moved to New York in 1981, after I was born. You could see those two influences in the way they looked. They had that laidback southernness, along with a more out-there, big-city style. They were cool without trying too hard. Everyone had a real sense of style in my family. My uncles Ray and Jackie dressed really sharp, too. And then there was my big brother, who’s nine years older than me. He had that whole New York look going on— sneakers, logos, streetwear...

É. How about you?

T.E. I soaked up influences from the people I knew and from my environment. We lived in Flushing, Queens, for eight or nine years. Then we moved to Jamaica, also in Queens. So I was a city kid, a real New Yorker. But I spent every summer in a little place called Harlem, Georgia, with a population of less than 2,000. People don’t try as hard down there; they’re not trying to prove anything or impress anyone. I’ve kept that part of me, that couldn’t-give-a-damn attitude toward what I wear. I don’t give it much thought. It’s like my clothes choose themselves—I’ll put on whatever appeals to me in the moment. I just go by how I’m feeling.

É. How’s your wardrobe organized?

T.E. It’s not. I throw everything in a closet. And when I don’t have time, I leave it all on the floor. Getting dressed is just seeing what I can cobble together.

É. Do you feel that your style today reflects where you’ve come from?

T.E. I’m constantly being brought up sharp against my background and my identity. The other day, I rented a car and left it in a parking lot across the street from Lafayette House, where I was staying. This white guy—he was European—came up to me and said, “I parked my car here yesterday. Can you get it for me?” I was wearing a Japanese belt, something by Balenciaga, with cut-off jeans and a linen shirt. I had on a vintage wide-brimmed hat and a pair of shades. I didn’t look like a fucking parking attendant—not that there’s anything at all wrong with being a parking attendant— but he saw a Black dude in a parking lot and immediately assumed I must work there. It happens to me about once a week, in New York or wherever. People take me for an Uber driver or a security guard or something. It’s exhausting. But if you get annoyed, then you’re “the angry Black man.”

É. So, to fight discrimination like that, you weaponize clothing as a political statement?

T.E. I’ll tell you something, there are more than enough clothes on this earth. Objectively speaking, we don’t need any more. The only reason to produce more is that they signal a struggle. They’re a means of progress, in one way or another... What’s happened is that, nowadays, clothes have become a really effective medium to get across activist messages. People are totally immersed in fashion, more so than they’ve ever been in the entire history of humanity. Thirty or forty years ago, maybe I’d have been a writer, but in today’s world, clothes are a more powerful way of getting your message across, especially to young people. I use my designs to tell stories that won’t get told otherwise. My own journey is nothing major compared with the lives of my grandparents or my parents or my ancestors—my life’s been a walk in the park compared to theirs; but I feel it’s my duty to speak out, because there are so few of us who are in a position to do that. In the society we’re living in, the majority of Black people never manage to extricate themselves from their surroundings. My own path has been completely unprecedented, and I need to use that.

É. What’s your ultimate goal?

T.E. We, as people of color, help to sell fashion, but our community never reaps the benefits from it. We need to fix that. We’re a culture with its own aesthetics and moments of glory. There are good things and bad things about it. I want people to know our stories. Our culture is beautiful and broad-ranging, but it’s also fragmented between African Americans, Africans, West Indians and others, so part of my creative practice is aimed at unifying and inspiring.

É. The jeans you designed for Levi’s with the cotton wreath print have become iconic.

T.E. I wanted to highlight how the United States was built on slavery and the exploitation of Black labor in the cotton fields. I love that the jeans are being worn not just by Blacks but also by Latinos and Chinese people. I’m hopeful that through these jeans, the kids will learn something about our country’s history. There’s no end to the stories that need telling. I’ve also designed pieces that shine a light on the history of our dances, and clothes that showcase the heritage of Black Seminoles—members of the Seminole tribe who are also descended from escaped slaves from South Carolina and Georgia. I research and read a lot and talk to experts. I’ll never run out of stories to tell.

É. You also hijacked the American flag...

T.E. I took a Ralph Lauren sweater and reinterpreted it by changing the Star-spangled Banner to the colors of the Pan-African flag— red, green and black—which was designed as a symbol of Black pride in 1920. The idea was to put a Black filter over something that’s considered very white because we need to find a way of living together if we’re going to make any progress. We can’t each erase the other. They’re in us, and we’re in them. That’s the way it is. We have to make it work.

É. Where do you get your design inspirations from?

T.E. My parents ran a video store in East Elmhurst for three or four years. I was only a kid at the time, but I watched a lot of movies during those years, grownup movies like Chinatown. That was my cultural awakening. But very quickly, music became the most important thing for me. I listened to a lot of music from a very young age, I’d examine the album covers and spend hours discussing certain artists with my friends. That’s how I got into design. I think music influences everything and obviously fashion as well. I’ve always been interested in what musicians wear onstage. Take Miles Davis—he used to dress the same whether he was onstage or out in the streets. Same for Lou Reed, and his was one of the most inspiring styles. I worked for Yeezy, too, and it was a very organic process. We just helped him get his ideas out. First I served as creative consultant and then they made me brand director.

É. Who would you say are your style mentors?

T.E. I have lots. Acyde [Ade Odunlami, his long-time partner in the multidisciplinary creative duo No Vacancy Inn], Miles Davis, Diane Keaton, my father, my uncle Ray, my uncle Jackie. Andy Warhol also had a superb style, André 3000, Du from Bstroy, Brick from Bstroy, Venus X... There are so many people who have great style... Erin Magee, our VP of design and production at Supreme runs a brand called Made Me; she’s very cool, too. And his wife, Nicole, has great style. And then loads of people I don’t know, who I see in the streets, in New York, London or some little town in Georgia. But New York is where it’s at—it always will be.

É. What would you say to a young person trying to find their own style?

T.E. I’d actually tell them to just be chill with it. It’s not the most fundamental thing in life. When you’re at a funeral, if someone died, what is it people talk about? They reminisce about whether he was funny and kindhearted, that’s all. I’ve been to a lot of funerals, sadly. People never say, “Oh, he was well dressed.” They say, “He was entertaining, he helped me out, he was a friend, a good brother. That’s it. All the rest of it, you’ve just got to take it as it comes.

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