Tremaine Emory rearranges his Zoom screen before easing himself into his chair and yawning. The New Yorker has just flown in from London, where he’s been taking meetings in his new role as creative director of streetwear juggernaut Supreme, and will soon be on a plane again to LA. I’m expecting him to be exhausted. Instead, I receive a forensic unpicking of the serendipity, community and talent that took him from the stockroom of Marc Jacobs to being described as a “cultural lightning rod”.
“I was probably the first black kid in Jamaica, Queens, wearing Supreme in 1999,” says Emory, who is in his early forties. The founder of the cult clothing brand Denim Tears and one half of the nightlife and fashion duo No Vacancy Inn, he has already worked with several of his generation’s leading creatives, including the late Virgil Abloh and the former Kanye West, now known as Ye. “To become the creative director 25 years later…” he sighs. “It’s just a story for the ages.”
Emory grew up with “adventurous, intelligent” parents in Queens; he reels off Andy Warhol, James Baldwin and his family’s own video shop as early sources of inspiration. He chose a liberal-arts major at LaGuardia Community College but, keen to keep his loans down, also worked at FedEx. “I would go to school in the day, come home for like a couple of hours, eat, sleep, and then head to load the trucks all night.”
This capacity to work around the clock would serve him well. He dropped out of college and moved into retail, which was a natural fit, although an early dispute with an employer about his first hair left him keen to stay behind the scenes (“I guess, in hindsight, I was kind of scarred”) . Joining Marc Jacobs was a much happier experience: he started as a “stock boy” in 2006, eventually graduating to sales associate in 2010. After moving to London, he started hosting club nights alongside his creative partner, Acyde, with whom he runs No Vacation Inn. It’s there that Emory would cultivate the network he would become famous for, with Abloh, future creative director of Off-White and Louis Vuitton, bringing Frank Ocean along for a nightcap, or the then-West coming by to play a demo of his album Yeezus. Later, Emory would serve as a creative consultant to Ye too. It all happened organically, he says. “Everything’s connected and nothing’s a plan. It’s about how you treat people, and your work ethic, and luck. And then mostly stuff that’s out of your control.”
Denim Tears started as a moniker based on an inside joke with Abloh and the music executive Caius Pawson – they were making fun of a pair of ripped jeans Emory had worn. From 2016, Emory would sell T-shirts and donate the proceeds to Maternal Health charity Every Mother Counts in memory passed of his own mother, who away in 2015. “I’d make a Denim Tears T-shirt with a picture of my mom , and sell her cake recipe that only my little brother knows.” The label has since developed a distinct USP: “I do all this art and iconography and symbols, and transfer them to menswear silhouettes to help tell the story of the African diaspora.”
The label’s inaugural pop-up launched in New York in 2019, to mark the 400-year anniversary of the first slaves brought to America on the White Lion slave ship. Subsequent projects have included a partnership with Levi’s, featuring cotton reef imagery on denim, Plantation hats and a documentary laying out the history of cotton and its entanglement with slavery; and a collaboration with Champion to celebrate the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. Emory is clear that the new role at Supreme isn’t slowing down his ambitions for Denim Tears or No Vacancy Inn. “It’s no different than Virgil at Louis [Vuitton] and also doing Off White and other things,” he asserts. “I wouldn’t have taken the job if I wouldn’t be able to continue to do them.”
A few days later, I run into Emory in person at an event. We had said previously about role models, and he returns to the subject, mentioning Abloh, who had died of cancer last autumn aged only 41. “He helped me out a lot,” says Emory. “But really, he helped me out most by the way he lived. I followed the path of his dignity, grace and intelligence.” Next, he says, he wants to “figure out how to harness the knowledge that I found both on my own and through my friends and family – my tribe.” As he moves along, Emory stops to hug and bump fists with adoring young fans. The tribe hasn’t finished growing yet.