Tremaine Emory Reigns Supreme
On a sleet-streaked Manhattan day this past February, Tremaine Emory swung out of his new workplace in SoHo in search of lunch. He spotted a bakery and stepped inside – only to be served something else entirely. “The guy in there sees me and screams, ‘GET OUT! Get out of here! I told you not to come in here—it’s for paying customers only,’” Emory says. Emory is talking on a video call from the neat but impersonal-looking serviced East Village apartment that is his current home, leaning in towards the screen. “This guy screaming at me, he’s a white dude. I go, ‘Why are you speaking to me like this, sir?’ And he goes, ‘Oh. I thought you were this homeless person that comes in and bothers us.’ And I go, ‘And why did you think I was a homeless person: because I’m Black?’ He says, ‘No! It’s not that. I couldn’t even tell the color of your skin—it’s the way you are dressed.’”
Emory, for the record, was wearing a Balenciaga trench over a leopard-print Balenciaga minidress that he styles as a sweater. Under that was a hoodie by the 2022 LVMH prize finalist ERL. A punchy look for sure, even borderline outré, but not especially radical for downtown New York—and certainly no reason for the outburst. Emory doesn’t think it was the clothes, either. “The reason is, no matter what I do, I’m Black with dreads and a beard…No matter what I do, what I achieve, I still have folks in SoHo shouting at me in a bakery on Lafayette Street.”
Emory’s mood lifts a little. “The most ironic thing? There’s also another guy in there who works at Tom Sachs’ studios around the corner. So while this bakery guy’s kicking me out and I am challenging him, with dignity, he sees me and comes up and goes, ‘Hey, Trey! What’s up! Congratulations!’”
Because like almost everyone else in the neighborhood (bakery guy apart), as well as the entire world of contemporary fashion, the Sachs studio guy had read the news: Tremaine Emory had just been named new creative director of Supreme, one of the biggest streetwear brands on the planet. Emory finishes the story and laughs. But the smudged tracks of freshly wiped tears remain visible on his cheeks.
I last saw Tremaine Emory in the flesh in early spring, shortly after the profiling incident at the bakery. We were in Paris, at Off-White’s Spaceship Earth show at the Palais Brongniart, the brand’s first to be held posthumously after Virgil Abloh’s passing last November. Abloh shows remain sorrowful: transmitters of memory, reminders of loss. Yet following the rawness and shock of November’s Louis Vuitton show in Miami, and then the deliberate ceremonial weight of January’s autumn/winter 2022 Paris chapter, the atmosphere at the Palais was more joyous, less laden. Outside, the crowds were screaming for Rihanna and A$AP Rocky and Pharrell. Inside, the milling crowd included Nigo, Jerry Lorenzo, Grace Wales Bonner, Olivier Rousteing and Ibn Jasper. Amongst all these luminaries of the cultural arts universe, attention orbited around Emory, too. The delight at his appointment appeared universal, evidenced in the many enthusiastic handshakes and back slaps heading his way. “People seem to be really happy about it, happy for me, and happy for Supreme—just happy in general about it,” Emory says. “So I was a bit overwhelmed, in a good way.”
You could, if you wanted, chart Emory’s ascent to the lead creative position at what is arguably America’s most influential streetwear brand solely via his employment history. His first fashion job was on a J.Crew shop floor in the early aughts. He came up through a buzzy array of creative projects in fashion, parties, music and art, chiefly via his multidisciplinary practice No Vacancy Inn, which he put together with one of his closest creative collaborators, Acyde. More recently, Emory’s fashion brand Denim Tears has explored fashion’s relationship with African American history and exploitation, all while embracing high street collaborations with the likes of Levi’s and UGG; the brand’s American flag-embroidered look featuring Tyson Beckford was included in the Met Costume Institute’s 2021 exhibition “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion”. There are stories about working with Kanye, Frank Ocean, André 3000 and Virgil himself. But Emory’s is a life whose recent chapters cannot be fully understood unless you dive into his earlier material. As Emory says: “It all goes back to how I was raised.”
Emory was born in Georgia in July 1981. A few months later, his mother Sheralyn and father Tracy moved the family to Jamaica in Queens, New York. His mother ran the household and was assiduous in exposing her sons to culture. Emory remembers seeing Pavarotti sing with the Harlem Boys Choir in Central Park, and seeing Cats on Broadway, and visits to the Queens Natural History Museum. At age six, he was taken to the pet store and chose himself a “beautiful little cat, a calico, striped and golden,” whom he christened “Fashion”. He also cites his Uncle Ray, a brick mason at the time, as a style influence: “The way he wore his hat was so important to him. The way he walked, the way he wore flannel or tucked his T-shirt, the way he wore a fedora or a trucker cap.”
Emory says he feels lucky. For many of his neighbors, the awareness of a life outside of Queens, let alone the US, was faint. But in Tracy, he had a father who lifted his eye to a telescope to a world beyond. “He was a cameraman for CBS News for years. I remember at school being proud: he had the coolest job on careers day. The stories that affected him most were when he was in Africa, traveling with Mayor David Dinkins to meet the Pope and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and covering the Rwandan genocide.” Emory remembers watching Washington’s American football team (“back then they were called the Redskins but no longer, thankfully”) play the New York Giants from the press box. Sport and its lessons were fundamental. So too was the march, also in Washington, that Tracy and Sheralyn walked with their sons and 250,000 others to mark the 20th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s original 1963 march, at which he delivered his “I Have a Dream” clarion call. The Emory boys were encouraged to read: seminal texts include James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and The Andy Warhol Diaries.
As Tremaine recounts this story, we tangent slightly to discuss the overlaps between Warhol and Abloh. Both had an artistically omnivorous mindset. “Absolutely,” says Emory. “You know, my dad brainwashed me. So I’d be brushing my teeth and he’d come into the bathroom and say, ‘There’s an art to everything, even brushing your teeth.’ And then he’d walk out. Virgil understood that, that there’s an art to everything—so go choose it. And for me, comparing Virgil to Warhol in making art, Virgil was better. Because he was nicer to people.”
As a kid, Emory started selling Marvel cards, mowing lawns, earning his own money to spend on clothes and sneakers. After graduating from school, Emory got a job loading packages for FedEx, and briefly studied film-making at LaGuardia Community College, but dropped out. He took that job at J.Crew, then another, at a liquor store in Queens, then at Kate Spade in SoHo. We are fast-forwarding here, but it’s worth a pause to note that it was at this time that Emory started hanging most days after work at Union, the store co-owned by Mary Anne Fusco and her then-partner James Jebbia who, in 1994, founded Supreme. In 2006, Emory was supposed to meet Jebbia to discuss a retail job (“I really wanted to work at Union”) but before Jebbia’s schedule allowed, Emory had taken another gig, at Marc Jacobs.
The job was in the stock room, in theory one of the lowliest roles (but also amongst the most essential) in retail. Yet in his final interview for the position, Emory was assessed by no less than company president Robert Duffy and Marc Jacobs himself. Within a year, Emory was moved to the shop floor. Emory fondly recalls the company’s democratic, inclusive ethos at the time. “No matter where you were, from the stockroom to the board room, you got the same clothing allowance every year: 12 garments and two pairs of shoes.” He was in a relationship with Hadarrah More, then the manager of the store he worked in, had a solid job, and solid friends. It was all good.
Then, in 2008, came the event that transformed his outlook, that made him realize he needed to leave. As Emory tells it: “I’m from Jamaica, Queens. The hood. I’ve seen people shot. Had bullets fly past me from house parties getting shot up. I’ve seen people sell and use drugs. Like Jay-Z said, I’ve seen hoop dreams deflate. I’ve seen people go to jail for killing a friend, or killing a girl. All kinds of fucked-up stuff. I’ve been pulled off a bus and pushed up against it by the cops because a kid from a white prep school got robbed. Or walking to the store, had the cops shake me down and ask me where the drugs and money are at. And you are just a good kid that ain’t never carried a gun. You know?
“So my goal gradually became to get out of Jamaica, Queens, without something bad happening to me. And those things were happening, not just to drug dealers or people involved in that life, but to regular people. The first Black entrepreneur I ever knew was my man, Rahim Grays, who was my barber. He had a daughter, he was a great father, and he was my friend. He was the only person who cut my little brother’s hair, who cut my hair. He worked and he worked and he worked. Finally he opened his own shop. And then within a year there were people trying to extort him. Some jackboys were sent in to rob him. He wouldn’t have it. So they shot him and killed him. And I remember my father calling me, saying: ‘Rahim Grays…’ And I knew then that I was done. I said, ‘I gotta get out of here because I can’t breathe.’”
Shortly after, Marc Jacobs asked Emory’s girlfriend to relocate to London in order to open a new store. Emory knew little about the British capital (“and I didn’t really care”) but he persuaded her to go for it. He applied for his first passport. “I had to go. And I just knew that if I did something, good could happen. I was very emotional leaving my family. I remember at my leaving party I was crying profusely, and my mother was saying, ‘You gotta go. You gotta get on that plane.’”
Emory pauses for a moment. He has been crying, as he thinks of Grays. “That’s why I’m not trying to kill myself to achieve more. I don’t know how I slipped through. I know I have my parents, my family and my friends. But I don’t know how I ended up in The Met. It’s not that I have impostor syndrome—I deserve to be there—it’s that I also know no matter what I achieve, it won’t change certain things. Here’s an example.” And it’s now that he tells me his story about the bakery. Of being told to get out, being told he didn’t belong, in his first week back living in New York after 12 years away, at the very moment of what seemed like the apex of his achievements so far.
Emory arrived in London in 2010, the right man in the right place, at the right time. As he puts it: “You can’t control confluence, you can only seize it…and so much was going on at that time in London. BBK and the penetration of grime into US culture; A$AP Mob was always in London, Frank [Ocean] moved to London and me and Frank started working together; Sam Ross was coming up, Palace was coming up, Martine Rose, Wales Bonner.” London was a “petri dish”, as Emory puts it, somewhere where different voices were growing, interacting, connecting. “It’s tapestry, all part of the painting,” Emory says. “And I’m super grateful to have been living in London, and just alive on Earth at the time and around such amazing, inspiring people.”
A key player in the petri dish was British-born cultural consultant Acyde (Ade Odunlami), who Emory met in his first year in town. “I was at a Nike party that my friend Heron Preston invited me to. Acyde looked really cool. He was smoking a cigar. I was like, ‘Can I have one?’ And then we started talking: we’ve been friends ever since. Maybe a year later, he was like, ‘Would you be down to do a party with me? I feel like if you host the party that I DJ it’d be great.’ And then we started doing this party called Midnight at Manero’s.”
That was 2012. Soon, the pair had started throwing nights at Serge Becker’s Soho pseudo-porno Mexican speakeasy La Bodega Negra where in 2013, Emory first connected with both Abloh and Frank Ocean. Shortly after, Abloh brought Ye (then known as Kanye West) for an Acyde and Emory-hosted night that turned into an impromptu listening party for Yeezus. “Our friendship was cemented there,” says Emory of Abloh. “And after those nights we would talk about the things we wanted to do. And then we’d wake up the next day and attempt to do them. We were unwavering in our attempts to mix down the human condition through making things.”
Stüssy hired Acyde and Emory to play a party in LA “for some Vans event.” Emory began consulting for the brand. Momentum was building so much that when restructuring at Marc Jacobs led to mass layoffs in 2015, Emory was unperturbed. He took his £30,000 severance pay to pump into No Vacancy Inn, his and Acyde’s collective moniker, “to build it as a brand around the parties, and podcasts and clothes.” When that money ran out, he razed his pension fund to the tune of £26,000: “and by the time that money ran out, I was in a place where I could support myself and pay my bills.” Still representing No Vacancy Inn by night (“ripping around the world with Acyde”), Emory was hired to work for Ye and moved to LA in 2016 “for a couple of years, but then he fired me.” Asked why, Emory laughs. “You’d have to ask him.” He adds, “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, when I left this job,’ but if you got fired, you got fired. There’s nothing wrong with it. I am proud that I got fired by Kanye. I wear it as a badge of honour.” From there, Emory picked up a role as art director at large for Stüssy, worked a while with Andre 3000 and then in August 2019, started a new label under a name he’d used before: Denim Tears.
The name itself is a double entendre. “You’re the first person that doesn’t know me who’s picked up that it’s ‘tears’ [weep] and ‘tears’ [rips] simultaneously,” Emory says. “It’s a name about human attrition, the attrition of the human condition. Human beings start out like a brand new pair of jeans, but are you better as a baby or as a 50-year-old? As a baby, you’re beautiful, you’re innocent, you ain’t had nobody hurt you. As a 50-year-old, maybe you have high blood pressure, you’ve broken hearts, had yours broken, been nice to people, been mean to people, read books, done things you’re proud of and things you’re not…You’ve achieved something but you feel like you’ve achieved nothing. Those are the tears. We are obsessed by youth but the older I get, the more interested I am in how your soul finds its patina through time.
“And the name also applies to cotton, and slavery, and the glory and plight of the African diaspora. My father’s first job was picking cotton, as a kid. It’s inspired as much by the storytelling of Wales Bonner as it is of Supreme. Once I was in the Supreme store in London and they did these Martin Luther King hoodies and the hoodies were on sale. And I just thought, this is a problem: these should be sold out. Then I thought, what if I can make a brand that makes kids line up to buy and wear clothes that are about the plight and glory of the African American experience—that would be something worth doing. I don’t know if I can get kids to read The Fire Next Time, but if I can get them to wear a pair of jeans that starts a conversation about Baldwin, or Alvin Ailey, then that’s something real and worthwhile.”
Emory’s intention is to give Supreme followers the same education his family and friends gave to him. Asked about his immediate plans, however, he says his chief ambition is to start a family of his own, now that he is home. “The point of the hero’s journey is to find knowledge and bring it back to where you came from,” he says, “You left because you knew there was more out there that was needed for your tribe, for your people, for your community. And then you bring it back.”
This leads me to one last question. At the bakery, Emory reckoned that as well as being Black, it was his wearing dreadlocks that prompted the guy to show his ugly colors. Why does Emory wear dreadlocks? “Nobody’s ever asked me that before,” he replies. “And you’re going to get the truth. The dreads are about mourning for Rahim Grays. It was hard for me to get haircuts after he died, but I probably did for about a year after. And then I just started to let it grow. They are an ode to him. I guess I’ll never wear a Caesar [haircut] again. I’m a bit emo, a bit of a romantic. But these are an ode to my friend.”
This story originally ran on British GQ with the title “Tremaine Emory reigns Supreme”