Tremaine Emory grew up in Queens, New York, first in Flushing, then Jamaica, and finally St. Albans. His father, a news cameraman who worked at CBS, struggled to buy his family an apartment after moving from Georgia when Emory was three months old. “You know why [landlords] hung up the phone? Because he sounded like a Southern Black man,” the Denim Tears founder says. “Just even seeing a difference between neighborhoods, I was learning, there's something off in the world. I've got to pay attention.”
The diversity of Queens’ immigrant community and consequently the borough’s segregation had a profound impact on Emory, who discovered himself hanging out downtown around Union. That’s where he met Angelo Baque, Supreme alum and founder of Awake NY, with whom he would go on to be close friends for the next 20 years.
In a rare sit-down interview, Emory and Baque talk about their roots, how Queens and their upbringing shaped who they are, and what their experiences and vision mean for the future generation of streetwear.
This conversation was moderated by Queens native Jaeki Cho, ahead of the Queens Museum’s 50th Anniversary Gala.
CHO: How did y’all two link?
EMORY: Before I even met [Angelo], I seen his work. Whoever was working at Union at that time was like, “Yo, this guy named Angelo made this T-shirt.” Just from hanging out in New York downtown, I would see him and he was always nice to me. We became friends in a way you’re supposed to become friends with people—the natural way, because you like them and they treat you nice.
BAQUE: I always remember Tremaine from hanging out in front of Union. Union was the original clubhouse for us. Young men in the street that hung around stores [and] needed an alternative place to hang out. We didn't really fit in at Supreme. Respectfully, a little too cool for Stussy, even though I worked at Stussy. More into alternative shit. Chris Gibbs was kind of the president of alternative weirdo men of color, from when we were children. Once Tremaine and I connected the Queens dots—you rarely met other Queens cats along 14th Street—Tremaine was like, "I'm from Jamaica." Well, I'm from South Richmond Hill. We're kin. We're going to kick it now. That's it. We formed a little alliance back in '01, '02.
Now that you guys are both professionally grown, coming from that lineage of Union, how does it feel to be recognized for your creative work, now by the leading art institution in your hometown?
EMORY: I'm very grateful. Queens Museum is one of the many museums my parents would take me to. I would hang out at Corona Park, go get green mangoes, put salt and hot sauce on them. When I think of the Queens Museum, I always think of my parents, my mom and my dad, just taking me there.
The acknowledgement is cool. But I really live for the acknowledgement of my peers and kids in the street. I guess the acknowledgement from a place of institution is good—in a way, a "fuck you" to the establishment of that. There's a certain path or certain people that are supposed to be in these spaces. The only reason I care about and participate in this stuff, is so that kids can see you can do Black Jesus with the cotton crown. You can do the stuff that Angelo does and still pay your bills. You could be 100% you and still flourish in this capitalist quagmire that is America. You could be Hispanic, Black, whatever, gay, trans as fuck. You don't have to be in disguise.
You could be 100% you and still flourish in this capitalist quagmire that is America. You could be Hispanic, Black, whatever, gay, trans as fuck. You don't have to be in disguise.
When I was growing up, I didn't know no one on the board of the museum. [It's] incredible that Angelo has been given that role. For people to see a human being like him in these positions and doing these things, it's important for kids. I know it is because I walk the streets every day and the kids come up to me. They're not just talking some clout shit. They're talking about what the clothing we make, makes them think about or what it means to them, and what they want to go and do. It's important for them to see us at Queens Museum, see us in the Met, see us on Highsnob. It's important because representation is important, because there's a huge lack of it. Even today, still.
[Angelo], how have you been going into some of these conversations in meetings? Coming from your background, being on the board of a major museum in New York, what are some developments that you see?
BAQUE: I've learned over the years, the best way to learn a system, you got to incept the system. Echoing back to what Tremaine just said. For young kids that look like us, the next generation of Tremaines or Shaniqwas, or Angelos, or Jaekis. They got to see it in order to believe it. This seat that I have on the board of trustees is not just for me, it's for all of us. I was finessing. Nothing was given to me. I want to be very clear about that.
Tremaine and I both hit up the Queens Museum at the same time to work with them. It was just like, "Look, I'm down to help y'all. But in exchange, I would, literally, want a seat at the table." We've been taught here in New York, closed mouths don't get fed. I want that to be very clear for kids. You want that opportunity, you got to make it happen for yourself. You got to go for it, and you really got to believe yourself.
With the unfortunate passing of Virgil recently, it's on us to carry that torch. I don't think it gets handed down to one person, but as a community.
The word “community” gets thrown around a lot, but Tremaine, myself, and I'm going to keep repeating these names like Shaniqwa and Chris Gibbs. We've been doing this for 30 plus years, and really hand-holding each other and supporting each other when we all needed it. The misconception is that we've been killing it for 20 plus years. It's been a lot of blood, sweat and tears and struggles and arguments to get us to where we're at right now. But we did it as a community. More now than ever, we need to keep supporting each other. Specifically, with the unfortunate passing of Virgil recently, it's on us to carry that torch. I don't think it gets handed down to one person, but as a community, we all get our torches and we just keep moving forward.
For me to come in and say, "I'm going to do a 180 [on] the Queens Museum," I can't do that. But can I come in and properly give my friend his flowers? Who better than me to intro Tremaine? Can I get Ian Isaiah to do the paddle auction? Absolutely. I'm going to get like 20 artists, [who] normally wouldn't have access to a gala. That's the shit right there. It ain't about the look. It's about who am I getting through the door.
For those of us who are not as familiar with Queens Museum, can y'all tell us a little bit more about it?
EMORY: The Queens Museum is a museum that's showing the highest level forms of art, but it's also super engaged in this community. When I had my first meeting with them, it was during Covid. I came in and I saw that they were feeding over a thousand people, families a week. They could have just been shut down, nothing would've been wrong with that. Sally and her team, her colleagues—Sally's the director of the museum—were feeding a thousand people in Queens who were out of work or whatever situation due to Covid, and needed food to live. That's why I work with them, because that means something to me.
It's not like a gated establishment that's not having direct conversations with the local community. They're actively engaging.
EMORY: A museum is a museum. But there's more to Queens Museum, and I see that through the things they do to support the community. I'm really excited—I know Angelo is as well—[about the] Queens Teens Institute. They also hold artists’ residencies. It's an amazing institution. I'm happy to be involved, and I hope to keep working with them.
BAQUE: The key phrase is, it's a museum, but also a community center. Those families that Tremaine was talking about through the food bank, the museum was providing [for] each Wednesday, and it still is providing. The Met, the MoMA, the Whitney, nobody was feeding their local community. A place like the Queens Museum to step up and initiate that kind of program all on their own is huge. It's like they're paying attention to their surroundings and being super conscious.
Honestly, my relationship with the museum is a brand new one ever since I moved to Jackson Heights four years ago. It's literally in my backyard. I go to the Unisphere always to tap in for inspiration. My first Asics drop, it's a straight Flushing Metal Park inspo. All that time that I've spent sitting in front of the Unisphere and taking that in.
Love the Queens Teens program that they've been kicking off, supporting over a hundred local Queens High School students through mentorship. That's something all of us want to get more involved in.
Let's talk about the foundation. You guys are both from Queens—Jamaica and Richmond Hill. What was it like growing up in Queens, as adolescents? How did that influence what you guys are currently doing?
BAQUE: I couldn't pick a better place to grow up in. Inside my house was South America, it was Ecuador to the bone. And then, when I stepped outside past my stoop, I was in Trinidad, Guyana. All my best friends growing up, were West Indian or Pakistani. And then the random Puerto Rican family that moved over from East New York. I heard the term now is called "salad bowl." It's not a melting pot, but a salad. Everybody's mixed together. It's always been that way.
It's such a beautiful place to grow up in, and you really don't understand the politics behind the borough until you get a little older, about redlining, and how segregated the borough really is. There's a misconception of how the borough is soft. But this shit has been segregated, it's been redlined for years. You've got to go through 20 white neighborhoods to get to basically a POC, Black or Brown community.
I've seen a lot of tragedy, and a lot of good people not make it out like I did. That was my childhood. It was like, The Sandlot meets Boyz N The Hood.
EMORY: We moved to New York in 1981 from Georgia. I was three months old. My dad got a job at CBS. We lived in Flushing, [for the] first nine years. The only place they could afford to buy a house was in Jamaica, because the prices were so low. It was [the] post-crack epidemic, and nobody wanted to live there, but that's the only place my dad could afford. We had to move to St. Albans, by the Rock. That's where I grew up [for the] rest of my life, until I moved to London in 2010. I've seen a lot of tragedy, and a lot of good people not make it out like I did. That was my childhood. It was like, The Sandlot meets Boyz N The Hood.
BAQUE: That's pretty accurate. And throw in some buses.
EMORY: Yeah, throw in some buses. The thing about Queens too, it's a two-fare zone. Where I'm at, you've got to take that bus 20 minutes to the train. That's why it'll be hard for St. Albans and South Jamaica and North Jamaica to get gentrified. Because people don't want to take that bus.
There's that entire bubble of Queens, that pretty much you need a whip just to get around. It's going to be hard for people to just come in and get accessibility.
BAQUE: Spanto came out here last November, and I took him on a Queens tour. I started in Queensbridge, then I took him to Roosevelt, to Roosy, over by the Ecuadorian trucks. I took him to eat some ceviche with me. Then I took him to the Sphere. And then from there, I took him to my old neighborhood, to Richmond Hill. And I started telling him the story, how segregated Queens is.
What's important for myself and Tremaine, is to get the other version of Queens out there. We're speaking up for the people from the other side of Queens.
What's also really important [for] myself and Tremaine, is to get the other version of Queens out there. There's a narrative of Queens that's being told, but that's not the Queens that I grew up in. A lot of people can't talk about Jamaica Ave. A lot of people can't talk about the Coliseum. They can't talk about Merrick, Archer, Guy R. Brewer. You know what I mean? They can't talk about Liberty Ave. They can't talk about Far Rock. They can't talk about the A line, the J line. You know what I'm saying? Cats don't know that life, that me and Tremaine grew up on.
What we're doing at the Queens Museum, that's why it's important. We're speaking up for the people from the other side of Queens. Unless you went to Lincoln Park, we didn't grow up in the same Queens. That's why I earned my stripes. That's why me and Tremaine gravitated towards one another, because we understood. We're cut from the same cloth.
These details that you're providing [are] important. It's important context for people that are confused about Queens, and they see it just as, “Sunnyside has cheap rent.”
BAQUE: Sunnyside, Jackson Heights, a story of beautiful neighborhoods, but that's not all of Queens.
EMORY: Yeah, it's different. Even to get to Queens Museum from Jamaica Ave, that's a mission. But not a mission physically, mentally. Proverbially. To make it from where Angelo grew up, to downtown New York, he's the only one. When you see someone that look like you, that's from the same neighborhood, you're like, "Oh, you went through the war too." Because the war I had to fight was all kinds. My friends, OGs being like, "Why are you hanging out downtown?"
There [were] very few of us that transversed the threshold between Queens, the hood, even going from the hood to the middle class neighborhoods. In Queens where I grew up, all you saw was, everybody was Black, except for the police. Bodega was Hispanic people, Chinese food store was Asian people. Everyone else was Black. The bus driver, the mail guy, everyone was Black, a hundred percent. Except for businesses owned by white people. Just even seeing a difference of that between neighborhoods, I was learning. There's something off in the world. I've got to pay attention. See what's going on.
What are some creative influences growing up in Queens, [like] artists, musicians, or even fashion brands, that influenced the type of work that you guys are doing now?
EMORY: Angelo, he's one of the main influences. Just seeing he made a T-shirt, flipped a low graphic, and he's selling it—that's inspirational to me, because I didn't know no one that did that. I knew people that went to [the] military after high school, if they finished it. Played sports, sold drugs.
The only point of difference I knew in Jamaica, Queens, was my father. He was a TV news cameraman, and he traveled the world. He was very different. Lo was one of the first people that looked like me, and that was my age, that worked in [this] world. He started Awake way before I started Denim Tears. That helped give me confidence, seeing him doing it, and doing it so well, and so cool. Seeing him start his own agency. It was really inspiring, because [when] he was doing all that, I was still working as a sales associate at Marc Jacobs.
BAQUE: Just caught me way off guard with that. I love you. I love you with all my heart, Tremaine. Thank you so much. But [an influence for me is] the School of Hard Knocks.
EMORY: I used to go to the store.
BAQUE: First Black-owned business to have a Nike account in any of the five boroughs. EOS, Elements of Style. Eli and them put it on for the borough. Any graffiti writer that got up on the 7 line. That was our museum in the ‘90s. All those dudes that went so hard on the 7 line, kept a boy like me inspired. My beat, NAS, Run DMC is probably the first hip hop anything that I heard as a kid, [and] it made me want a pair of adidas. My father laughed when we went to the sneaker store and they were $50. He was like, "No." Got me a pair of Kangaroos. I was so heartbroken. The Q112, the Q8, the Q24, the Q31, shit Q10, all those buses toughen me up.
Yo they don't know what it took to ride the back of those buses, Angelo. I got jumped on the Q66 and I got jumped on Q31.
BAQUE: Yo, it took heart. Let me tell you something. You get tested, man. All I know is that if you go for that front seat by the bus driver, you're going to get fucked with.
EMORY: You're done.
BAQUE: You got to go get past that backdoor exit and you sit down, you got to put your chest out and you see what happens. Most of the time you get your respect just by going to the back of the bus.
If you grew up where we grew up, you kind of stay in your neighborhood. You really don't venture into other parts unless you're ushered in. Like all right, Jaeki got me in Flushing. I make sure I'm not going to get fucked with no Asian kids out there. Boom, boom, boom, I got my pass. In the early ‘90s, you couldn't just roll up to a neighborhood like now. Today you could rock in any neighborhood. You couldn't do that back then.
EMORY: Even Supreme, it's funny. I didn't really fuck with ‘preme. Not like I didn't like it, but I didn't skate. I bought ‘preme for my little brother because he skated. He was the only person skating in the hood. Probably [the] first person in Jamaica, Queens in my side of the hood wearing ‘premes. ‘Preme was cool though. Always cool. Always dope. I remember James was trying to hire me to work at Stussy. And then he kept missing the meeting and I got the job at Marc Jacobs. That's 2006, 2005.
BAQUE: The real respect from any borough, especially coming from a two-fare zone or from the last stop of the train line, is the respect of the troop. To go from your neighborhood, jump on that train and you're on a 45 minute commitment to get through some really fucked up neighborhoods just to be able to have the freedom to express yourself. That's a lot that this generation doesn't really understand.
I don't want to get all nostalgic and hokey, but if you wanted to skateboard or if you wanted to dye [your] hair pink or you had an alternative gender lifestyle, you couldn't do that shit in the neighborhoods we came from. You got to hide that shit. Put it in your backpack or whatever it is and the minute you popped out on West 4th [or] Broadway Lafayette, you could be who you wanted. That's a beautiful freedom that I love. I love that kids now don't have to necessarily go downtown to be themselves. They could be in their own neighborhoods and add on to their neighborhoods and we have these flourishing communities within the five boroughs now.
I remember arguing with my old man saying, "The GAP is more expensive in Manhattan than it is at Green Acres Mall," which is not true. But he was so traumatized by the way society is. I don't even blame him.
EMORY: I remember the first time I hung out downtown, I went to LES by myself and I was probably 19. I remember guys telling me, "Why you go down there?” They would say, "There's gay people there. White people don't want us there. They going to think we're stealing. And the food's more expensive." I remember arguing with my old man saying, "The GAP is more expensive in Manhattan than it is at Green Acres Mall," which is not true. But he was so traumatized by the way society is. I don't even blame him. He was afraid of being around white people or being around different people. To a kid now it might seem, “What is Tremaine talking about?” But it was that real. Literally it was just me, Lo and a couple other people, Ferris Bueller, that's it. Couple other cats, that was it.
I did this pop up when COVID let up a little bit, a Converse thing. This kid came up and he had a little choker necklace, some type of Supreme T-shirt. He had on short shorts. His hair was dreaded, braided. He was skating. He pulled up and got off his skateboard and said, "Yo, you Denim Tears Tremaine? You from around here?" I said, "Yeah, I grew up here." He goes, "That's cool, man," and skated off. I ain't never seen that, bro. I lived in that neighborhood since I was 10 years old. I never seen nobody skating but my little brother on our block. To see a Black kid dressed like that, and come up to me and say, "Oh, that's cool you're from this neighborhood." Amazing, man. I love it.
For me personally, Queens has always been a culture of love. We just discussed the last 40 minutes about different cultures in Queens. But maybe it just hasn't been a cultural hub for certain transplants. Like you alluded earlier, Tremaine, they don't really hang out outside of their immediate bubbles.
EMORY: It's been a cultural hub though, because it's the most diverse place in America. It's more about kids in POC neighborhoods, working class, or poor neighborhoods, being able to be trans, be gay, listen to whatever music they want, be exactly who they are and be safe. People like Shayne and Hood By Air, you talk about what me and Lo gone through, but I'm just saying Ian Isaiah, those guys and girls, what they went through coming from the hood. You will never understand that.
The brands that you guys have—Denim Tears and Awake—from the products that I look at, there are always stories conveyed, not only through the graphics, but actual initiatives. Angelo, I know you donate proceeds to community organizations and even initiatives like Social Studies that has workshops.
EMORY: For years, before George Floyd. Lo been doing that.
But there's no lie that fashion is a product-first space. So I wanted to ask you guys, because you guys are at the forefront of this, what are ways you think both brands and consumers can cause holistic impact in this system that constantly suggests and pushes us to consume?
EMORY: It ain’t product first with Lo and me, because we would've did something really different. We lead through story, and Denim Tears is literally [a] storytelling platform that currently uses clothing to tell the plight and the glory of [the] African diaspora. If I was doing product first, I wouldn't be putting Black Jesus with a cotton crown on a T-shirt. That's a hard sell. Trust me. I don't know how those cotton wreath jeans popped off with the stories about slavery. I was like, "Yo, Levi’s is giving me a chance to do denim. I'm going to tell this story about slavery and the cotton, how cotton built America." I don't think it's [about] product. Tell me if I'm wrong, Lo.
BAQUE: I don't think you're wrong, but I think it has a lot to do with the time that we grew up and where there was messaging in the clothing. You look at a company like PNB, I wouldn't know who Eleanor Bumpurs was or Michael Stewart or even Jesse Owens. I remember they put on the T-shirt Malcolm X quotes. I've made a conscious effort to bring that back into the language of streetwear, because that's been lost.
For me, it's not really about the product. You're leading with the heart and you're leading with intention, and that's what people are really gravitating towards. Of course, there's always going to be kids that want to clout-chase, but we're really pushing kids to think. The kid that's into Denim Tears really believes in Tremaine's vision. The young boy or the young girl that's into Awake, they believe in the messaging I'm trying to get out there. The whole point of Awake is to evoke emotion. I want you to feel something, [the] same way [when] I heard Shook Ones, Part II, my whole body just froze. That's what I want people to feel when they see the Awake lookbook.
If I was doing product first, I wouldn't be putting Black Jesus with a cotton crown on a T-shirt. That's a hard sell. Trust me.
EMORY: People don't understand how important the casting is. When I worked at J.Crew, I had to leave my job, lose my job, because I had braids. You know what they said to me? This is in 2001—that's not a long time ago. They said, "Tremaine, look at the lookbook, no one has braids in there." J.Crew would never do that now, right? They'd get canceled. That was regular. You didn't see no people that look like Awake lookbook on any level of fashion, streetwear or otherwise, ever.
This is a millisecond, as far as the fashion calendar, what Lo and Virgil and Ghetto Gastro, Kerby, everybody, anyone of color, this is a split second. Think about it, that Met exhibition, that's 100 years of fashion, right? What Black designers they got in there from the ‘70s? What Black designers they got in from the ‘60s? What Black designers they got them in from the ‘80s? All the Black designers they got in there are from the last, what, five, 10 years? They didn't even put Willi Smith in there, which is, they wild out. Denim Tears is inspired by Willi Smith, Grace Wales Bonner, Martine Rose, Awake, and Supreme too. And 40 Acres and a Mule.
My career is six, seven years old. I started doing this when I was 34, far as being able to do it and pay my rent. Lo started Awake in his 30s. It was a long road to get here, and I'm grateful for the road. But I hope it comes easier [for others], with more help and more understanding and compassion and fairness, than it did for us.
It was a long road to get here, and I'm grateful for the road. But I hope it comes easier for others, with more help and more understanding and compassion and fairness, than it did for us.
Crazy because people don't know how deep it is with me and [Angelo]. When my mom passed, he sent flowers to Harlem, Georgia. This ain't business. We do business, but it ain't business. This is friendship. Lo know my family. So for him to be the person introducing me, it's incredible. Just gave me the chills. Having someone you looked up to for so long, you know what I mean? We lucky dudes.
BAQUE: I am genuinely happy for Tremaine and everything that he's been able to accomplish. And shout out to the Queens Museum, the whole staff. We come in, and we get the spotlight. But there's so many people behind the scenes that are making tomorrow happen, and I'm also grateful. Shout out to Highsnobiety for shining light on this and giving us a platform to talk our shit.
I'm proud of Tremaine, so proud of him. Being able to watch his journey, his path, and come into his own as a creative. It's been a beautiful thing to witness, and then to be a part of that narrative. For me, that's one of the biggest prizes of the work that I've been doing. I look forward to taking this journey with Tremaine for another 30, 40 years.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.