Currently, brands around the world are reckoning not only with the reality of police brutality, but with inequality, injustice, and racism at large (often in terms of how they relate to their own business practices). But for Tremaine Emory and his label Denim Tears, justice and social change have always been front and center, and a part of the brand’s DNA. In fact, Emory has spent the last few years further proving that education and social justice are not independent of “hype.” In 2017, following the death of his mother, he released T-shirts to benefit Every Mother Counts, an organization dedicated to providing health care to mothers around the world.
In 2018, he collaborated with artist Brendan Fowler on up-cycled T-shirts given away to kids who proved they voted. Earlier this year, for the brand’s first big collaboration, he released a capsule with Levi’s that referenced the cotton African Americans were forced to pick under slavery. In short, they became an instant classic. (If you want a pair of the jeans today, they’ll run you $3,000 on eBay.)
So in this moment of immense unrest, in which arguably more Americans than ever are discussing police brutality and thinking of ways to create a truly equitable society for all, Emory’s first move was to drop a T-shirt, the proceeds of which will benefit Know Your Rights Camp. But, as you might expect from his previous work, he’s not stopping there. On Friday, he took to Instagram to announce his latest collaboration—a take on the classic Converse Chuck Taylor—that is inspired by David Hammons’ iconic “African-American Flag,” an artwork first released in 1990 that depicts a red, black, and green version of the U.S.A.’s stars and stripes.
The announcement came with a major caveat: Emory will not allow Nike (Converse’s parent company) to release the shoes until he feels the Swoosh has done more to help—and more to bring about lasting change—than its $40 million donation to black community organizations, which he dubs a “very expensive band-aid.”
Here’s what Emory is looking for before giving the green light on the shoes: 1) Nike must stop supporting the Republican Party as long as Donald Trump is the party’s leader 2) Report how many people of color and women work for the brand versus how many they sponsor 3) Report how many people of color and women have leadership roles at Nike and 4) Nike must aid in helping defund police departments across the country.
Below, we spoke to Emory about the sneakers, what inspired this line-in-the-sand moment, and his vision for the future of black creatives in America.
Was this a project that you had been working on with Nike before this? Like, are they aware of this project or is this just something that you decided to take on now and just like put it out in the universe before they even knew about it?
No, no, they paid me a design fee. So it’s been in the works for like a year, six months.
Was the project always going to look like this, or has it changed over time? Just tell me a little bit more about it.
Nike first reached out and was like, we want to do a shoe with you and Denim Tears, with some other designers of color, for Black History Month. It was supposed to be like last year and then, I think it got pushed, but, I’m not sure about the timing, it was like me and a couple of other designers. And then, things are happening, things are happening then they’re like, “Oh, we’re going to put it out”. It was supposed to come out this summer, and then due to COVID, it got pushed to 2021, which was fine.
Did they have an issues with the design?
They didn’t like my box. They didn’t want to use the coffin [as the shoe box]. I told them the coffin represents every black person’s plight, that’s died since the beginning of slavery to now. And they felt it was offensive to the US military, even had a problem with me using the flag in general. Then they were finally cool with that, but they felt the flag on the coffin was offensive to the military, which I’m like, it’s the pan-African flag and no disrespect to the US military. It’s based on David Hammons’ flag and Marcus Garvey’s flag. To all the blacks, blacks, people of color that have suffered since the beginning, the dawn of this nation.
And now that we’re in this moment, are you hopeful that they’ll change their opinion on all things you just mentioned?
The sneakers are on roll to come out. I have a marketing budget and everything. My thing is like the $40 million [donation] isn’t enough. Think about it. Kanye gave two million and he’s one person he’s worth $1.3 billion. How many billions per quarter does Nike make? 40 million isn’t enough. And also even if they gave a billion dollars, if they don’t position that money to change the institutionalized white supremacy and racism in America, the money’s a waste. It needs to help defund the police that brutalized people of color, women, gays, everyone across America. Help defund the police. Help make it so the police do not have immunity.
And it’s not enough for LeBron to be safe because he slipped through the cracks of white supremacy through his hard work, talent and some luck. And through his mother raising him. Every kid needs to be protected. You know?
Nike cannot support and donate money to the Republican party whilst Donald Trump is running for president. It’s fine. I don’t have no problem with people choosing to be Republican or Democrat. It’s a choice. But Donald Trump has vitriol that he spits. He didn’t mention George Floyd once until the protest started. Not once. “Looting means shooting.” Nike’s going to give money to that man’s campaign? To his party while he’s their front runner?
So you’re looking for a lot more transparency there in terms of who Nike actually is supporting both politically and with their products at the local level.
It’s what Ben & Jerry’s said, that level of white supremacy is institutionalized and keeps the foot on us. Anything less than what Ben & Jerry did [is not enough]. And anything less than them, not just putting money, but helping change policies in America, for people of color, the LGBT community, and women. Anything less than that, there’s nothing. And me personally, I can’t control any of my peers, what they do, but I can control what I do. And the third thing is I need to see the percentage of people of color, LGBTs and women comparatively to the percentage of people of color, who Nike sponsors. I’m not just talking about LeBron and Travis Scott. I’m talking about the little kid who lives in Jamaica, Queens that plays on a CYO team, that has a jersey, that has a Nike check on it.
When did you learn that Nike is such a big supporter of the Republican Party?
It’s easy to look into the donations. Just look for yourselves, see if I’m right or wrong and look where they donate most of their money.
Is that as a company or are those individuals who work for the company?
I’m worried about the company. That’s as a company.
Let’s talk about the design of the shoes. Can you talk a little bit about David Hammons and what he means to you and why you decided to reference that in the sneakers?
David Hammons is an artist who I’ve been seeing his art for a long time floating around. And then, I got formally put onto him by my friends, Virgil [Abloh] and Acyde. And we’ve been talking about and sharing his artwork for years, you know, longer than I’ve known those guys.
He’s just one of my favorite artists. When I first found out about him, I was a bit upset because why did I only know about Basquiat? I felt I hadn’t been searching enough. And then also the art world had not shown me him the same way they show me Basquiat, who’s incredible in his own right. But they just gave us that one token. And there’s so many great artists of color, of both genders that don’t get exposed, He’s become one of my biggest inspirations.
What does Hammons’ flag mean to you?
We don’t have a flag as my OG says. The Africans that were taken as slaves from Africa, we’re no longer Africans. We’re mutated. We’re mutated from our ancestors into black Americans. And David made our flag in 1990 based on Marcus Garvey’s flags. Marcus Garvey’s thing was about us going back, but you know what? We built this country and I want what we deserve. What do Native Americans deserve? The Asians, Chinese deserve that built the railroads, that sat in internment camps. The Japanese. Everyone, the Jews, all the minorities based on their skin color, the gender and the economic status to get what we deserve. And the power needs to be equally distributed. America is run by corporate, Fortune 500 companies and they lobby the politicians.
It’s not just the politicians. We need the corporations to step up and squeeze the politicians to get it. Look at the NRA. All the school shootings that happen and the NRA still has guns. Don’t just say it will be solved. They lobby so that they are no matter how many kids will kill in school. So I need Nike and all these other corporations that make money off of people of color and women, the LGBTs, to lobby for us. So we are protected as the NRA is.
In terms of referencing David Hammons, are there any initiatives on your side to formally collaborate with the artist or the estate?
I would love to work with David Hammons, but his work just speaks for itself. So honestly, that’s why I didn’t want to reach out to him. I just wanted to interpret his flag because I wouldn’t want to take it. His vision is pure. His artistry’s pure. The way he, as far as I know is pure. So I wouldn’t want to taint it with…this is what I’m going through with Nike and everyone’s going through it.
What’s your assessment of the lengths that companies in general are going to at this moment or that they need to get to in the future? Particularly other brands in the fashion space.
Take Balenciaga, who said they’re donating annually to the NAACP. I need them to make it so a Black kid or a Mexican kid or Asian kid, or a trans kid, can intern at Balenciaga or anywhere in the fashion industry, because why is the fashion industry mainly upper class white people? Because when you get out of fashion school, if you can even afford it, get a scholarship to make it as a minority. Can you do the internship that you don’t get paid for? That’s systemic change. That’s changed the institution of white supremacy across the world, across the Western world. So I need them to dig deep, deep, not a fancy expensive band aid.
How do you feel about how all these other corporations tend to give people of color these sort of collaborations in certain moments, as opposed to all year round? You mentioned in the very beginning that the speaker was intended as a Black History Month collaboration.
I think it’s counterproductive to long term change. Bring people soup when they’re sick, not flowers to the funeral, literally.
White supremacy and capitalism have been working for 400 years just in America alone. So, it works every day. I need Nike and every other billion dollar company to work every day, to change it for women, for black people, Mexican people, for everybody. That’s what I need.
What do you mean when you say it’s counterproductive?
We have to song and dance and do a version of a minstrel show for these corporations to pay our bills. And you know what, I’m not dancing no more. Like I was able to pay my bills and have fun with my friends and live happily when I was a stock guy at Marc Jacobs. And I’ve been building up to this and I’ve had so much support from my friends and my ancestors and the books I read and the movies I’ve seen, and the conversations we have, I’m going to do my best. And I will not be perfect. People were finding flaws in my movement, but I don’t want to dance anymore in any major company that I work with and collaborate with. I have to see that they have women, LGBTs and people of color in positions throughout all levels of the company. And I need to see that these companies are fighting against white patriarchal supremacy that affects women of all colors, affects LBGT, poor people in general and people of color. In the Western world, North America specifically. And that’s what I’m, I’m going to try and hold it. Maybe it doesn’t cost me anything, maybe everything, maybe not, I don’t know.
We work in fashion, so when we criticize capitalism, some people tend to say, “Well, if there was no capitalism, then you wouldn’t have those fancy clothes and fancy sneakers that you like so much.” How do you respond to that kind of comment?
That’s called Stockholm syndrome. And people who make those comments are suffering from it. At the end of the day, I can only speak for myself. My ancestors were brought here as slaves. So I’m here and I’m fighting it out and I’m rumbling. I got family members that got Crohn’s disease that need help with insurance. I got a grandmother who’s 92 years old that needs financial help. I got another one that’s 93 year old that needs financial help. I got to pay my rent. So I still live in reality. Because you see what happens when we go full throttle, Black Panther— they wipe you out. So I’m in the system, building a system next to the system, but I will no longer do the Trojan Horse method, which I’ve done, where you creep in and then you try to bring in a couple with us.
You can’t try to outsmart racism. You cannot try to outsmart capitalism. People will say, like, “Oh you, but you, but you got a Rolex.” Martin Luther King had a Rolex too. And he also had a bullet in his head on the balcony of the Lorraine. You know what I mean?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.