On June 5, Tremaine Emory—the artist-merchant, creative director, and style oracle also known as Denim Tears—went off script. In an Instagram post, Emory unveiled a pair of Chuck Taylors he designed as part of an upcoming Black History Month collaboration with Converse. Covered in red, green, and black stars-and-stripes, the sneakers were inspired by the artist David Hammons’ “African-American Flag.” But in the wake of the massive protest movement spurred by the George Floyd killing, Emory put a series of conditions on their release. If Converse parent company Nike wanted his sneakers, it would need to join the movement in a meaningful way: to put its institutional weight behind real reforms, including increasing diversity in leadership roles and aiding in the push to defund police departments across America. This week, he joined GQ’s Corporate Lunch podcast to explain what happened next.
Emory has long used fashion to harness the energy of social and racial justice movements. After his mother died in 2015, Emory began holding annual pop-ups at Procell, selling T-shirts printed with photos of his mother to benefit the maternal health advocacy organization Every Mother Counts. Before the 2018 midterm elections, he teamed up with artist Brendan Fowler and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles to give away free tees to voters. (As Emory said at the time: “if you vote you get to drip and you get to complain about the ills of our government, if you don’t vote no drip and no complaining.”) When his DJ and merch collective No Vacancy Inn released a sneaker with New Balance, Emory announced a writing contest for teenagers: the best essay on reparations would get a free pair.
It’s no secret that fashion brands have struggled to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement, offering Instagram posts and platitudes instead of meaningful solutions. Emory is not afraid to peel back the layers of glossy PR and force the brands he works with to examine uncomfortable realities—his Levi’s collaboration, embroidered with cotton wreaths inspired by artist Kara Walker, explored cotton’s centrality to American slavery, for example.
With Nike, Emory realized that as a creative whose work speaks to a young generation—the generation Nike spends billions of dollars marketing to, the generation that is out on the streets protesting—he had a responsibility to demand more than a monetary donation. “I’ve seen this before in my lifetime, donations from brands, and we’re still in this place,” Emory says on episode 97 of Corporate Lunch. “So now I’m like, with my voice, my leverage, my power, I need to see brands dig their hands in the soil, and fight systematic racism, police brutality…not just throw money at it.”
Since posting about the sneakers, Emory has discussed his demands with Nike CEO John Donahoe. Listen to episode 97 of Corporate Lunch below to hear Emory detail the response he’s gotten from Nike, the pushback he received when designing the sneakers, his relationship to David Hammons’ work, why he feels responsible for inspiring kids to take action, and much more.