Tremaine Emory Doubles Down

All the while, he has been recovering from an October 2022 aortic aneurysm that landed him in the hospital for two-and-a-half months, and happened around the same time he was being attacked on social media by Ye (f.k.a. Kanye West), his former employer, for daring to publicly denounce his White Lives Matter-era antics. For Mr. Emory, whose natural disposition tends to the ruminative and patient, and who for much of the 2010s played creative consort to Mr. West and Frank Ocean, among others, while coming into his own as a clothing designer following the path laid out by his close friend Virgil Abloh, the attention has been dizzying and disorienting, though not quite destabilizing.

“It’s purgatory, ’cause you can’t do what you want to do as a Black man in America,” he said in early March of these tugs of war about who can steer Black storytelling in fashion, and to where. “You’re working with the confines of what white culture at large wants you to do, and also what Black culture at large expects of you.”

Rather than shy away from the hard conversations, though, Mr. Emory is leaning in. He was speaking at the still-spartan Denim Tears office on West Broadway, around the corner from his first permanent retail space, African Diaspora Goods, which sells his brand alongside a collection of 2,000 African art history books, which will eventually function as a kind of non-lending research library.

Denim Tears is currently best known for the cotton wreath motif that Mr. Emory began applying to vintage Levi’s jeans in 2020 — originally as a limited release that felt more like an artistic than sartorial intervention, and subsequently much more widely on jeans and caps and sweatsuits. The goal was discursive, to highlight the product of slave labor and make it manifest on the product itself. In the last year especially, the wreath has become one of the most recognizable, ubiquitous and now widely bootlegged logos in streetwear.

“That means that discourse spreads,” Mr. Emory said.

Part of Mr. Emory’s influence and power comes from how he brings these reference points into quotidian, easy-to-wear garments like jeans, hoodies and T-shirts. “It’s a beautifully utilitarian approach,” said the fashion designer Andre Walker, a close friend of Mr. Emory’s.

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