Tremaine Emory of Denim Tears on His Converse Sneakers and Creating ‘Positive Propaganda’ for Black People

Tremaine Emory of Denim Tears is looking at this moment with a mix of historical perspective and action-oriented immediacy. On the one hand, “the plight of African-Americans has been the same since the first slave ship, the White Lion, came to Virginia in the year 1619,” he says. That’s why he feels that, despite the shift in the larger cultural conversation in the wake of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd’s deaths, the design he chose for his collaboration with Converse—a version of the Pan-African flag, “an homage to Marcus Garvey, David Hammons, and the Liberty Rock, where I grew up in St. Albans, Queens”—hasn’t actually changed since he first decided on it more than a year and a half ago.

“The flag, the meaning, it doesn’t mean more and it doesn’t mean less,” he explains. “It’s always at its apex, the meaning of it. But I understand totally why it’s become a beacon of light and banner of rebellion and resistance against the ills of the world.” So he decided to use the release of the shoe to help educate and motivate people to vote in the upcoming election and beyond, teaming up with For Freedoms and artist Hank Willis Thomas to create a campaign called “The Future Is Yours. Vote.” He’s hoping that he can play a part in boosting civic and environmental engagement to make America a better place for the Black community and every other marginalized community pushed down by the ills of our current society.

But it’s not just about going to the polls on November 3. “I want people to stay on their toes, stay hungry, stay thirsty, and keep pressing the issue,” he says. “Keep fighting for women. Keep fighting for the LGBTQ community. Keep fighting for Black people, indigenous people, indigenous rights. Keep pushing the agenda on the environment. Keep fighting against big pharma and the NRA and all these things.” The idea isn’t simply to spark a conversation, but to keep that conversation going.

That this wouldn’t be just any old shoe release became pretty clear in June, when Emory posted to Instagram that he wouldn’t allow his design to go to market without Converse and its parent company Nike agreeing to do more than simply donate to help elevate the Black community. Emory describes that post as “a call to arms for Converse, and equally myself, to do more.”

Four months later, he and I got on the phone. Read on for an edited and condensed version of our conversation, touching on everything from the road to his sneakers’ release, his creative inspiration when working with Converse and on his in-house Denim Tears designs, how everyone can engage with and represent the “Black pool of genius,” and what we can all do to make America better for everyone.

The Converse x Denim Tears Chuck 70 high-top.

Can you tell me about working with Converse, and the genesis of this design?

A year and a half, two years ago, an old and good friend by the name of Darryl “Curtains” Jackson was working at Converse. He was helping run stuff on the design side, the apparel side. But he dipped over into the collaborations a bit and suggested and worked vehemently to get myself, Shaniqwa Jarvis, and Chris Gibbs from Union to do a Converse release, Chuck Taylors. He pushed. He made it happen. And my thing was like, I want to do over the Stars and Stripes Chucks and do them in a Pan-African flag, an homage to Marcus Garvey, David Hammons, and the Liberty Rock, where I grew up in St. Albans, Queens, Farmers’ Boulevard. That’s the genesis of it.

The greater cultural conversation in America has shifted drastically since then. So how do you feel about how the iconography plays out now?

Iconography, the meaning and the importance remains, because the plight of African-Americans has been the same since the first slave ship, the White Lion, came to Virginia in the year 1619. The plight has been perilous and seemingly almost insurmountable, but we continue on since the beginning here to this day. From the slaves that were abused and beat, all the way up to Breonna and George Floyd, it’s the same thing. So for me it hasn’t changed. Obviously, COVID has pulled the veil off the ills of society, the ills of capitalism, but all the stuff’s been here. So what those colors mean and represent and fight for has been the same since Marcus Garvey invented the flag back in 1920. For me, the events of this year are events that have been happening. I am not saying I’m unshaken by them, but I’m shaken by any person that’s brutalized by the police. I’m shaken by any group of people—whether it be Black people, indigenous people, Asian, the LBGT community—that are subjugated by white male patriarchy.

That’s my whole thing. The flag, the meaning, it doesn’t mean more and it doesn’t mean less. It’s always at its apex, the meaning of it. But I understand totally why it’s become a beacon of light and banner of rebellion and resistance against the ills of the world. So I’m not discounting that at all. And that’s just a… I guess that zeitgeist, civic zeitgeist.

the shoes come with a co branded back tag
The shoes come with a co-branded back tag.

Denim Tears, this whole thing is about that, talking about that. And I love Supreme and I’m friendly with James [Jebbia]—so I want to preface with that, I’m not knocking Supreme at all, because Supreme has put out some really powerful garments about what Black people and other people go through in the world—but basically Denim Tears is like African-American sportswear. You know what I mean? So like Supreme does every couple seasons, they’ll do like a Malcolm X whatever. My whole line is that. And that’s how I’ve come out the gate. It’s just, I guess, a civic or cultural zeitgeist. I’ve been pumping that message. I’ve been doing charity T-shirts. Me and Brendan Fowler were doing voting T-shirts in the midterms three years ago.

So I’m just grateful and delighted I’ve lived long enough to see an onslaught of voter T-shirts and an onslaught of people making clothing with the Pan-African flag. An onslaught of people talking about James Baldwin. An onslaught of people talking about Malcolm X. To see LeBron talking about Malcolm X after a game, holding a book. I love it. It’s amazing.

It’s a beautiful-seeming awakening. And I hope that it stays. I hope that people start learning about everyone’s plight. I hope it’s just a ripple effect of, OK, this is what Black people are going through. This is what Asian people are going through. This is what gay people are going through. I love it. And I hope it just keeps permeating across the world and people get more and more involved with civic responsibility—and environmental too. Cause those are the two main things. How are we treating each other and how are we treating the world? Everything else is fucking…don’t matter so much. You know?

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I was watching a video that you did with the L.A. Times where you talked about this idea of people looking to brands to give them a sense of validation. And I’m just curious to hear you talk a little bit more about how that plays out with Denim Tears.

The purpose of Denim Tears is to make people feel good about themselves. When you wear Denim Tears, I want you to feel good and feel validated. Not in the fact that you’re wearing something that’s associated with Tremaine Emory or associated with any people who associate with Denim Tears, but because it’s associated with the remarkable struggle of African-Americans. And that they’ve been through all this stuff—picking cotton to all this stuff. And we’re still here and we’re still bringing beauty to the world in all aspects of life. It’s propaganda for Black people, positive propaganda. And it’s for all people. Denim Tears is for anyone of any color who understands the plight, and relishes and appreciates the Black pool of genius.

I’m part Seminole Indian, but if I wore something like that, representing them and celebrating them, even though I’m not full Seminole Indian, I’m relishing in that. So that’s the whole thing, because whatever you seek validation from in this life basically owns you. So it’s best to seek or go internal for validation. So you ain’t even got to buy Denim Tears. Watch one of the videos, read an article—or nothing. And people who wear it, they’re a billboard for celebrating the plight and the greatness of the African-American community, whether they know it or not.

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Back in June, you posted your Chuck 70 design on Instagram and talked about what you felt would be necessary for the shoe to come out, in the sense of substantive moves from Converse and Nike for the Black community, beyond donations. What was the thought process leading up to that posting, and what was the process like leading up to the shoes’ eventual release?

That post was a call to arms for Converse, and equally myself, to do more. Do more than just donate money, but to activate people to do something immediate that can help the plight of what’s going on in America with systemic racism that leads to police brutality and income disparities and education disparities and healthcare disparities. And one of the most immediate things I felt myself and Converse could do was help get people to vote and be accounted for in this upcoming presidential race and all the other things you can vote for on a ballot.

So, that was the point of that post. These donations, they’ve been done for years, and I know they come from a good place. They also come from a pragmatic PR place. And it’s not enough to donate. You’ve got to get your hands dirty, myself included. So, that was the point of that post. And I was pleasantly, not even surprised… Converse was a hundred percent down. There was never any static or ill will based on that post, and they were down to alter the release date, alter the marketing, alter everything, to help educate people on voting, specifically in swing states.

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I wanted to talk about that specifically: the “The Future Is Yours. Vote.” campaign you’re doing with For Freedoms with Hank Willis Thomas.

Luckily there’s great people at Converse. They brought up Hank Willis Thomas’ name, and once they did that, I’m like, “Yes, let’s do it.” I’m a fan and a student of his art, and a fan of the organization that he’s a part of, For Freedoms. It was a no-brainer. So, I’m grateful to Converse and everyone there for suggesting and helping facilitate the creation of those posters and our artwork to motivate people to educate themselves and get out there and vote.

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How are you feeling about the conversation the campaign has sparked, and the upcoming election?

I’m really grateful to be a part of the conversation that these shoes and marketing campaign and a bunch of other people have reignited—because, again, this isn’t a new conversation—or brought more into popular culture. But there are people who have never stopped talking about this. Cornell West has been talking about this for 40 or 50 years of his career. So, I’m grateful to be a small part of the people who have helped bring this conversation in the popular culture and to the kids. As far as this election, it’s one of many battles that have to be fought to change the dynamics of Western society. So, whichever way it goes, the future doesn’t totally rest on this election. It’s very important, but regardless of what happens, more so than worrying about this election, I’m worried about what people keep pushing and fighting and putting pressure on the 1 percent and elected officials after this election.

Because so many times the elections happen, then everyone falls into a depression because of which way the election went: the wrong way. Or if it goes the way a majority wants it to go, then people could fall into a false sense of security. I don’t want either one of those to happen. I want people to stay on their toes, stay hungry, stay thirsty, and keep pressing the issue. Keep fighting for women. Keep fighting for the LGBTQ community. Keep fighting for Black people, indigenous people, indigenous rights. Keep pushing the agenda on the environment. Keep fighting against big pharma and the NRA and all these things. I want it to be a long-term strategy and fight. Because if we just get Trump out, and then we don’t keep the fight after he’s out and keep pressure on Biden so we have even a better candidate in four more years or eight more years, then it’s just a pyrrhic victory. It’s a victory at too much of a cost.

the converse x denim tears chuck 70 ox
The Converse x Denim Tears Chuck 70 ox.

If we just rest on our laurels after we get this guy out, or if we don’t get this guy out…I’m into long-term victories, not pyrrhic victories, not moral victories. What do you say? “Moral victories are for minor league coaches.” This is the big leagues. We need to win a championship. And a championship is an equality for all people. It’s like in a Tibetan Zen. Or Buddhism. No one’s free until everyone’s free. To me that’s the main goal. No one’s free until everyone’s free. Until then, we’re all slaves. We’re all in pain. The world isn’t right until everyone is free. So, to me, that’s the bigger picture than just putting all the chips on November 3.

It’s a bigger game. Hank Willis Thomas, he has this thing called the infinite game. The game’s infinite. It doesn’t stop. It’s like Star Wars, right? They destroy the Death Star. The emperor got a new Death Star in the works already. So, we got to be ready to destroy the next Death Star, because Trump’s just the tip of the iceberg. And there’s been people like Trump, who maybe speak more eloquently, before him. He’s not this anomaly that came out of anywhere. He was born out of a system that’s been incubated for years.

Jonathan Evans is the style director of Esquire, covering all things fashion, grooming, accessories, and, of course, sneakers.

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