Tremaine Emory on how slavery inspired his new Denim Tears collection
Picking some cotton and pulling no punches: the designer, artist and co-founder of No Vacancy Inn on his collaboration with Levi’s.
“Wow!” Tremaine Emory is saying, incredulous. “Inflation’s a hell of a drug.”
We’re discussing the designer, artist and co-founder of No Vacancy Inn’s bold attempt to reshape a racial narrative with his provocative new line in collaboration with Levi’s – a line that features headwear he’s called a Plantation Hat.
Specifically, we’re discussing cotton, and its complicated, intertwined history with slavery in America.
And, as Emory’s done with his label Denim Tears, which launched in September, we’re going deep.
In 1850, 2.1 billion bales of cotton were picked in America. By 1860, the year before the American Civil War broke out, the figure had almost doubled to 3.8 billion bales. That accounted for 60 per cent of all US exports, which was worth at the time $200 million annually. In today’s money, that’s $6 billion dollars. As the man said, that’s inflation for you.
Almost all of it was picked by slaves, working in fields, on plantations, in chains. In Denim Tears, Emory is shining a light on that brutal truth and honouring his forebears. He’s also confronting the ugly past of America, and of the UK – in numbers of people ripped from Africa and shipped to America, “Great Britain” was second only to Portugal as a slave-trading nation.
So, the 19th century’s great American economy was built on the backs of slaves, and centred on a cash crop so politically and economically powerful to the slave-owning, segregated South that it was known as King Cotton.
Almost 200 years on – and exactly 400 years since the first slaves were shipped in shackles to the New World – one of the US’s foremost creatives is grasping the nettle of the history of cotton. With Denim Tears, and in an accompanying documentary shot by his dad and featuring both his grandmas, Tremaine Emory is telling us: this is the story behind my new collection – black people’s enslavement.
“One hundred per cent,” Emory nods. “But my thing with telling the story about cotton isn’t to do blame. It’s easy to do blame. My thing is to inspire, and to understand how to move on from it. And also, inspire confidence in African-American people.”
Not, then, the normal influences and talking points we associate with a fashion collection.
We’re speaking in a studio space in Soho, central London, in the UK HQ of Levi’s. Emory’s capsule collection is made using the brand’s vintage denim and comprises a T‑shirt, trucker jacket, 501 jeans and the hat.
The fashion designer and all-round cultural Swiss Army Knife – attributes that led to him joining his No Vacancy Inn partner Acyde on The Face’s Creative Council – is passing through London, en route back to Los Angeles from Paris Fashion Week. His feet are barely touching the ground. But such is his personal investment in Denim Tears, he’s making time for an extended sit-down with us.
“I feel great that I’m here in London talking to you now,” says the 38-year-old over a cup of milky tea (“when in Rome…” he grins). “I’m from Jamaica, Queens, and before that my family’s from Harlem, Georgia. Before that, they were slaves on a plantation. Before that, they were slaves on a ship. Before that, whatever they were doing in the tribal community in Africa. And we’re still here.”
He explains how Denim Tears – which features a signature cotton wreath logo across the items – isn’t just about socio-political archaeology, or a history lesson, although it is those, too.
“I’m using this story to also tell about the human condition and how we treat each other. I can’t just relegate [the blame for slavery] to western Europeans and white Americans. It’s still happening today. There’s indentured servitude in America and in Europe. Illegal prostitution rings – that’s a form of slavery. Take a woman from one country and bringing her somewhere and forcing her to sleep with men – that is slavery.
“I could keep going. I want to tell my culture’s story, but I want to incite compassion and humanity for people with all these stories. I’m using this as a micro for the macro, which is: people just gotta keep talking about the human condition. That’s how you get through it.”
We’re not just talking about fashion design. As Emory says with a smile: “If I did Kung Fu, my style is Trojan Horse. That’s my style of fighting.”
In terms of the Denim Tears collection, what was the first seed of inspiration?
I was consulting for Kanye so I moved over to LA [from London] in December 2017. I was on [artist] Kara Walker’s Instagram and she’d put up a picture of a cotton wreath. It was the week of Christmas and I was like, wow, that’s quite cheeky and smart. I went on Google and I searched for cotton wreaths. I found one… So I got it and I had it in my empty apartment in north west Hollywood. It was a powerful inanimate object which at some point ceases to be inanimate. And so that cotton and that wreath and that circle became more to me. It became like a talisman.
How did moving home to Donald Trump’s America mix into your feelings?
The United Kingdom isn’t without its issues as far as class and prejudice and race. But it’s different in America – coming back was [going] full throttle into somewhere where [I’m confronted by] race and prejudice and police brutality, lack of education and the jail system. By the electoral system, gentrification… I could keep going…
For a while I’ve had people and investors and brands [approach me] – people wanting me to put out Denim Tears, do collaborations, put out clothing under that moniker. But it never felt right. I didn’t have the recipe for Denim Tears, and I didn’t want to pull out some Cool Guy Shit. So I took my time, and then finally it came to me with that cotton wreath.
“Denim Tears” seems to be about more than tears, as in crying. How did you arrive at the name?
Originally it was a joke, a nickname. But then it took on that new meaning. Denim Tears also started meaning to me tears like rips, attrition about life. My grandma is 93, she has wrinkles, false teeth, you can see the veins in her hands, she walks slower, she’s a little hunched, but all that’s beautiful to me. That attrition of life has made that woman smart and funny.
Interviews with your grandmas, Eliza and Evelyn, who are both in their nineties, are at the heart of the film you’ve made with your dad to launch Denim Tears. They talk eloquently about growing up in the cotton-dominated South, and give living testimonial about their memories of slavery – all of which amplifies the meaning behind that brand name.
Right. Denim is made from cotton. America is made from cotton. The black experience started with picking cotton. So, denim tears. Metaphorically if you look at a pair of jeans or any garment that’s cotton, it traces all the way back to that.
And then last year was the 400th anniversary of slavery…
I didn’t plan that either. It was all very weird and serendipitous. I saw these New York Times articles about 1619, and I’m like, woah. I’m about to drop this collection and it’s the 400th anniversary of slavery, of slaves being brought to Point Comfort in Virginia. Wow.
How much did you know about the history of cotton, slavery and the South?
I knew a lot about it and I’m learning more. It’s making me more powerful and confident about the culture I come from and representing that. Also, it made me more interested in learning about other people’s struggles. That’s who people are. My dad says: “Things are gonna happen that we don’t want.” He said this about my mom dying. He said: “I wanted your mom more than anything and I got her. I didn’t want her to die before me, but I got that too.” So my dad says: “You get some things that you want in life, and sometimes you don’t get what you want in life. But how you process it defines who you are.” So as an African-American community and culture, how we process what we’ve been through defines who we are.
What do you know of your family’s personal history with cotton?
There are two sides to my family: Sanders and Emory. Emory is my dad’s side, Sanders is my mom’s side. We don’t know anything further than the great-grandparents on each side, but what I know is we are from a small, one-red-light town, Harlem, Georgia.
At the time when my parents were living there – they were both born there; they went to the same high school my grandmothers went to – the population was 1,500 people.
My dad’s first job when he was five or six was picking cotton. My grandmother’s first job was picking cotton. Everyone picked cotton. Like my grandmother said in the film: for some reason – they don’t even know how – a lot of Harlem was black-owned. They owned land. They weren’t rich – my dad used the outhouse [outdoor toilet] till he was 12 years old. First time he saw running water was at a birthday party when he was 12 years old.
Evelyn, your mum’s mum, said that she sent her four boys into the fields to know what picking cotton was like.
Yeah, exactly. That’s why she took them out there.
That seems to speak to the complicated relationship black people have with cotton. It was the instrument of their oppression but also the instrument of their liberation, because it was worth money. It sounds like your grandma wanted her sons to understand that.
Yeah. So when we got free, you could go and you’d get 50 cents for 100 pounds [weight] of cotton. That was what was down there [in the American South]. There wasn’t a lot of work.
And it continued. In the 1920s, when your grandmas were born, two-thirds of African-American tenant farmers in the South and three-quarters of sharecroppers were cotton farmers. So that’s a significant majority of free men and women, but their livelihoods are pretty much entirely staked on cotton.
Right. My grandmother told the story of a woman her age that she knew who picked cotton on a white man’s farm; she was coerced by maybe her family and the white man, or just the white man: you gotta stop going to school, you’ve gotta work this job. And to this day, she’s 90 and she can barely read or write.
And that was in the 1940s. So slavery existed in the 1940s.
Yeah, exactly. It still existed in a form. So luckily, on my great-grandfather’s farm, he wasn’t telling my grandmother and my family, y’all gotta drop out school. He was saying: do it while you can do it, but you’re going to school. On my father’s side, my grandma Eliza was the first to finish high school. Everyone else, they just worked. It wasn’t even about being a high school drop-out – you didn’t even go to school.
So it’s literally in my family’s DNA.
You talk about Evelyn being the most inspirational figure to you, about how her positivity inspired you after your mother died. Even without this cotton lineage, family obviously means a lot to you. Is that partly because slavery ripped out your ancestral roots?
Hundred per cent. Acyde said to me once: “I’ve figured out a lot in life, but I don’t know how to do it how Nelson Mandela did. He came out of jail, having been there for 27 years, and he didn’t hate the Afrikaners. He didn’t hate white people. He wanted to fix the thing, with them and with black Africans.” I feel the same about my grandmother’s [attitude]. She told me she used to walk to school a mile – because blacks weren’t allowed on the bus – and the kids would spit, scream things, throw stuff at her. She told me about the Ku Klux Klan walking through the town. People being hung, killed.
But she also told me how Trump’s election was coming up. My grandma lives down a dirt road in a trailer, and there was this house next to it that was waving a Confederate flag and had “Trump for President” stuff, the whole shebang. And I said: “Nana, what’s up with those people?” She said: “Yeah… But you know what? They come and check on me sometimes and make sure I’m alright, because I’m down here by myself. They’re nice to me. I don’t agree with that flag and Trump, but they seem like good people.”
I want to get to that point. I’m not at that point. I’m working every day to have that level of altruism and understanding of the human condition, where I can see the good of someone with the Confederate flag and a “Vote for Trump” banner in their front yard. Acknowledge I don’t agree with that but also acknowledge the nice things that they do.
Nonetheless, you made a political point when you launched Denim Tears and included a line from Neil Young’s 1970 song Southern Man. It’s a classic anti-racism protest anthem that called for reparations to be paid to the black populace who built a white fortune: “I saw cotton and I saw black/Tall white mansions and little shacks/Southern man, when will you pay them back?” Equally, calling your headwear Plantation Hat – that’s provocative, and also potentially divisive.
The funny thing is, with most things, there’s the other side that people don’t pay attention to. I’ve been to Savannah, Georgia. If you go on one of those real estate sites, a beautiful plantation house is for sale for $2 million. No one’s like: “You can’t call it a plantation house.” So if you can call a house a plantation house and use that to sell it, I can use that to educate with my hat.
That’s my whole thing. For whatever reason, age 38, I still have some type of pull with the youth. I’m thankful for it, and I don’t know how much longer I’ll have that because it won’t last forever. So in my time where I’ve got 100,000 Instagram followers and kids coming up to me the street that want to be my intern: if they want to be involved with me, with Acyde, with Brock [Korsan, music industry exec and co-founder of No Vacancy], Denim Tears, No Vacancy – you gonna get some type of knowledge.
And hopefully it sends you down a wormhole of knowledge. Now if kids Google “plantation hat”, they’ll potentially find some interesting results.
Right. When was the last time you talked about plantations? It’s like when Bstroy started selling hoodies last year with bullet holes in them which referenced school shootings [at Columbine, Sandy Hook, Stoneman Douglas and Virginia Tech]. People were really upset about that, which they have a right to be, especially if you were affected directly by it. I have had friends murdered by gun violence, so I can see how visceral that can be. But they’re shining light on something. And that’s the first time I was talking about those school shootings in while, and thinking about it, when I saw those hoodies. Thinking about the people who were lost.
Some people said it was lazy or simple. But it’s a 3D clothing item. It’s not a book. So to get the thing across it has to be [slaps hands together] Plantation Hat. It has to be a bullet hole in the hoodie.
So provocation, not just education, needs to be part of it?
Yeah. Whereas a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay about slavery in The Atlantic – that’s 5000 words [in which he got] his point across. I got these kids’ attention for 30 seconds. They see the image, then maybe if I’m lucky, they’ll read the caption. If I’m really, really, really, really lucky, they read the first paragraph of the article. If a miracle happens, they read the whole article.
And then if a double miracle happens, they read the whole article, write a couple words down and buy a book or Google something.
Some might say “Plantation Hat, that’s insensitive”. But I’m trying to get someone to pick up W. E. B. Du Bois or read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. It’s the best way I know how: provoke them with an object a piece of art that gets them to learn something. That’s the thing about telling stories: that’s how things don’t happen again. Look at Holocaust Memorial Day, which just happened – that’s about never forgetting what happened to the Jews.
What kind of partner and collaborator have Levi’s been on this project?
Incredible. They’ve done what I hope every brand does but probably doesn’t do. The only feedback that was a “no” was if it was something about production: “Oh, if we do it embroidered, it’ll cost too much, it’ll be $1000 for jeans…” But the narrative – they loved it. Even the campaign, they never were like, “we’re only going to give you the money if you get this person to direct it, or this person to shoot it”. They were just happy for me to tell a story. That’s what a good collaboration is.
The climate we live in, I don’t know if the media or clout culture would allow Levi’s to tell this story on their own. For me, personally, I’d be happy [if they did]. But in this climate, someone like me has to help them tell the story, and I think it’s amazing. Hopefully it inspires other brands to support artists telling all types of stories.
If people are going to buy your hat and your jeans – if people are going to buy into Denim Tears overall – what message do you want them to take from that?
I think the main message is: keep everything in sight, not in the shadows. This is a story of perseverance, so that’s what you’re wearing. You’re wearing a story of perseverance that continues, and a story we’re still trying to figure out.
For sure you’re wearing the clothing because it’s aesthetically pleasing. But the only thing I’d ask anyone of any colour wearing it is: if anyone says to you, “I like that”, take the 30-second conversation to send them a link. Tell them the meaning behind it. That’s the only thing.
The Denim Tears collection will be available for purchase at pop-up shops in Los Angeles (25th January), New York (1st February), Atlanta (2nd February), London (8th February) and online at denimtears.com (9th February)