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“Alvin Ailey empowered so many people during his time on Earth, with the dance company and throughout his life in general – that’s what I hope to do,” Tremaine Emory told The Face earlier this year. “I want to empower people, that’s when you leave a legacy,” he continued. From the moment he launched Denim Tears, the Atlanta-born, Queens-raised creative and consultant has used fashion to tell stories. Through its ready-to-wear and sportswear, Denim Tears tells sartorial stories of struggle, experience and excellence. It continually tells stories that have been left unsaid or unheard. So when sportswear giant Champion approached him to collaborate, Tremaine knew he wanted to shine the spotlight on one of the giants of the 20th century, Alvin Ailey. Despite his influence and legacy, no one had ever reached out to Ailey or his American Dance Theater. In this age of collaboration, how can one of the greatest Black-founded American cultural arts companies of all time be so overlooked? Here, Champion Tears makes amends.
While Ailey founded his eponymous company in 1958 as an all-Black dance troupe that performed across New York, the Theater is now a physical New York institution. As denim looked to the sportswear giant’s archive and immersed himself in performance photography, Champion Tears is a living paean to the artful exploration of Black culture in the face of inequity, a tale rooted in Tremaine and Ailey's own New York experiences. To learn more about the collaboration and what drives Denim Tears, we invited creative consultant, Fantastic Man contributing editor and friend of LN-CC, William Cult to sit down with Tremaine Emory. As we share a snapshot from their captivating hour-long conversation alongside our Laurence Ellis-shot editorial below, it can be listened to in its entirety as a special podcast.
Willy: When did you first become aware of Alvin Ailey and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater?
Tremaine: I've known about Alvin Ailey since I was a child because I grew up in a neighbourhood called St. Albans in Jamaica, Queens, a black working class neighbourhood that was on the mend after the crack epidemic. It used to be a middle class black neighbourhood, in the 60s and 70s, but the crack epidemic happened and ravaged it like it did most black neighbourhoods across America. We moved there because that was the only place my parents could afford to buy a house in New York, or would even rent or sell them a house, because even in the 90s, it was hard for black people to even rent a place. So anyway, we ended up in the hood and this block that I moved to was just off Farmers Boulevard and the neighborhood's infamous and legendary for art, music, everything. There was this family called the Wilsons that lived a couple doors down from me and through the grandson Kyle Wilson, I became good friends with Mrs. Wilson, the matriarch of the family then and now, and everyone in the family. Two of Kyle’s cousins dance for Alvin Ailey and that’s how I found out about it, in like 1993/94 just as I was leaving elementary school.
Willy: Did you ever go see any performances?
Tremaine: I saw performances in my young adulthood, at first online or then in person, but my main learning was through that family for a long time. As a young adult, I started learning on my own.
Willy: That's amazing. And what was the catalyst for this collaboration?I read in Complex magazine that you connected the world of sports with dance, something which is caught between art and sport, and wanted to bring that in..
Champion approached me, saying that they wanted to do something. It's not lost on me that these brands approach me because of the artists and brands that I've worked with and for my cultural cache. In a sense, they're using me to help sell product, but also market that they're culturally relevant and that's not lost on me. So it's a bit of a game and so if I'm going to play this game with a corporate company, I'm going to Trojan horse something through it. With Champion, I knew I wanted to call it Champion Tears and the basis of it had to be based on the foremost dance company in human history, which happens to be Alvin Ailey, who happens to be a black man that told black stories to dance with a multitude of races and cultures in his dance company. He's a gay man, that died of aids, died alone because of the machismo and the homophobia around aids at that time. He was not fully accepted, like so many from that community were never accepted, both by their own culture and the cultures they danced around. I feel danced hasn't received the recognition it deserves because of homophobia. machismo, people see dance as a gay thing, a.soft thing, and it's not as cool as basketball or football. So my thing was to shine light on what I consider to be the highest form of athleticism, and art and music. And to shine the light on them and show that Alvin Ailey and his cohorts are just as important as Deion Sanders, Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Picasso and Basquiat. That's the purpose of this collaboration.
Willy: As a gay man, I'm so grateful. I’ve read a little bit about that the connection with the gay community and LGBTQ community and dance, and your whole point of view, and it's quite amazing to have a straight black male speaking for us, as in creating something that celebrates us. You're not shying away from that because from a black cultural point of view, there's a lot of machismo as you call it.
Tremaine: I appreciate that but I'm just grateful to the community for everything I've learned about life and human experience, for the people I've known work and the contribution to society from the wider community, across the spectrum. It’s a bit of a love letter to them. For me, I understand why it stands out unfortunately. Not that there isn't any homophobia in white male patriarchal society, but it is particularly pronounced in subjugated cultures like African Americans, Africans, Jamaicans, Mexicans and South Americans. It's like, we're trying to prove our machismo even more because we've been so downtrodden by the white patriarchal system, and anything that seems weak by society standards, we want to bash literally and figuratively, The way I grew up that was never even a discussion. The way my parents and family raised me, the only conversation I ever had about homosexuality with my parents was when we were walking in Central Park, and some guys that my dad knew rolled up on us and they were on rollerblades, and after talking to my parents, my brother and me, they kissed and we're holding hands, I think, I asked why did the guys kiss? And my dad replied; ‘the same reason me and mom do.’ So it was not given a point of difference. That's how I was raised, but I also know, unfortunately, how too much of the world is raised, so that's why I wanted to permeate this. With Denim Tears I'm telling stories, and here, I wanted to tell the story about black community, dance, music and art. I want to tell stories that aren’t widely known or discussed. The black experience is so wide and varied, I’m never going to run out of stories to tell through clothing, or any medium I choose. This is just the beginning… And I don't want to preach and tell other people what to do, but it's very important that people who don't identify with a community still support it. Beyond showing up to marches, tell the stories, represent it..
Willy: That’s what is amazing with this project, You live between the conceptual, the research, the archive, as well as sportswear and read-to-wear. You have voiced something that you didn't need to. You could have just introduced the Alvin Ailey collaboration and just left it at that, but you haven’t. Beyond product, what do you hope people take away from this specific collaboration?
There's a conversation that my best friend Acyde had with Joe Casey Hayford – rest in peace to Joe. I didn't know Joe personally, but I know his son, his daughter, and his granddaughter. Joe told Acyde, “don't let hip hop be the only thing that defines you as a black person.” When Acyde shared that, he said it was one of the most powerful things he's ever been told; the black experience and contribution to humanity goes way beyond the biggest moneymakers of hip hop and in sports. Of course, Jay Z and Michael Jordan are amazing talents, but so is James Baldwin. So is the bus driver in your neighbourhood, the black garbageman, the black-owned bookstore owner… you can keep going forever. There's just so much to the canon of black expression, let's not whittle it down to sports and music. When everyone's like, ‘wow, I can't believe he did. Alvin Ailey’, what makes me sad is that no one's ever approached them before, in what sixty years?! You see, all these bullshit collaborations come out for the sake of collaborations and no one ever reached out to Alvin Ailey? I'm not playing a violin for them, but it tells you something.That when we think about black people, even when black people think about ourselves, we default to sports, rap and jazz. Why? There are so many things to pull from!
Willy: Your work is well researched, it goes beyond expectations. As a storyteller, why is fashion your preferred medium? You worked at Marc Jacobs for a number of years…
Tremaine: I did, for nine years. I started off as a stock guy and ended up as assistant manager. I'll tell you a quick story. When I was a kid, my parents took me to buy a cat. I was six years old. I bought the cat. My parents, my mom and dad said you have to name the cat. The cat was a calico and I'm not sure if you're familiar with Calico cats but they have patches, stripes, dots, different colours and the cat reminded me of my mom’s clothes and magazines, so I named the cat fashion.
Willy: That's amazing. That's a scoop, I've never read that story.
Tremaine: I was six years old. So I think innately just from my parents and me growing up in New York, I love style. When I was going to college, I didn't know you could take an image making course like you did, I didn't know you could take art history, I didn't know you could take a studio art course, I had no friends that were deemed artists by society. I knew about style and knew about getting dressed, and then I started working in clothing stores to be closer to it. I worked with Stüssy, Yeezy and started No Vacancy Inn, with Acyde and then also with Brock. I used the tools closest to me to tell stories. If life grants me a longer life, I will start to use tools that are further away from me to tell stories. Part of Denim Tears now is helping the next generation to realise that anyone can be an artist.
Photography Ellis Scott, @ellisscottphoto
Interview Willy Ndtari, @williamcult
Model Brian Whitby. @brian.p.whitby
Make-up Machiko Yano, @machiko_yano