New York-based designer Tremaine Emory had the fashion world buzzing when on Wednesday (August 30, 2023) he confirmed on Instagram that he had stepped down from his role of creative director at Supreme after designing just two collections, spring 2023, and fall 2023. Reacting to the news on his Instagram feed, Emory explained he left the company “because of systemic racial issues.”
As evidence, Emory pointed at the company’s decision to cancel a collaboration with Black filmmaker and artist Arthur Jafa, and went on to describe a design studio “that has less than 10% minorities working when the brand is largely based off black culture.”
Pushing back on Emory’s charges, Supreme issued a press release that read, “While we take these concerns seriously, we strongly disagree with Tremaine’s characterization of our company and the handling of the Arthur Jafa project, which has not been cancelled.”
The Jafa work originally slated for the collaboration featured a photo collage “I Don’t Care About Your Past, I Just Want Our Love to Last,” which includes a photograph of two Black men who had been lynched, while the “scourged back” photograph of once-enslaved person Peter Gordon was interpreted by the artist for a sculpture titled “Ex-Slave Gordon,” a piece that is part of Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s permanant collection.
On medical leave throughout much of 2023 after suffering an aortic aneurysm in October 2022, Emory told the Washington Post that in an August meeting after he returned to work he brought up Supreme founder James Jebbia‘s decision in the spring to cancel items featuring filmmaker and artist Jafa’s artwork without consulting him. When Supreme’s design team asked Jafa for different images, Emory told the Washington Post that Jafa declined to provide alternative images. Looking back, Emory said he wished he had been consulted first, an exclusion that left him him feeling like “a mascot.”
When Emory described the cancelled collaboration with Jafa on Instagram, push back from commenters on the post was almost entirely critical. Most viewed the idea of a for-profit Supreme t-shirt or hoodie featuring imagery of Black people who had been lynched or suffered horrible abuse as a poor idea, especially given Supreme and its parent company are not only founded and lead by white people but primarily sell to a white customer.
Pointing out the history of whites selling postcards showing Black men who had been lynched, a person commenting on his Instagram post wrote, “I’m sorry but you need to sit down and critically examine why you thought it was a good or ‘radical’ idea to sell images of black bodies being hung and whipped on clothing items that will be mostly worn by white people. Do you know that images of lynchings were sold as postcards in the late 1800s/early 1900s so that white people can continue to disseminate images of the black dead for their peers who weren’t able to witness it?”
On social media, some commenters described Jafa’s work as trauma porn, a description of media or art that centers a group’s pain and trauma to entertain the viewer.
Some also pointed out that Emory through his four-year-old label Denim Tears has had an ongoing collaborative partnership with Levi’s and also worked with Dior on a capsule, but never complained about systemic racism at either company. In the case of Levi’s, the collaboration is centered by a cotton flower wreath graphic, an image inspired by art he discovered on artist Kara Walker‘s Instagram feed. Emory didn’t consult with Walker on use of the wreath and she hasn’t commented on his use of it.
In response to the criticism, Emory told the Washington Post that fans and consumers will have different responses to his work, and that this has always been central to his approach. “Everyone’s allowed to feel, especially Black people who the work is representing or depicts, how they feel about it,” Emory said.