Essay: Pyer Moss designer steps outside fashion and into the conversation about race

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

(c) 2015, The Washington Post.

Like a lot of designers, Kerby Jean-Raymond, the 28-year-old founder of the menswear label Pyer Moss (pronounced Pierre Moss), has spent the last months considering his spring 2016 collection and how he will present it when New York's fashion week begins in September. This is will be a particularly big season for the young designer. He will debut his womenswear.

But unlike most designers, Jean-Raymond has also decided to step squarely into the middle of a contentious political and social debate. He is producing a video, to be played during his runway show, in which he is asking people to discuss race, racism and racial injustice in policing. He is not talking about diversity in the fashion industry or how many black models are on the runway. Jean-Raymond is using the influence and reach of fashion to talk about race in the broader culture.

With his own money, a video crew of friends and no definitive plan, he has been reaching out to an eclectic group of people, including his fashion mentor Kay Unger, Nicole Bell, whose fiance Sean Bell was killed by New York City police officers, Wanda Johnson, whose son's shooting death was depicted in the film "Fruitvale Station," as well as artists such as Kehinde Wiley, entertainers, sports figures including Victor Cruz, activists and writers, including myself.

No one has asked him: "What does this have to do with fashion?"

Fashion, after all, is about everything. It is an industry that, in its finest moments, provides people with the tools to define themselves so that others cannot; it brings outsiders in and exalts in their quirks; and it finds inspiration in diverse corners. At its best, fashion can move the culture towards the light.

The video was originally intended to be about 10-15 minutes long — about the running time of a fashion show. But Jean-Raymond's first interview lasted for hours. So now, "we have no idea how long it might be," he says. The film essentially has no budget aside from a shoestring. And Jean-Raymond has no background in filmmaking. "I'm not a director. I'm not a journalist," he says. He is a designer with a lot of questions, who was inspired by circumstances and timing.

Jean-Raymond's aesthetic is informed by street style, athleticism, luxury and craftsmanship. He has worked for Unger and also the womenswear brand Marchesa, which is known for its lavish eveningwear. When he launched his brand in 2013, it was part of a new generation of designer brands such as Tim Coppens and Rochambeau that were challenging the tailored, conservative, hyper-masculine ethos of menswear.

But Jean-Raymond has regularly allowed current events to seep into his work. Last year, he created a T-shirt that struck a nerve. It was in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting and he made a T-shirt that declared: "They Have Names." It was filled with the names of victims of police aggression. The shirt wasn't part of his collection; it was personal. But he wore it on the September day when he presented his collection to the media and people noticed.

He wasn't planning to manufacture the shirt but he received so many requests that he did and donated the proceeds to ACLU. Then he saw his picture in The New York Times under a headline that said, "After a Tragedy, the Memorabilia," and that left a bad taste in his mouth. "I started getting upset and self-conscious," he says. Other stories kept mentioning his race — he is Haitian-American — before discussing the collection. "I felt trapped and pigeon-holed. I was trapped. It was a narrative that didn't make sense. I thought of Ota Benga. I thought about doing the video."

The spring 2016 menswear collection, which he showed in July, was inspired by the story of Ota Benga, a 23-year-old Congolese pygmy who was exhibited in the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo in 1906. His story was recently told in depth in Pamela Newkirk's book "Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga."

Jean-Raymond describes the clothes as the straight-forward and commercial part of the brand. (The more dramatic elements of his menswear will be shown in September.) Still the July presentation was dynamic. Using a palette of black, red, taupe and white, he crafted a collection of zippered shorts, cargo jackets, narrow trousers and motorcycle jackets. And highlighting it all were abstract graphics depicting the young African man trapped behind bars.

It was a startling and emotional reflection of Jean-Raymond's fatigue over being described as a "black" designer. Not because he isn't proud of his heritage and not because he doesn't bring his full self to his work, but because the nomenclature is limiting. It puts him in a category and suggests that he isn't trying to reach the widest audience and that his clothes somehow are not universal. Of course, using ethnography and racism as a source of inspiration — producing a video about it — seems counter-intuitive for someone who wants his work to be judged detached from race.

"I don't think the narrative I was stuck in — the "black" designer category — was going to go away anytime soon," Jean-Raymond says. This way, "I can at least control the conversation. I can say, well, I'm an educated black designer."

The video is not meant to be confrontational or angry. It is not meant to be black people venting. "It's not an attack," Jean-Raymond says. "It's like my version of 'We Are the World.'"

But making it hasn't been easy. A couple of weeks ago, feeling overwhelmed by what he'd taken on, he was on his cell phone with his sister, telling her that he was thinking of scrapping the video and just worrying about the clothes. After all, taking the leap from menswear to womenswear is a high hurdle.

Plus, he was nursing a broken hand that was still in a cast — a black one. Because it's chicer. Jean-Raymond was standing in front of his building. He heard police activity not far away. The next moment, he says, he was confronted by six police officers, two of whom had their guns drawn. They'd mistaken his hand, in its black cast with his index and middle fingers jutting forward, for a gun.

"I dropped my phone and said, 'It's a phone! It's a phone! It's a phone! It's a phone!"

"When you feel like it could be you" on that list of names that includes Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, "that changes everything," Jean-Raymond says.

He doubts that the video will be complete by fashion week, but that's okay. "We'll show an abridged version," he says. How will Jean-Raymond know when it's finished? "I have no idea," he says. "Probably when we're tired of filming it."

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