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At Pyer Moss, Black Invention Takes Centre Stage

Designer Kerby Jean-Raymond became the first Black American designer to show on the haute couture calendar.
Pyer Moss Haute Couture debut on Saturday. Getty Images.
Pyer Moss Haute Couture debut on Saturday. Getty Images. (Cindy Ord)

Designer Kerby Jean-Raymond’s first couture collection centred on designs and products from Black inventors and entrepreneurs. The show, and the events that preceded it, made for a dramatic ending to Haute Couture week, with a false start on Thursday precipitated by Tropical Storm Elsa.

Rescheduling for Saturday afternoon required stages to be rebuilt, a barbecue to be restocked, and additional buses to be booked to transport guests an hour north of Manhattan to Irvington, N.Y. The quaint town on the Hudson River is the site of Villa Lewaro, an Italianate mansion built in 1917 for the Black beauty entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, considered the country’s first female self-made millionaire.

“Imagine three months of planning a show, and then doing it again — the whole three months of planning a show in 24 hours — and paying for it twice,” said Jean-Raymond of the logistical challenges in an interview backstage after the show. “I’m happy the audience gave us a second chance.”

The home’s pillared entrance was a fitting setting for Jean-Raymond, a designer known for his ambitious and theatrical runway shows, which often incorporate live musical performances and themes that extend far beyond fashion, including police brutality, financial challenges and mental health. His most recent shows have focused on the Black experience in America.

Titled Wat U Iz, the show was introduced via a galvanising speech by activist and former leader of the Black Panther Party, Elaine Brown, dressed in all white as she ambled down the runway. Rapper 22Gz performed, accompanied by a string ensemble and a group of dancers on a platform at the centre of a circular stage while models paced the surrounding runway.

The surrealist designs, oftentimes referencing household objects — a mop, peanut butter and an early mobile phone — offered a camp interpretation of couture reminiscent of earlier Moschino collections and the work of Patrick Kelly.

“These are inventions by Black people and I wanted to reintroduce them to Black people,” said Jean-Raymond.

The materials and shapes were a drastic departure from previous collections, bringing new logistical challenges to construction and design. A cape and headpiece constructed of hair curlers, for instance, took roughly four months to complete.

It wasn’t just couture in the traditional sense where we’re sewing up garments, there was welding involved.

“It wasn’t just couture in the traditional sense where we’re sewing up garments, there was welding involved,” said Jean-Raymond. “Everything was severely over-engineered.”

Attendees included artist Saint Jhn, stylist Law Roach, designer Sergio Hudson and even the mayor of Irvington. The barbecue, open bar and dancing that followed, as well as the public ticket access Jean-Raymond offered the public for the second show, furthered themes of community and collectivism cultivated throughout previous collections. (Jean-Raymond also handed out marijuana to guests during the rained-out first show, as documented by Guy Trebay for the New York Times.)

Jean-Raymond’s selection by the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode as a guest designer for Couture Week was a validating moment — and an opportunity for him to show his range.

“I think of couture as concept car,” said Teri Agins, the former senior special writer at the Wall Street Journal covering fashion, who was in attendance and described the show as a major moment for Pyer Moss, especially coming at a critical juncture in American history.

“This is cementing him in the big leagues — but this is not a report card on his deftness as a couturier, this is a whole different thing,” she said. “Kerby is letting people know about these hidden figures... and he’s doing it in his way because he’s a designer.”

The historic home is owned by New Voices Foundation, a philanthropic organisation launched by entrepreneur and Sundial Brands founder Richelieu Dennis. Sundial acquired Madam C.J. Walker Enterprises in 2013. The entire collection will be shown in an exhibition at the mansion in the autumn, and Pyer Moss is in conversations with Nicola Vassell, a Black-owned art gallery in Chelsea, to sell it.

Pyer Moss has been on a sharp upward trajectory of critical acclaim and attention in recent years, especially since Jean-Raymond parted ways with a prior investor and regained control of the business in 2017 and then inked a collaboration deal with Reebok. The brand has expanded from its streetwear roots to a wider range offering for men and women, typically priced under $1000, as Jean-Raymond has picked up industry awards and acclaim for his activism.

The designer has kept busy during the runway hiatus. He expanded his relationship with Reebok in 2020 when he was named vice president, creative direction of the sports brand. Jean-Raymond also escalated his advocacy work, partnering with luxury conglomerate Kering to start a platform and incubator to support emerging designers called Your Friends in New York.

Saturday’s presentation marked his first runway show since September 2019, when Jean-Raymond hosted several thousand guests (both industry and ticketed public) at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre. He plans to return to New York Fashion Week this September.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on 20 July 2021. A previous version stated Pyer Moss would sell its couture collection through that art gallery Nicola Vassell. The collaboration is not yet finalised, according to a representative for the brand.

Related Articles:

Pyer Moss Couture Week Show Rescheduled After Rain

The Church of Pyer Moss

Reebok Deepens Ties With Pyer Moss

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