THE DESIGNER KERBY Jean-Raymond’s studio is on the Manhattan campus of the Fashion Institute of Technology on West 27th Street, across from the school’s student centre. He’s been there for about three years but is in the process of looking for a larger office in Brooklyn, where he grew up. Jean-Raymond has outgrown the current space, and not just in a physical sense; in the time he’s been working here, his renown, as the head of his seven-year-old label, Pyer Moss, but also as a representative of the fashion industry’s future, has grown immensely. What started as a fairly humble streetwear line has expanded into an ambitious conceptual project. Jean-Raymond is the child of Haitian immigrants, and his designs — especially the way he presents them publicly — collectively offer a strikingly personal and singular narrative about his own life as a black designer in America. He’s become successful as a result of this, receiving praise from critics and counting among his clients and collaborators people like Erykah Badu, Usher, Rihanna and Michelle Obama.
Throughout his career — he founded his first fashion label, Mary’s Jungle, when he was 15 — he’s built collections referencing themes that together read like a checklist of certain generational touchstones: the beginning of the Iraq War (which inspired a T-shirt line, printed with slogans like “We won’t fight another rich man’s war”), the 2008 financial crisis and its effect on American politics (Pyer Moss’s Bernie vs. Bernie collection, spring 2017), the widely documented and institutionally sanctioned murder of innocent people of colour by police (Ota, Meet Saartjie, spring 2016), depression and the various pharmaceutical and chemical responses to it (Double Bind, fall 2016). But these broad experiences are anchored by an almost novelistic attention to detail. His clothes, which appear simple upon first glance, reveal themselves as surprisingly nuanced when examined up close: In his spring 2020 collection, which was inspired by the black blues and gospel singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a recurring print of what seems to be an abstract swirl of black and white is actually a pattern of varying configurations of the headstock of a Gibson SG Custom, Tharpe’s preferred guitar. The runway show for the spring 2019 collection was held in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Weeksville, one of the first communities in New York with black homeowners, and presented an alternate fashion history in which black people were free to dress how they liked without the threat of racist judgment or violence. It included colourful clothing printed with paintings featuring happy domestic scenes by the artist Derrick Adams: a backyard barbecue, a wedding and, on a hand-beaded purple shift dress, an image of a black father holding his baby. (Jean-Raymond himself is not married and does not have children.) Occasionally, his clothes take on the feel of protest signs, like a simple white T-shirt commanding “Stop calling 911 on the culture,” or, as he wore to a meeting with Vogue’s editor in chief, Anna Wintour, in 2018, a black long-sleeved shirt with the words “If you are just learning about Pyer Moss we forgive you.” He thinks of his clothing as individual works that people collect, like pieces of art (they range from US$175 for a T-shirt to about US$5,850 for a pleated wedding gown), and of each collection as an installation that presents a thesis. But the best word to describe him might be “literary”: He values story and context as much as cut or fit. Even the label’s name has a deeper narrative. It is a lightly modified combination of his mother Vania’s maiden name (Moss) and the name to which she changed it in order to expedite a green card (Pierre, the same as a cousin’s, who was already in America).
Though he makes clothes for men and women, Jean-Raymond’s most powerful statements often concern his relationship to masculinity. He designed a collection inspired by his father for the fall 2017 season, the presentation of which was more an act of Proustian reclamation than it was a typical runway show — his father’s green-card photo, printed on numerous designs, was Jean-Raymond’s madeleine. Models walked in clothing that reimagined Jean-Raymond’s father as a young man. He had been a pre-med student in Haiti before immigrating to New York in 1979, and always maintained an effortless sense of style. The clothes in the collection were deliberately imperfect, with sleeves that were too long or too short and slacks that looked nearly unfinished, but in their sheer sense of character, they were irresistible: wool overcoats with enormous lapels; a maroon sweatsuit printed with what looked like a college logo but in fact said “Miragwan,” the Creole name for the commune in Western Haiti where his father grew up; a hoodie on which a drawing of the elder Jean-Raymond appeared, rendered as a slightly deific icon in a portrayal that was somehow simultaneously ironic and loving. Instead of the common fashion-show soundtrack, he deployed a 16-person live choir — named the Pyer Moss Tabernacle Drip Choir Drenched in the Blood — that performed a combination of traditional gospel and pop hits, now a much-copied fashion-show fixture. Jean-Raymond’s clothing can look like simple sportswear, but it contains complexities that mine the depths of his memories and attempt to revise them. His self-awareness is so heightened that he even acknowledges his position as an unreliable narrator: The show about his father was called “My Father as I Remember From 1980-1999,” the first date being six years before the designer was born.
Michelle Sank. Styled by Jason Rider
From left: Pyer Moss pants, US$450. Pyer Moss in Collaboration With Aurora James boots, US$895. Pyer Moss pants, US$450. Pyer Moss in Collaboration With Aurora James boots, US$895. Pyer Moss pants, US$450. Pyer Moss in Collaboration With Aurora James boots, US$895.
ON A GREY afternoon in November, I visited Jean-Raymond at the studio, where he was conducting a meeting with his 15-person staff. The space was cramped — metal racks held clothing from past collections — though it also gave off a feeling of utilitarian order. Aside from a banana plant in the centre of the room, few personal touches were visible — it was as if he’d already used them up in his work. Jean-Raymond was wearing a purple Gucci sweater, a pair of black Pyer Moss pants and pristine red-and-blue Reebok sneakers. (Since 2018, Jean-Raymond has had his own line with the brand, which includes a popular collection of sneakers.) As he spoke to four members of his young team, he stood before a series of boards for his next collection, each tacked with printouts of computer-made renderings, which he drew and wrote on.
What I noticed immediately was his calm: He wasn’t lecturing or forcing any decisions, but asking questions and listening. If he said he didn’t like a print or a silhouette, one of the staffers would ask him why, and he would patiently explain himself: He repeated the phrase “This just doesn’t feel new enough” like an incantation.
Inspecting a sketch of the Pyer Moss take on basketball shorts, he said, “I like this, but as a set, with a silk camisole — like a silk basketball jersey.” He produced a notepad printed with the logo for the Council of Fashion Designers of America — he is, as of 2019, a member of the organisation’s board — and drew how he wanted it to look: “It’s like a spaghetti strap that becomes basketball.”
“This is too old-fashioned,” he said, turning now to a design for a wrap dress. “I think we need our version of the little black dress. What does someone wear to some of these [expletive] galas like the ones I went to last week?” (Early November is gala season in New York.) He thought for a moment and answered his own question: “You need something backless. Think about Michelle Pfeiffer coming down the stairs in ‘Scarface.’”
Seeing the smallness of Jean-Raymond’s operation made me consider the intimacy of his clothing, and how all of it is impossible to separate from its creator. At 33, he’s become something of an elder statesman. Not so long ago, few students on the F.I.T. campus recognised him; now, many of them do. As a result, his encounters often involve dispensing advice to young designers, especially designers of colour. This has become a major part of his morning commute, the reason he’s late to work. Whether they stop him in the street or message him on social media or find him at a show or a talk, he tells them the same thing: Your personal story — your sadness and confusion and losses and victories — is your superpower, the one thing that can’t be taken from you. It’s your fingerprint, and nothing is worth smearing it. In a business guided by rote tradition, Jean-Raymond has carved out a unique path as an artist. At so many popular brands, he’ll tell me, the creative director could leave and be swapped out with someone else and nothing would really change. But to do work that is authentic, that gets at the core of who you are, that is where true strength lies. There’s no Pyer Moss without Kerby Jean-Raymond; the two are interchangeable.
ichelle Sank. Styled by Jason Rider
From left: Pyer Moss robe, US$1,095, and pants. Pyer Moss in Collaboration With Aurora James boots. Pyer Moss top, US$225, and pants. Pyer Moss in Collaboration With Aurora James boots. Pyer Moss robe, price on request, and pants. Pyer Moss in Collaboration With Aurora James boots.
Later, we talked more about this idea at a vegan restaurant in Chelsea, where Jean-Raymond is a regular. He has a standing appointment here every couple of weeks with a group of childhood friends from Flatbush, a Brooklyn neighbourhood that is now arguably more threatened by gentrification than violence, though that wasn’t the case in the ’90s, when Jean-Raymond was growing up there. He told me that of his childhood circle of friends, only about five, including himself, have not been stunted by tragedy: Two are dead, three are in prison, and two of those three won’t get out.
Jean-Raymond is as skilled a self-mythologiser in conversation as he is in his clothes. I sometimes felt that he knew better than I did how the things he was saying, as he was saying them, would fit into the scope of a magazine profile. It didn’t take him long to begin discussing how, in every creative industry, old business models — retail, print magazines — are dying, and concepts like inclusion and representation have been used to offer them a faux sheen of relevance. Progressiveness and diversity themselves have become commodified as yet another fad that the web of global media can exploit while patting itself on the back. Yet few people are as altruistic as they’d like to think, Jean-Raymond said. He then quoted Jay-Z: “You run a check up but they never give you leverage.” Meaning, some enormous conglomerate might give Jean-Raymond a major platform, or lend him money to do an ambitious project, but they won’t let him own his ideas, and someday soon they’ll be back to collect. “They’ll give you the money,” he said, “they’ll hire a black face for their company now, they’ll put black models on the runway, they might even put a head of diversity in charge who’s black, but are they giving you leverage to make decisions for the company?” He didn’t have to answer this question, and instead interrupted himself with another observation. “Let me tell you what equality is,” he said. “Equality is when we both” — he as a black person, me as a white one — “have the right to be mediocre.”
Jean-Raymond has never had this luxury. His mother died on a trip to Haiti to visit her mother when he was 7. At first, his father didn’t even tell him she was dead. Jean-Raymond’s family didn’t think he could handle it, so every once in a while, they’d put him on the phone with an aunt who pretended to be his mother. “I still have no closure as it pertains to my mom,” he said. “So I try to do a lot of things with the brand that I feel like, from what I can remember, she would be proud of.” He recalls his mother cutting squares of cardboard from discarded boxes and using them to teach her son how to fold his shirts neatly. In various Pyer Moss designs, one can see a square of fabric stitched to the back of a piece of clothing, a kind of phantom homage to this memory.
His father was driving a cab in New York when he won a small amount of money from a lotto ticket, which he used to become a licensed electrician. For a while, he worked for General Electric but soon started his own home-repair business, installing radio systems and illegal cable boxes for the people in Flatbush who had money. (“Mostly drug dealers,” Jean-Raymond said.) At 12, Jean-Raymond’s love of Nike Air Worms, a Dennis Rodman design for the brand, made him resolve to become a designer. He got his first job at a sneaker store in the neighbourhood called Ragga Muffin, which granted him a certain amount of respect among his peers — he was still a child, but he became the go-to for anyone who wanted a new pair of shoes.
Michelle Sank. Styled by Jason Rider
Left: Pyer Moss shirt, price on request, and pants, US$450. Pyer Moss in Collaboration With Aurora James boots. Right: Pyer Moss shirt, price on request, and pants. Pyer Moss in Collaboration With Aurora James boots.
He looked through the directories for public New York high schools until he found the one that matched his prospective vocation: the High School of Fashion Industries, located around the corner from where we were now talking. He was nearly expelled in his first semester for throwing a container of Wite-Out at a classmate. Instead, he explained himself to his teacher, telling her that he felt bored and frustrated and wanted more to do. She helped set him up with a job, and this was how Jean-Raymond began his career in mainstream fashion, becoming a 14-year-old unpaid intern at the New York City-based Kay Unger. Unger had been a pioneer of American fashion, creating her own line in 1972, which became known for its sophisticated but obtainable designs for professional women. She was a female creative director who had grown a small company into a US$100-million business, an outlier who would provide a model for Jean-Raymond of how a supposed outsider could succeed in an unforgiving industry.
His first day was Sept. 10, 2001.
AFTER THE TERRORIST attacks of 9/11, it took three weeks for Jean-Raymond to get back to work for his second day. He was so shy, Unger said, he barely talked, but he also did everything she asked, and did it well. Soon, she had him start coming in on Saturdays and paying him for his time. She’d take him to a diner downstairs from her office on 38th Street, and the more food he’d order, the more he’d open up. He had a preternatural gift for drawing, and now he’d learn how things were cut, and what to do with the scraps. Unger sent him all over town: picking up fabrics, visiting factories.
When I asked him if his age ever posed a problem for him, he asked me, “What do you think was worse, my age or my race?” Every time he went out on an errand, whether it was to a warehouse or a fashion studio, the lobby security would send him around to the messenger door — he got so used to being forced into a side entrance that he stopped checking in at the front desk altogether. “I know all the freight entrances in New York from 35th Street to 41st Street,” he said. “Every single building, from Ninth Avenue all the way over to Sixth.”
The experience was formative. Unger would give Jean-Raymond seed money for his first line (US$150, which seemed like a lot to someone still not old enough to drive), and the two would talk about the business, realising the extent to which they occupied different industries. There was the fashion world of Unger and her contemporaries, like Nicole Miller, Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren and Georgina Chapman, whose Marchesa line was produced by Unger and which Jean-Raymond, on the cusp of 17, became an integral part of, and then there was the fashion world of the sneaker store that Jean-Raymond worked in back in Brooklyn. Despite their physical proximity to each other, the two did not overlap. The one wouldn’t even let the other through the front door.
Michelle Sank. Styled by Jason Rider
Left: Pyer Moss shirt, US$850, and pants, US$850. Pyer Moss in Collaboration with Aurora James boots, US$895. Right: Pyer Moss shirt, US$600, cummerbund and pants, price on request. Pyer Moss in collaboration with Aurora James boots.
These experiences would be incorporated into Pyer Moss, not just in the designs themselves and their message but in the way the company is run. There are certain long-held traditions that an American fashion designer has had to follow in order to claim success: The designer had to get his clothes into the department stores Barneys or Bergdorf Goodman; he had to present collections in New York each season and go to Paris to meet with European buyers; he had to advertise in Vogue. Black American designers achieved success via this traditional route (and notably not in Europe, where there remain almost no black designers helming the top French and Italian houses) only in exceptional circumstances. Being one of the most famous people in the world was typically a prerequisite. Consider some of Jean-Raymond’s and Pyer Moss’s forebears and contemporaries: Sean Combs’s Sean John, Kanye West’s Yeezy or Rihanna’s Fenty. And still, distinctively black brands like FUBU or Cross Colours, which became behemoths in the ’90s, were kept on the fringes — no Vogue spreads, and good luck finding FUBU denim jackets on the racks at Barneys. These were the brands that inspired Jean-Raymond when he was growing up — in recent years, he has collaborated with FUBU, Cross Colours and Sean John on capsule collections, and one can see their influence on the designer in his use of bright primary colours and denim — though their absence from the high-end fashion world at the height of their commercial power only seemed to confirm to Jean-Raymond that he didn’t belong in that world, either.
“Talk about an industry that never advertised for us, that never hired us at the top, that never acknowledged the fact that we were always their biggest influencers and ambassadors,” Jean-Raymond said. (Of the 19 designers on the board of the CFDA, only four identify as black, including Jean-Raymond.) In the early years of his company, he attempted to follow the rules, but at a certain point, he realised they would never work for him. When he held his show about police brutality in 2015, the very fact that a designer was planning on using a runway to address a controversial topic made headlines before the show’s debut, and his original venue cancelled on him, as did almost all of his buyers. As gestures at political activism have become commonplace on runways since the election of Donald Trump, the idea of Jean-Raymond inspiring this much contention now seems absurd. But at the time, it was enough to make him conclude that success would have to mean something different to him than it did to everyone else. In the front row of that show, he sat numerous Black Lives Matter activists, including Emerald Garner, whose father, Eric, was filmed pleading “I can’t breathe” as a Staten Island police officer choked him to death for selling cigarettes on a street corner in 2014. This meant the usual power brokers were moved to the second or third row; some of them, upon discovering they’d been downgraded from their positions of prominence, sent word that they weren’t coming unless they sat up front. Jean-Raymond’s response, as he reiterated in a video interview at the time with Al Jazeera, was: “Well, [expletive] you then.”
JEAN-RAYMOND HAS been trying to do things his own way ever since. In 2018, he became the full owner of his company. He went broke doing this, but it reset Pyer Moss in a way that’s allowed him to operate on his own terms. Now, he’ll regularly skip a season because he wants to work longer on a project (as he did during New York Fashion Week in February, which he forwent), and he chooses to focus on his home base of New York over other markets; he can make more money selling T-shirts at a merch stand at a show in Brooklyn than he can showing a collection in Paris. If he doesn’t like something, he’ll speak up about it, no matter which powerful figure he might risk alienating.
This happened most recently last fall, at a gala held by the influential industry publication The Business of Fashion, which Jean-Raymond says had planned to do a cover story on him and then, after extensive conversations with him and his team about his business, rescinded the offer. Then, greeting attendees at the front entrance of the event, called the BoF 500 and held in Paris in September during the city’s Fashion Week, was a gospel choir that included many black members. “Homage without empathy and representation is appropriation,” Jean-Raymond wrote in a statement following a series of posts on Instagram that went viral while the gala was still going on. “Instead, explore your own culture, religion and origins. By replicating ours and excluding us — you prove to us that you see us as a trend. Like, we gonna die black, are you?” This was the exact thing Jean-Raymond spent his career combating: the fashion industry’s flagrant exploitation of those it had deemed outsiders, monetising them for profit, making their stories tepid and meaningless. Imran Amed, BoF’s editor in chief, responded in an 800-word post on his site titled “Why I’m Listening to Kerby Jean-Raymond,” in which he apologised to the designer (while also disagreeing with his interpretation of the event) and cited his own experience as the gay child of Muslim immigrants as proof that inclusivity was not a fleeting concern. That an apology happened at all was, on one level, a testament to Jean-Raymond’s rising stature. But he was also concerned that people wouldn’t understand the deeper implications of this exchange — that he would be dismissed as “just an angry black man, mad about a choir.”
From left: Firstview; Imaxtree (2); Firstview
From left: looks from Pyer Moss fall 2016; spring 2016 (2); and spring 2017.
From left: looks from Pyer Moss fall 2017; spring 2019 (2); and spring 2020.
“Let me put it this way,” he said to me. “Let’s say we’re gonna start a Caribbean food festival. We go to Flatbush and we go to all the top Caribbean restaurants. And we say to them, ‘We’re gonna have you headline this food festival, and it’s gonna change the trajectory of your business.’ And they’re like, ‘Absolutely, let’s do it.’ But the condition is that, for the next four months, we need to know your recipes, we need to know the makeup of your consumer, we need to know what you’re going to be working on next, because we want to make sure we have the full story. Then, after all that, they say, ‘You know, we’re going to go a different route.’ Then you show up to the food festival and it’s now sponsored by Whole Foods, Wolfgang Puck, McDonald’s. It’s exactly that, and that’s what I needed to explain: This was what real appropriation looks like.” (“I was really quite devastated and saddened that he left our interactions feeling the way he did, and I remain extremely sorry that he would feel that way,” Amed said. “If anything good came out of that situation it just underscored how much work we can do to address this issue.”)
Perhaps surprisingly, Jean-Raymond has also found himself outlasting Barneys, which, after a steady decline in business that left the brand struggling to cover rent on its properties in New York and elsewhere, will close this year after filing for bankruptcy last summer. (“Good riddance,” Jean-Raymond said.) This is the clearest indication that American fashion is changing and, in some ways, trying to catch up with Pyer Moss. Jean-Raymond represents a new mould of designer altogether, and a new moment in fashion in which clothes are arguably no longer the sole purpose of a brand; a brand also needs to have a message. Jean-Raymond’s is that he never saw himself, or anything resembling himself, in a majority of contemporary fashion, and this is why his clothes are so personal to him, why he was so upset about a choir at a fashion party. His designs are a means of announcing himself, and this is his main goal — not money or ownership or praise, but in making clothes that make him feel seen, and in turn make other people feel seen as well. The simple gesture of putting his immigrant father on a T-shirt would not have fit into anyone’s idea of “luxury” just five years ago, but the very meaning of the word has changed. Jean-Raymond has succeeded through talent and resolve, but he also has been fortunate to work at a time in which the culture has changed enough to reward him for being true to himself, something that his predecessors were largely denied.
The culmination of Jean-Raymond’s career so far came last fall, at his spring 2020 show, Sister, held during New York Fashion Week at East Flatbush’s Kings Theater, an ornate 1920s-era movie palace. Jean-Raymond had returned to the neighbourhood where he grew up. His trademark choir had swelled to 90 members (the size of the choir rises and falls proportionally with how much money Jean-Raymond has at a given time). The clothes had the trademarks that are now expected of him: retro lapels, wide-shouldered silhouettes, silk shirts cut like basketball jerseys, vivid jewel tones and primary hues. But there was something utopian about this event in a way that the exclusionary fashion world rarely aspires to. It was a glimpse at a designer operating with total freedom and confidence — not because someone in power had let him but because he himself wanted to.
Michelle Sank. Styled by Jason Rider
Left: Pyer Moss jacket and pants, price on request, and shoes, US$595. Right: Pyer Moss poncho, US$675, pants, US$450, and shoes, US$595.
IN DECEMBER, I ASKED Jean-Raymond to meet me at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Like the American fashion industry, MoMA is a legacy institution that is reconsidering its priorities in an age of identity politics. The museum had recently done an extensive rehang of its collection in a renovated building, offering more space to the artists — many of them women and people of colour — who had for so long been categorically ignored by American museums.
We met in the lobby. He was wearing a striped button-down shirt under a black jacket with the Pyer Moss label stitched over the heart. He had on thick glasses and a gold chain, and he looked good. We started in a gallery devoted to the work of Betye Saar, a black assemblage artist who began her career in the ’60s but, at age 93, was only now getting attention from museums. We paused at “Black Girl’s Window,” a 1969 work painted on a window that had been removed from its hinges, showing a black face, rendered as a kind of onyx silhouette, except for a pair of eyes that stare out from the painting eerily. “I like these depictions of blackness as hollow outlines,” Jean-Raymond said. “It makes you have to dig deeper, to what’s underneath the blackness.” This is a concept, he said, he’s toying with in his next show, though he wouldn’t say much more than that, beyond the fact that he has a song in mind that is serving as inspiration: Prince’s “Insatiable.”
As we walked through the museum, he told me about the house he just bought near the Columbia Waterfront, in the Carroll Gardens neighbourhood of Brooklyn. While doing a cursory Google search, he discovered that his neighbours, a white couple, living in the duplicate townhouse next door with the exact same layout and dimensions, had paid about US$350,000 less than Jean-Raymond when they purchased it a few weeks earlier. He could see no reason other than his race that this would have happened, and when he confronted his broker about it, he denied the accusation but couldn’t come up with a better reason either. He was wondering what to do with this information, which had now tainted the place, the first house he’s ever owned. He hadn’t moved in yet, but now had reservations about doing so at all.
“You know, I did everything right,” he told me. “I rose to the top of my profession, and there’s this feeling that it’s still not enough.”
We had arrived at a suite of 1940-41 paintings by Jacob Lawrence, whom Jean-Raymond said was his favourite artist. Called “The Migration Series,” they depicted the experience of the wide movement of African-Americans from the rural South to Northern cities in the years before World War II. There are only a handful of images in the series of 60 works in which a subject’s eyes are open and clearly visible: One of them is a painting of a woman slicing an enormous slab of fatback bacon, while a child, his chin propped on the corner of the table, looks on. It’s the child’s eyes that are visible, and they don’t look excited but weary, full of ugly knowledge. We lingered here for a time before we decided to move on.
Models: M’Baye Ndiaye at Muse, Javion Robinson at Timothy Rosado, Hasheem W at Soul and Nisaa Pouncey at Next Models. Hair by Sabrina Szinay at M&A Group. Makeup by Janessa Paré at The Together Company. Set design by David De Quevedo. Casting by Ricky Michiels. Producer: Lauren Stocker. Tailoring: Carol Ai. Photo assistant: Tracie Williams. Stylist’s assistant: Noah Delfiner. Makeup assistant: Maggie Mondanile. Set assistant: Haley Burke.
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