When I met Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond, 28, at his studio the day before his spring show, he didn't know whether he'd show any fashion the next day. He was feeling conflicted about a lot of things.
Almost three weeks earlier, Robin Givhan wrote a piece about Jean-Raymond for The Washington Post that gave his two-year-old brand more media exposure than ever before. The news that he was planning to screen a short film about racism and police brutality at his upcoming show was suddenly everywhere. "I had no idea what her reach was," he said Thursday. With virtually no budget, he and a group of friends had been recording interviews with artists, collaborators and mentors about racial problems in America. He also sat down with family members of victims of police violence, including Sean Bell's wife Nicole Bell, Oscar Grant's mother Wanda Johnson and Eric Garner's daughter Emerald Garner.
The media attention radically raised the stakes of both the film and the runway show, and Jean-Raymond said he felt anxious about risking his brand and his employees' livelihoods in the process. Since Givhan's article, his business has suffered. The venue he originally reserved for Friday's show cancelled, saying they didn't think he could keep the attendance under capacity. And he's lost a retail account in Europe. "They won't say why," he said. "[They said] it's because of space but they've been buying for three seasons and it's like, 'Oh because of space?'"
"It’s not like a bunch of black angry kids in here screaming about how to fuck the world," he added. He described his collaborators as "people with common beliefs, common morals and good hearts trying to come together to do something with the limited resources that we have."
Jean-Raymond says he won't jeopardize his brand by aligning it with activism again, but he feels an innate duty to use his platform and the attention that comes with fashion week to speak out. "No one's taking that responsibility upon themselves, it's someone else's problem," he said. "But as soon as I started to adapt that mindset, I was like, 'OK, I have a nice car, I date pretty girls, I have a nice apartment and all this stuff and then I turn around and almost get shot by the cops. So it doesn't even matter what I think I am. Because what I look like is essentially the problem." Frustrated by the lack of action from the people with the power to influence the culture at large — like Kanye West or Rihanna or even Jay-Z — he decided to leverage the cult brand following he's built to change the black narrative. "If we spark one mind, one change in the room, somebody who just gets it and is going to out and be kind to somebody or just give somebody an opportunity regardless of the color of their skin... that's essentially what we are trying to achieve with this."
But he also wants the collection to be a focus in its own right. Again, he's conflicted.
Friday night's show began with the highly anticipated film, which lasted about 12 minutes and featured an animated "Pyer Moss News Network" logo. Interspersed between the edited interviews were many clips of cell phone and police footage of police brutality from recent years. The combination of extreme violence on the screen and the sharp, high volume had a nauseating effect. Clips that have played over and over again on news channels felt freshly disturbing. The audience's cell phones were forgotten. "For more information and insight, open your eyes," the screen read.
The film ended with a voice-over from Wanda Johnson that led straight into the show's first song number, "Sound of Da Police" by KRS-One. The models marched out in two rows, stopped and took steps forward at slow intervals marked by someone yelling "Go!" off-stage. Jean-Raymond's frequent collaborator, Gregory Siff, spray-painted designs on several jackets and pants as the models walked.
Jean-Raymond titled the collection "Ota, meet Saartjie" after Ota Benga, a Congolese man put on an exhibit at the Bronx Zoo in 1906, and Saartjie Baartman, a South African woman exhibited in Europe in the early 1800s. "The collection is still based on captivity, still a lot of straps and buckles and a restraint element to it," he said. It was technically Jean-Raymond's womenswear debut, but he called it "a menswear collection for women." Aesthetic influences present in his previous work —motocross, samurais, athletic uniforms — blurred together in new and familiar and even wearable ways. White was the predominant color — a canvas effect for Siff's work — and many of the female models wore headbands around their necks that reminded me of tracheal bandages. Red stripes that looked like gunshot wounds were painted on one jacket. Tensions were high until the models exited the stage.
The day before the show, Jean-Raymond was honest about the doubts, anger, frustration and anxieties he felt producing the film and designing the collection. But he was calm, too, and fearless. And the collection he ultimately decided to present was urgent and assertive and unified — much like the community the young designer assembled in the process.