"The black body has always been an independent currency and tool in this America, and it's in this context that we understand fashion, that we understand clothing, that we understand that the modern in blackness today always harkens back to a more complicated, more treacherous past in blackness," said Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson at the Museum of Modern Art on Monday. As part of a day-long salon, about 26 different fashion-related items — one for each letter of the alphabet, presented by experts speaking for seven minutes each — McKesson addressed the iconography of the hoodie to a small auditorium of curators, designers, students and a live-stream camera. The MoMA curators hoped the speakers would help them answer the question "Is fashion modern?" ahead of an upcoming fashion exhibit with the same title, due in 2017.
McKesson shared the stage with Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond, who kicked off the segment with a presentation in which he silently Google-searched terms such as "Asian guy in hoodie," "Black guy in hoodie," and "Trayvon Martin" on a projected computer screen. Jean-Raymond also presented a video about the history of the hoodie that culminated in video footage of police brutality. The clips recalled the short film he presented at the brand's spring 2016 runway show, which addressed violence against black people head-on through interviews and disturbing imagery.
McKesson then took the podium to speak about the hoodie as a piece of "worn resistance" and a "reminder that there is much work to be done to ensure the safety of black bodies." He continued:
"What we know is so powerful about the hoodie is that the hoodie — though it cloaks black skin, though it can become a covering — it does not erase the pressure and the power of this question of the black body in America. With Trayvon [Martin], it did not save him... it did not save so many other people. When I leave this podium and I put on a hoodie, or when Kerby puts on a hoodie, we are still just, in some places, black men in America, and that means something. Something that is not always safe or beautiful about our blackness, but that is real nonetheless. And when we think about protest again, we think about it as telling the truth in public, and the hoodie is perhaps our most public, truth-telling piece of clothing. And let the hoodie be a reminder that you are all implicated in this truth telling, too. That as people who guard and create things in this world, you have an opportunity to create new realities and how we think about how we share this world with each other. We are responsible for this world, you are responsible for this world, this world is ours."
In a group discussion with Jean-Raymon, Dan Mathews (senior vice president of PETA) and artist David Godlis that followed, McKesson continued to call into question why so few people in the fashion industry have spoken out about the Black Lives Matter movement, or have used their influence in ways that value black people.
"What does it mean when designers make things that curvaceous black women cannot [wear]? Literally they are not [available] in their sizes. Those are choices people are making that are also making statements about people's worth and value," he said. "There is an opportunity for someone who has a lot of power and influence, who has everything to lose from this to come out... If Anna Wintour wore a shirt that said 'Mike Brown,' that would make a different statement. That would potentially open up space for other people to do that." (He cited Beyoncé and "Formation" as an example of someone opening the conversation.)
Jean-Raymond understands the risks of speaking up firsthand. "You have to be really willing to give up a lot of money when you make statements," he said, noting that he lost thousands of dollars of business after his protest-driven runway show. "We have built a cult [following] the past few years, and I think as long as they understand the difference and can deliver the message for me, they can continue to... help me separate them," he said when asked how he makes sure his designs aren't dependent upon the message. The other step is to make a really good product. "My last show [for fall 2016] was about depression. The next show is going to be about something else that's close and dear to me. It has nothing to do with race. In some ways it probably will, but it's a very difficult line to separate."
Meanwhile, someone in the audience asked McKesson about his signature clothing choices — specifically his bright blue Patagonia vest. "The vest became 'a thing' for other people," he said. "I don't think I've been out without it in a really, really long time." He said that it makes him feel safe, although it is "completely irrational," amidst the many death threats he receives. "And I know that for some people, it is a symbol — it symbolizes justice work and that's important to me, too." McKesson added that people think he sticks to the vest as "a brand-building exercise," but that was not his intention. "There is a thing about issue-driven work, about this question of how pure can you be," he said. "People want this radical purity at all points... You start playing with the 'politics of enough.' Are you enough of this? And I think that becomes a real challenge. And the vest has made me think about those questions."
See all the "Items: Is Fashion Modern? Abecedarium" presentations in the live stream below.
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