Pyer Moss’ Unapologetic Blackness Is Good for Fashion

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I love Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond’s unapologetic blackness. Like most American industries, it is not easy to be outwardly pro-black in fashion. One is expected to assimilate and revere white, European culture — to be an Anglophile is ideal, a Francophile is chic, but to regard black life in any way that is not appropriation or parody (e.g., “Yassss, queen!”) is dangerous. In September 2015, when Jean-Raymond used his spring/summer 2016 runway show to protest police brutality and bring attention to Black Lives Matter, he ended up losing more than $120,000 after retailers pulled their orders. Pyer Moss was banned from coverage, with one fashion editor calling the designer “toxic.”

But Jean-Raymond, who is of Haitian descent and grew up in Brooklyn, hasn’t faltered in using his platform to provide a voice for the people; and he has only upped the ante since then.

Next year Pyer Moss will collaborate with Reebok to drop several collections. Jean-Raymond celebrated the news by creating a durag so long, its flap drags on the floor like the train of a wedding dress. Two years ago, Pyer Moss released its popular “They Have Names” shirt, listing the names of Eric Garner, Kimani Gray, Oscar Grant, and others murdered by the police. This year, Colin Kaepernick wore a new, custom Pyer Moss tee for his GQ “Man of the Year” shoot, listing even more names: Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and others killed by police since the first shirt’s iteration in 2015. The designer decided not to sell the new T-shirt, telling Refinery29, “I don’t want to [be] another peg in that wheel of white corporate culture essentially owning and commodifying activism.”

Kaepernick and Jean-Raymond are kindred spirits; both have risked their livelihood and corporate dollars by simply pointing to an obvious injustice. In doing so, they’ve forced white America to feel unseated in their privilege. When a disgruntled Instagram user commented about black-on-black crime under Jean-Raymond’s post of Kaepernick, the designer quickly created a sweatshirt that read, “Please, stop white-on-white crime.”

Off-White ad campaign for May 2016, featuring Ian Connor

Off-White ad campaign for May 2016, featuring Ian Connor

Jean-Raymond’s unapologetic blackness comes at an interesting time in fashion. There’s a swell of young, gifted, and black designers hell-bent on dressing the world. Not since the 1970s has there been more than a handful of visible black designers, when people like Stephen Burrows, Willi Smith and Scott Barrie reigned in New York. But the moment feels even cooler because it’s not just about the clothes for these designers; it’s about what you can do with fashion, and how you can use it as a launch pad to make a difference. For example, when Brooklyn-based designer Ebony Iman Alexander hosted a pop-up shop for her brand Iman Alexandershe donated proceeds to aid victims of Hurricane Maria. Brother Vellies designer Aurora James has moved industry out of the West and into Africa.

Right now, the most high-profile black American designer is Virgil Abloh. In just three years, he has turned his fashion brand Off-White into a luxury label so ubiquitous that my very chic and moody 21-year-old cousin lamented to me that, while he likes Off-White, “it’s too everywhere right now.” Earlier this month, Abloh won the British Fashion Council’s Urban Luxe Brand award, beating both Supreme and Vetements. And it was recently announced that in 2019, he will open his first solo exhibition at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

But Abloh’s visuals are problematic. In May of 2016, street-style star Ian Connor appeared in a controversial ad for Off-White in which he stood on a wooden box, as if for auction, with his hands bound. A white model stood next to him in Off-White’s tiered denim, full-length skirt, the well-dressed owner to Connor’s slave. A year later, an editorial fronted by Off-White featured a black male model with the brand’s industrial belt roped around his neck, standing like a piece of property, while white models luxuriated around a drop-top convertible. Though Abloh did take a knee at the end of his show this September, and has attempted to address the refugee crisis in Europe, his “activism” feels cold and disengaged.

Whether or not Abloh feels engaged with the black American community enough to articulate a more positive message about blackness is irrelevant. Black designers who have the industry’s ear must be more responsible in the images they create. It’s soon to be 2018; there are no excuses. You’re either perpetuating systemic oppression through your art or you’re subverting it.

Pyer Moss autumn/winter 2017 campaign, with black life at its center.

Pyer Moss autumn/winter 2017 campaign, with black life at its center.

With Jean-Raymond there is no confusion. His visual language is clear: black people are dynamic, beautiful, and have a rich history and culture that can be articulated through fashion. His ad campaigns and runway shows regularly feature black models and he collaborates with artists like Erykah Badu and Vic Mensa, instead of just pandering to their influence to sell more clothes. He operates a million-dollar business but doesn’t shy away from his responsibility to advocate for his community, despite the risk. And he owns his own production factory, where he also produces clothes for emerging black designers, setting an example for black entrepreneurship in 2018.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and Kerby Jean-Raymond wears his crown well.

This story was originally published on the author’s Medium page on December 28, 2017.