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‘Use your reach for good, if you can’: Kerby Jean-Raymond on using fashion as activism

To celebrate Glossy’s one-year anniversary, we’re spending a week profiling the standout change-makers who inspired us in our first year. These insiders are currently transforming the fashion, beauty and luxury spaces.

While many designers hide behind opaque or extravagant collections, Kerby Jean-Raymond has been infusing his with personal history and fascinations since he launched Pyer Moss in 2014. What he sends down the runway acts as a self-portrait of sorts, conveying everything from his long-held love of motorcycles to his rocky relationship with his father.

In more recent seasons, he’s also used design for political purposes, rendering clothing and presentations that serve as critiques of everything from police brutality to the stigma surrounding mental illness. Many designers entertained similar ideas this past season, but Jean-Raymond was doing it before it was “cool” or forced by the reality of Trump as president. And, as a Haitian immigrant born and raised in Flatbush, New York, many of the issues on deck today hit closer to home.

As such, he stands out from an increasingly monotone pack. He reminds audiences that design can be artful — and make you think — without sacrificing commercial interests.

Indeed, his clothes — which are sold everywhere from SSENSE to Harvey Nichols — are wholly wearable. Though technically menswear, the quirky combination of suiting and sportswear he creates has a unisex appeal that’s highlighted by his regular use of both male and female models.

His work has received accolades from top critics like Cathy Horyn and Robin Givhan, and it scored him the coveted FGI Rising Star Award for menswear in 2014. With that has come write-ups everywhere from W Magazine to Teen Vogue, and a spot on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list in 2015 — all noteworthy successes, but what we suspect is just the beginning for Jean-Raymond.

Kerby Jean-Raymond

We spoke to the designer about his process, the industry’s weak points and what he thinks about the sudden surge of activism at the Fall/Winter 2017 shows.

What does the industry most need to work on going forward?
Inclusion. Not diversity. Inclusion.

How do you start each new collection? What is your process?
I start with about five bad ideas of a concept or a story I want to tell. It usually takes a plane ride without WiFi for me to flesh it out in my head completely and edit the first draft. Then I run it by my team: art director Gro Curtis, publicist Clara Jeon, president Brittney Escovedo and project manager Chris Zaragoza. They’ve learned to not react or critique that draft because I change my mind so often, and I have a hair-trigger temper when it comes to my work. So they usually just nod in approval, because they know my excitement is temporary.

I then go back and switch up the whole idea on my own and come back a few days later with a close-to-finished second draft on paper. Then I begin the pattern-making, fabric sourcing and development process. Once I get samples back, I start cutting shit up and throwing stuff out. I imagine it’s like a game of survivor for the pieces.

It’s like 3 or 4 stages of excitement, depression and tantrums before I get to a point that I actually like something.

What are your go-to sources for inspiration?
My church and music have become my biggest sources of inspiration. When I started Pyer Moss, I didn’t really know how to put together a collection from my own point of view, so I leaned a lot on visual references from movies, images, designers and geometric art. For the past five collections, they’ve come from my own imagination, and all I really need is the right sentence from my pastor, A.R. Bernard, or the right verse on a track. I don’t need to see anything — it comes from within now, and that took some time.

Do you believe fashion designers have an obligation to use their platform for good or activism?
Obligated is a tough word for me. I don’t think they are obligated to do anything. Maybe I’m naïve in believing that, as humans who need each other to live and prosper, we shouldn’t be so complacent as to watch a fellow man or woman struggle and remain silent.

I found it especially difficult to watch as others chose to remain silent at the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement.

There was something perverse about designers using black celebrities and black culture to sell products to the black community, [but] then suspiciously omitting them from their “clean” luxury ad campaigns and choosing to remain silent when there is a wave of deaths rocking the country from police brutality.

I think that, as it pertains to fashion and imagery, designers and editors can play a larger role in rewriting the stereotypical narratives that have caused so much death in this country. They can also bring new light to stories that are not being seen widely. Use your reach for good, if you can.

We saw many more designers jumping on that “activist” bandwagon this past season, due to the political climate. Do you think it’s: the less strife there is, the more complacent the designers?
It’s a start, I guess. I didn’t expect the participation of other designers in the political realm to be perfect, but I wanted it to at least be authentic — and some of them are authentic. Some of my favorite designers are covertly [also] the greatest philanthropists and activists, with some truly making sustainability their main goal and ethos. Aurora James, Vivienne Westwood, Kenzo and Recho Omondi are prime examples of what it means to have an amazing message without compromising your work.

When I took these risks [with my collections], I was well aware that it could hurt me and change my life, but I wanted to bring light to stories that weren’t being told.

A few designers expressed to me that I was ruining my career by doing this. A lot of those same designers are now using political messages to offset their shitty sales figures, and, in those cases, it does bother me because it’s exploitation.

It’s a lot like watching a pageant, where the girls go up and say they want world peace but have no clue how to achieve that. They just know it will get them a round of applause. Or when people sing gospel at the Apollo because they know people won’t boo them if they sing the word Jesus. So I think the designers you’re referring to just want to boost their mediocre collections using graphics with political messages they don’t understand, for organizations they’ve never helped, just to get their applause.

What’s next for you and Pyer Moss?
I feel very good.

I’ve embraced the art world, and I think it’s a direct result of the company I’ve kept, like [VICE editor] Wilbert Cooper and [Museum Mammy founder] Kimberly Drew, who’ve put me on to many different artists and readings that have expanded my worldview. I am working on my first sculpture-slash-fashion project for the Museum of Modern Art. Also, some of my archives are on display now at the Museum at FIT. So, as I navigate that world more, I hope to create more art for public viewing.

For Pyer Moss, I have been working on a collection. I’m not sure when or where I will release it. I don’t care about the [fashion] calendar anymore, it doesn’t work.

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