Pyer Moss Tells The Fashion Industry That Black Lives Matter
Burberry’s new business model is certainly radical for such a prodigious brand, but it’s not unheard of. Runway shows that depart from the norm have been going on since the dawn of the wimple. It’s only recently, however, that designers have begun to incorporate a bit of a curveball element into their shows; the ways in which they do it are manifold, but the primary objective is always the same: to strip fashion’s veterans of their cushiony culottes and make them feel as viscerally uncomfortable as possible.
Vetements did this with their last show. It was for their SS16 collection, and the Paris-based label staged it inside of a (gasp) Chinese restaurant, prompting a full-blown hullaballoo from the establishment (albeit a very well-dressed one). But it’s Kerby Jean-Raymond, the founder and designer of Pyer Moss, that’s taken the “unconventional” runway show to new, uncharted heights.
Last season, the East Flatbush native staged an entire collection wholly devoted to honoring the lives lost from police brutality. The show opened with a short film, a video collage of footage from senseless, harrowing acts of police violence, interspersed with moving testimonials from Emerald Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, and Nicole Bell, the fiancée of Sean Bell. The clothes made a powerful statement too; there were white worker boots splattered with red paint that eerily resembled blood. The same boots also bore the names of women killed by police. And Jean-Raymond commissioned artist Gregory Siff to tag some of the clothing as well. Words like “love” and “breath, breath, breath” were inscribed on the back of lightweight utilitarian jackets.
With fashion becoming more and more Hollywoodized, the job of a designer is no longer a behind-the-scenes one—today, designers are more synonymous with celebrities. Yet where some try to capitalize on their fame for their own personal gain, Kerby Jean-Raymond uses his position to educate fashion denizens en masse.
Ahead of Pyer Moss’ FW16 show on Saturday, I hopped on over to their surprisingly quiet studio smack in the middle of a particularly bustling and panic friendly area of midtown. Walking there, I passed by a llama on seventh avenue, because of course I did, But also, thank God I did. Kerby saw the same llama earlier in the day, and now it’s our little inside joke. Or so I’d like to believe.
Are you guys super busy right now?
So this is the commercial collection that you’re seeing, and there’s more stuff being added to the show to give it more dramatic effect. Those things are being made right now.
You’re showing during women’s fashion week this year. Will you be showing women’s clothes too?
So the women’s capsule collection you released last March won’t turn into a full-blown women’s line?
Yeah. I don’t really care to do a women’s collection. I think the way that the schedule is set up with men’s and women’s is just stupid and antiquated. I think it should be genderless and just be fashion week. I think separating men’s fashion week from women’s fashion week is just dumb. It’s all pointless anyway because the way it works out for New York in general is that, we showed our collection in Paris [during market week] last month, and now we have to present a collection that’s already been bought. It’s backwards in a sense. So we have to keep in mind what the show is really for. The show is for publicity. It’s for the consumer. It’s for Instagram. It’s for social media. So it really doesn’t matter if we show during men’s or the women’s.
Erykah Badu is styling the show, right?
I know you’ve done stuff with musicians in the past. Do you feel there’s a relationship between fashion and music?
I am a huge music geek, and this is my opportunity to fan out. I’m in a position where I can actually reach out to my favorite musicians and they actually talk back, because I’m in an interesting place. Usher is one of my favorites and I was recently able to do his entire tour. I am about to do another tour for him right now. We worked with tons of musicians in some capacity. I always felt like I was the biggest fan of Erykah and now I have an opportunity to work with her on this level.
That’s so cool. So you got in touch by just reaching out to her?
I put it in the air. I started telling people a year and a half ago, “How cool would it be if Erykah styled my show?” One of my friends from college, [turns out], styles her. He told her on the spot, “I have this dope designer who loves your work and wants you to style his show.” She called me and said, “Hey I heard you wanted me to style your show. I have been a big fan of your stuff.” It just worked.
I know your last show was pretty political. What was the general reaction to it and were there any reactions that you were surprised by?
I was actually surprised that most of it was positive. I would say that 90 percent of it was positive. Then I got death threats.
Oh god. Like from white supremacists?
Yeah, white supremacist groups, police departments, from different types of people. I got maybe seven of those angry, racist letters, but it still really depressed me. I felt like I had made a bad career move by doing this. That’s just how I was feeling at the time. Then I was getting stopped and recognized a lot. People would stop and say good things like, “My parents are so proud of you.” Every day I would take the train, but after the show, I was getting stopped all the time. I left right after the show, went to L.A. for a little bit, and tried to live there. I was like, “I’m gonna live in LA”, and I tried it for three weeks. That was a huge mistake.
I was staying in West Hollywood and trying to connect with friends that I had there. It wasn’t good. People flaked on me all the time and nobody kept their word. It just felt like a false, very fake, weird place, and that’s what inspired this collection. This collection is called Double Bind but if you look throughout the collection, it’s like, “You don’t have any friends in LA” prints, and like trying to find the meaning of life in the Valley. That’s just where this came from, [during a] time [when I was] trying to figure out where I would be happiest. The collection is about receiving mixed messages and being in a constant state of flux and confusion.
So you just moved back?
Yeah, there’s no place like home.
I know you worked with Gregory Siff on your last collection. You’re obviously working with Erykah Badu now. Are there any other artists or people that you’d like to work with?
Yeah. Right now on this collection, I’m working with Maurice Scarlett. He’s some kid I found on Instagram and he’s from West Baltimore. I’m from East Flatbush, and I really connected with him through pictures because I was just like, “Shit, he’s grown up in the environment I kind of grew up in.” you got that talented kid in this rough situation—it’s exactly how I felt coming up. And I don’t know what it was, but I just DM-ed him and was like, “Yo, give me a call.” And I didn’t even know what I was DM-ing him for; I just wanted to connect with him. And then we got to talking and I was like, “Hey, can you make me some prints? And let’s just put them in this collection.” So he’s part of this collection. It happened in like three days.”
“We don’t really follow the traditional campaign seasons and the calendar of fashion. We just want to do cool shit as it comes to us.”
I also read that you wanted to do more in-house editorials—I think that was like last year. Have you started doing more?
Yeah, we don’t really follow the traditional campaign seasons and the calendar of fashion. We just want to do cool shit as it comes to us. So we’ve just been shooting really random stuff—we haven’t put anything out yet. We’re kind of just trying to get it all together so we can make our own calendar, but you’ll start seeing more of the things we’ve been shooting. Actually we just released one this week—we just did a surprise collection with SSENSE and we released it on Monday and it’s been doing really really really well. It’s our fastest selling collection to date.
Is it true that you produce everything within a three-block radius of your studio?
Yeah. So we have a sample room back here that makes 90 percent of our stuff. Then our leather is made around the corner—that’s why I was able to see the llama. And then there’s a network of small sample rooms in the area, and we just utilize all of them. We’re kind of outgrowing it now, so we’re just trying to either grow our space or find people who are maybe a little further out. But our goal is to always keep everything in New York.
Cool. And no packages go out without you signing off on them?
Obviously you’re a relatively new designer, and I’m sure you’ve experienced how hard it is to break into the industry. What do you think it is about your clothes, and you as a designer, that set you apart from the others?
I have no fucking clue. I don’t know, I’m lucky. It’s a combination of talent and dumb luck. I think everything we do is super genuine. There’s no publicity stunt, there’s no stories. It’s really just who we are—and if you spent the day with everyone here, you’d realize that. And I think it’s also about getting the team that thinks like you. That’s the hardest part, but once you can achieve that—once you have people that are likeminded—then everything just kind of flows naturally. And the product that comes out is genuine, and people can see [that].
Where do you look to for inspiration?
Movies, mostly. Movies, and then—I hate to admit this—but I was never a big reader until mid last year. And now that I’m reading more, I’m getting really cool inspiration from words and things like that.
What kind of books are you reading?
Mostly nonfiction. The book that I just finished last week was Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’ve been reading a lot of things that pertain to black culture and black lives. But I’m also reading motivational stuff too, [like] Third Circle Theory. I just read this book called The God of Small Things, which is an amazing book about life in India and the caste system. So I’m reading stuff like that and getting inspiration—you know, I think the word “mineral” stuck out to me. And then I had that rose gold leather developed.
If you could choose one protagonist from a book or a movie that most represents the person you want to dress, who would it be?
Christian Bale playing Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.
Really? I wouldn’t expect that. Can you elaborate on that?
I like that he’s super educated, but at the same time very self-absorbed, very confused, very maniacal, but also very vulnerable. I think he’s the epitome of the crazy person who fits the Pyer Moss aesthetic. Every time we do a photo shoot I always play the scene right before he hacks up Jared Leto. I play that scene for every model, and I’m like, “That’s your motivation.” That’s why all of our models usually have the same expression, because they always watch that right before.
“She was like, ‘The people who are remembered are the ones who broke the rules, not the ones who followed them.’ That’s the best piece of advice I’ve gotten.”
That’s funny. What accomplishment are you most proud of so far?
Being able to donate to the ACLU is probably one of them. Actually, no, you know what I would say it was? Last season we did outreach to Emerald Garner, who is Eric Garner’s daughter, and Nicole Bell, who was Sean Bell’s fiancé before he was killed, and several family members of certain victims of police brutality. Being able to let them tell their story and their side of the story, and from my platform, I think that was the biggest thing.
And the subsequent chain reaction from that was all my celebrity friends running with those ideas. You saw the Tidal event around “Chains,” which is Usher’s song—stuff like that. All those things, it kind of did a spiral effect. That put me in [a position] where I could speak to people like Harry Belafonte, Jay-Z, and Soledad O’Brien—all these different people—about what these people’s stories were, and then let them run with it on their bigger platforms and do concerts and do outreach and do donations and charities and things like that. I think the last show really did its job, the way I saw it.
Are you following the presidential election at all? If so, who are you into?
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given since starting in the industry?
Actually I just got it yesterday. Erykah [Badu] called me, and she was just shooting the shit and talking. I said the word “rules” and she said, “No no no. Take that back.” She said, “There are no rules, don’t ever think of yourself as having to confine to any rules, forget the rules.” She was like, “The people who are remembered are the ones who broke the rules, not the ones who followed them.” So that’s the best piece of advice I’ve gotten.
How do you think your upbringing fostered your career today?
I think the awesome thing about my upbringing—a lot of people see this as a setback—but I was left alone a lot. And that gave an me opportunity to really find myself at an early age and to really foster my own thoughts, my own ideas, and my own energies about certain things. I wasn’t confined to doing things a certain way because I didn’t have parents to coddle me. For a lot of people, they need their parents; I didn’t have that. My dad has always been around in some way, but he’s more like a, “Did you eat? Is your homework done?” [kind of guy]. We never really had conversations or anything like that, so that kind of left me alone to just figure out my own shit. I think that made me an entrepreneur very early. You know, I sold three businesses before I got out of high school.
A sneaker company, a t-shirt brand, and a jeans company. I’ve always wanted to do my own thing—I’ve always had jobs too, because that was like a means to an end. But I always knew that I was going to be an entrepreneur and run my own companies.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I’m a huge car guy. If I weren’t a fashion designer, I’d probably be a mechanic—a body shop mechanic. Or a doctor [laughs]. No, I’m like super handsy, I love building stuff.
What’s your most prized possession?
I have a Michael Jordan 45 game one jersey. That’s my prized possession. I shouldn’t have said that—someone is going to try to break into my house. It’s locked up somewhere!
Images of Kerby and the Pyer Moss studio taken exclusively for Milk by Carlos Santolalla. All other images by Landon Nordeman for The New York Times and via ImaxTree.
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