To say that Kerby Jean-Raymond’s Pyer Moss show, which closed out the week of Paris couture, was an historic moment for fashion would be an understatement. It embodied a long list of firsts. The first time the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture had ever invited a Black American designer to show their work in its entire 150 year plus history. The first Paris couture show to be live-streamed from New York. The first Paris couture show to be held in the estate of a daughter of former slaves, Madam C.J. Walker, who was America’s first female self-made millionaire. The first Paris couture show to be opened by a Black Panther (Elaine Brown, who was the first woman to ever head up the organisation.) And the first Paris couture show to be rained out by a Tropical Storm (Elsa.) A lot of Firsts — and a lot of powerful women — in one momentous show.
The magnitude of the occasion wasn’t lost on the fashion community. Prominent editors, celebrities and insiders including Tracee Ellis Ross, Bethann Hardison, Kiki Layne, Law Roach and a long list of others travelled in from Los Angeles and Manhattan on Thursday, the day the show was originally meant to take place, and sat in a torrential downpour until Jean-Raymond and team decided to postpone, extending Paris couture until the weekend. What unfolded on Saturday was a celebration of Black invention, community and history, laced with a playful sense of camp and sharp, pointed commentary about the wider cultural moment.
Whose history gets to be taught in schools? What does equality really mean? And how exactly does one go about building generational wealth? These were the questions underlining Jean-Raymond’s boldly camp lineup of towering sculpture: a gown made of multi-layered hot rollers that took four months to create, a shimmering jewel-encrusted lamp, an enormous jar of peanut butter, all representing items invented by Black Americans. And as the models walked the runway, it became clear that the celebratory moment was also, in a way, an embarrassing one for fashion. It boggles the mind that it has taken 150 years to get here.
‘I found this list from the U.S Library of Congress that was accepted inventions by Black people. I went through the list and realised that I didn't know any of that stuff. I started asking other people if they knew of the inventions, and nobody knew,’ Jean-Raymond said in an interview after the show of his team of ten. He said what was on the runway was the fourth iteration of the collection. ‘It required a lot of funds because it wasn't a typical garment construction. We had to use fabricators. We made most of the stuff in L.A., where we had a studio. We spent a lot of time together problem solving, welding, gluing, fabricating, all types of shit, and it was super fun to create. But the concept is layered. There's no central thing, the general concept is that these are inventions by Black people, and I wanted to reintroduce them to Black people, and reverse any erasure that may exist—and troll a little bit too.’
And while the camp nature of the clothes might have caught some off-guard, Jean-Raymond said the humour was intentional, allowing him to correct misconceptions about who he is as a designer. ‘I get upset when press in the past have referred to me as the "Black Lives Matter" designer. That is who I am, but everyone who knows me thinks that I'm like, the funniest person. Or at least I think I’m the funniest person. I never really get to show my sense of humor. Everyone's been writing the narrative for me. Everyone else gets to decide the type of person or designer that I am. But actually, I’m none of those things.’
Jean-Raymond plans to exhibit the collection in the estate where the show was held later in the autumn: ‘All of the pieces are going to live here as sculpture.’
Will this be a turning point for fashion? That's the question. More than a year after the tragic murder of George Floyd, with countless companies and brands having made diversity, inclusion and equity commitments, the change in the air is palpable but its pace continues to be slow. In celebrating Black invention, Jean-Raymond’s collection makes a compelling case for creating one’s own opportunities, rather than waiting for the established powers that be. ‘I want people to [understand] Black wealth is not a dirty thing. I’ve talked about multi-pronged approaches to liberation, and this is just one of them.'