The invite for the Pyer Moss spring/summer 2017 show read "Bernie vs. Bernie." With the ongoing presidential election, it was clear that one of those names was Bernie Sanders, the former Democratic presidential candidate known for his socialistic views. And it only took a few minutes to figure out the other Bernie was referring to Bernard Madoff, the infamous stockbroker who committed the biggest Ponzi scheme in US history.
While political fashion shows have become a noticeable trend this season, Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond is an OG at this sort of thing. A year ago, Raymond made headlines when he opened his spring/summer 2016 show with a film featuring footage of the deaths of Eric Garner and Walter Scott. He followed that up with a fall/winter 2016 show that examined depression, particularly in the black community. Both of these shows came as fully realized brand positions that spoke to Raymond's willingness to take a stand through his creations.
His spring/summer 2017 show followed in this tradition. It took place on September 11, the 15th anniversary of the attacks at the World Trade Center, the day when the two 110-story towers that were once seen as icons of American capitalism came tumbling down. The show was both a condemnation of the greed within the American free market—from chattel slavery to modern exploitation—and an expression of Raymond's own personal struggles—his brand is embroiled in a lawsuit with a former business partner involving fraud accusations.
The show opened with a scene of four black female sopranos wearing name tags like "No Name" and "Anonymous" while they rang cash registers. Their humming gave way to spoken-word artist and playwright Cyrus Aaron, who appeared on the runway and recited his poem "More Money, More Problems," which was written specifically for the show.
"We sure are a long way from home, but they still make us pay for it," Aaron said, alluding to the struggle of modern blacks and the plight of their ancestors, who were forcibly brought to this continent in chains. "Here we go again; more money, more problems," he said before the models finally took to the runway wearing a mix of suiting, leather jackets, and sportswear. There were sweatshirts featuring photos of Bernie Madoff's arrest as well as jackets emblazoned with the word "greed" in varsity letters.
This complex runway show may have been a product of Raymond's creative prowess and personal struggles, but it's execution was certainly a team effort. To bring "Bernie vs. Bernie" to life, he tapped a handful of talented creatives.
From the spoken word artist who opened the show, and the DJ in charge of imbuing the event with a texture that reflected the inability for people to "call in black," to the stylist who put the looks together without a moodboard, and the shoe designer who extended Kerby's concepts to footwear—all of these people came together to make "Bernie vs. Bernie" a reality. So we called them up to get deeper insight into Raymond's process and learn a bit more about the genesis of the compelling runway show.
Cyrus Aaron, Spoken Word
Kerby came to my play Someday earlier this year and loved it. He really connected with this one scene in particular, and it's entitled "To Kill a Blackbird." It's based on the Black Lives Matter activist Marshawn McCarrel, who committed suicide in February of this year. Coincidentally, Kerby paid his respects to him as well and shed light on mental illness and depression in his last show. So we instantly vibed, and we talked about the weight of it all and how heavy it is to be a leader and also hold onto your sanity. It was a really good conversation, so we just kept talking, and he said he had to have me in the show but didn't know what he wanted to do at first.
Probably a few months later, maybe in May, we met up again, and we had a long conversation about his ideas and what he was going through personally with legal issues. We were just talking about money issues that are particularly prevalent for young black entrepreneurs. He had this rough idea of pairing the two Bernie's against each other in theory, and I was like 'OK, I can see it.' That's a heavy topic when you're talking about finance and economics, especially through the black gaze, but I knew what he wanted to do. From there, I went to work and came up with three different poems for him. He ended up choosing 'More Money More Problems.'"
There's just so much to uncover. You know, the legacy of the black dollar, not just America but globally when you factor in the colonization and imperialism. It all presents so much text and narrative to explore that I couldn't put my pen down. The ideas just kept churning and especially because I don't usually have these platforms—particularly in a place like fashion week—I wanted to feel like I was doing it justice while also having a cohesive story.
I also helped direct the segment with the sopranos. Going from the foundation of Kerby's idea—he had done the opera singers last season, and I think he liked the thread of including that. We were trying to figure out a way to make that fit without having it be too much since I was already opening with a poem and no models walking. That itself was already extending the show outside of it's normal parameters. As Austin Millz got into the conversation, as he was building the sound for the show, we started hearing this idea about having so much pain about being at work when there's so much going on in the world outside. I think that represents the duality of being an everyday citizen trying to operate within your 9 to 5 knowing that in some cities in the US families aren't getting drinkable water. We were really trying to use that 30, 45 second window for the singers to convey that texture and convey that weight.
Austin Millz, Soundscape
I'm actually a DJ out of New York. So I do a lot of underground parties and clubs. A homegirl of mine reached out to me and said Kerby was looking for a curator in terms of his new line and his new show. So we set up a meeting.
I actually went into the meeting not knowing what was going on, but I left proud and happy to be a part of the process. I ended up setting the tone musically while Cyrus Aaron was reciting the poem as well as directing the sopranos who were humming and singing behind me. I was basically designing the sound sculpture for the whole show—the models as well.
I went through two or three ideas in my head before I got to the one I really wanted. I wanted to evoke a very emotional, angry, yet overcoming vibe with the music. I felt like that really got across with the key of the drums. I wanted something passionate, and with the music I created, I think I got all that emotion out.
I love the fact that this show had a cause and a political message. I really did go into this situation not knowing what was going to happen, and as it has happened, I've seen the message and felt its power. Being a person of color, being from inner-city Harlem, it all made sense for me. Especially since it was during fashion week.
Salehe Bembury, Shoe Designer
Kerby and I met about three years ago at a dinner at the Box. I started talking to him and his girlfriend, and we started talking about shoes. With me being the shoe addict that I am, that sort of turned into a conversation about fashion. At the time, I wasn't very familiar with his brand and what he was involved with, and he wasn't very familiar with what I was involved with, so it was just two like-minded individuals sparking up conversation.
This show was somewhat last minute from an execution standpoint. Kerby and I talk every week about everything from fashion to culture. So we kind of started floating this idea and I mentioned we could potentially use silicone to get the effect we wanted.
The extension of the outsole was basically supposed to act as a metaphor for anchors that bog us down in life. Obviously the subject matter of the show was more of a financial aesthetic, but there are all sorts of things that can bog us down in life. We clearly couldn't mold the shoes in concrete, but I figured we could do something that had the visual of stagnant hard material but still flexes with the foot and still functions for the show. Silicone was a good way of accomplishing that.
The things that drive Kerby and my creative process are slightly different. From my perspective, for the most part, I'm acting off of nostalgia. The reason I'm a footwear designer comes from basketball and watching NBA with my dad when I was a kid. It's about 90s rap culture and that sort of stuff. I'm selfish with my design to the point that I'm always trying to make the five-year-old kid inside of myself happy. With Kerby's design, it has way more focus. He's tackling bigger issues—issues that I care about, but I'm not necessarily tackling through design. If anything it was important for me to be a part of a design initiative that just had more significance to it because that's not necessarily what I do on a day-to-day basis.
Gro Curtis, Art Direction
We met through my agent maybe two and a half years ago, when he booked me because he liked my work. Strangely enough we just clicked together. We are not "yes" people, so our relationship developed together, even though we can sort of fight. It's not the typical designer-stylist relationship where there's a moodboard, and you get together six days before the show to put together the looks… We are constantly texting each other. We've never had a moodboard. We just talk about what's happening. Sometimes, I'm just pestering him with personal questions that I want to know. That's why each collection has an emotional, private, or intimate edge to it.
The idea for this collection was born in June. He was going through some financial problems. I mean, the brand was almost close to bankruptcy, and he was not sure if he was going to be able to do a collection. I just told him if you're going out, go with a bang, use this as a theme. This is about you.
In fashion, you have 70 percent of designers who don't make money. You have stylists and editors who don't make money. You have these street style stars who borrow all of their clothes. So it's one huge paradox to work in an industry of luxury, but over half of those people don't have any money. Yes, there are people from Vogue who have trust funds and stuff like that. But a ton of editors and stylists, designers and photographers are constantly struggling with money. It's all bullshit.
As a certain symbol of financial disaster in New York of course there's Bernie Madoff. I didn't want to touch Trump and Kerby agreed because everyone is doing Trump in every possible way from artists to fashion designers. But it was fascinating how many people forgot about Madoff and Wall Street. He was like the biggest thief in history, and no one is talking about it anymore.
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