Designer Kerby Jean-Raymond has channeled his personal struggles into his art, creating fashion that honors the legacy of his late mother and highlights the systemic oppression of African-American people in the US.
On August 13th of last year, Kerby Jean-Raymond stared down the barrels of three Glock 19 handguns aimed at him by a trio of blue-clad New York City police officers. The 28-year-old is the designer behind Pyer Moss, the high-end fashion label that makes $3,000 leather jackets and dresses celebrities like Usher and Rihanna. He's about as far from a "thug" as you can get. And yet, there he was in some coppers' crosshairs, one false move away from having his name added to that long, sad list of unarmed black men who've been gunned down by police.
He hadn't done anything to provoke the confrontation. He'd just decided to take an evening stroll around his neighborhood in Jamaica, Queens, while he talked on the phone with his cousin. His free hand was wrapped in a cast, a casualty of a recent jet-skiing trip in Ibiza. Being a fashion designer known for his dark palette, he had opted for a black-colored cast. But in the eyes of the boys in blue that night, Kerby wasn't a young man just taking a walk, and his cast wasn't just a cast; he was someone threatening, carrying something lethal.
As Kerby lifted his injured hand to scratch his face, he heard a voice bark out at him: "Put it down! Put it down!" He turned to his left and saw three police officers pointing their firearms at his body. They thought his cast was a gun. "I felt like I wanted to piss on myself," he told me. "I just yelled, 'It's a cast! It's a cast! It's a cast!'"
After they lowered their weapons, one of the cops came over and patronizingly patted Kerby on the back. "Next time, get a yellow one," he said, furthering the notion that it was Kerby's fault that he'd almost been shot while walking around his own neighborhood, minding his own business.
That moment wasn't the first heated encounter Kerby, a New York City native, had with the NYPD, but the intensity of it gave him the push he needed to radicalize his work in fashion. It wasn't long after that incident that the designer dedicated Pyer Moss's entire spring/summer 2016 show to protesting American law enforcement's extrajudicial killings of unarmed black people. "I realized I had to use my show to talk about this problem. It's not going away, it's happening everywhere, all the time."
This stand was an extremely bold move for New York Fashion Week. Despite all the claims of artistic expression, at the end of the day, NYFW is about commerce. It's where fashion editors and buyers who run retail businesses go to decide what they want to sell. It's certainly not a political space. By practically staging a Black Lives Matter demonstration during his show, Kerby stuck his neck out in a way that not only put him at odds with his fashion peers, but also fucked up his business. The now infamous collection and show cost him $63,000 dollars to produce, and it lost his label more than $120,000 in business when retailers pulled their orders because they saw his message as bad for their bottom line.
Although the show was attended by the usual cohort of magazine editors, professional buyers, and fashionable celebrities such as rappers A$AP Ferg and Angel Haze, it was no ordinary NYFW presentation. Before Kerby's models even hit the runway, he played a searing video consisting of pointed interviews with the family members of black people murdered in acts of police violence, such as Sean Bell's fiancée, Nicole Bell, and Eric Garner's daughter, Emerald Garner. The interviews were interlinked with graphic video footage of police brutality and photographs of victims such as Tamir Rice and Walter Scott.
After the video began, male and female models wearing Kerby's latest collection came streaming down the catwalk. But these were not your typical runway looks. Their shoes were doused in fake blood, and their garments bore the names of dead citizens such as Eric Garner. One model wore white shoes with Garner's last words—"I can't breathe"—scrawled on them in black marker. But the pièce de résistance came in the form of radical graffiti.
"Kerby told me, 'Now go out there and shake the can,'" said artist Gregory Siff, who ran onto the catwalk and spray-painted the garments of three models during the show. The stunt, which was intended to look impromptu, symbolized the indiscriminate and inevitable nature of police violence against the black community—it's a brand of violence that Kerby feels we're all a bit too comfortable with.
I met Kerby a week after that show at his design studio and production factory, located on the 14th floor of a midcentury building in Manhattan's Garment District. There were rows and rows of silver rolling racks stuffed with the clothes from his past collections. A mood board sat above a makeshift office desk, plastered with pictures of models in his typically elongated garments. And in the back, there were several sewing machines and cabinets full of colorful fabrics stacked on top of one another, ready to be cut into handmade samples.
Kerby's lanky six-foot frame floated toward me on one of those electric hoverboards that got Wiz Khalifa arrested. He was rocking a look that seemed to come straight out of his runway shows. He sported a low-cut fade, a T-shirt of his own design that borrowed the cut of a baseball jersey, black shorts over skin-tight Nike compression pants, and a pair of perforated Air Jordan 6 Retros in black, grey, and infrared.
This was an intense time for the young designer. He was still grappling with both the critical praise and the financial setbacks of his last show, but he seemed to take it all in stride—possibly because the trials he faces today as a designer are nothing compared with the obstacles he's had to overcome in his journey from growing up in a three-story walk-up in a rough part of East Flatbush, Brooklyn to owning his own global million-dollar business with his partner Mona Ng.
Since launching Pyer Moss in 2013, Kerby has produced five successful collections. His gear is retailed in 21 stores worldwide, including the iconic British boutique Browns of London, which is known for supporting the likes of Alexander McQueen and Christopher Kane early in their careers.
Unlike many other designers, he also owns his own factory, which is in the same space as his design studio. He uses the factory not just for Pyer Moss but for making the clothes of emerging designers who "don't have the facility space or who are getting gouged because New York is such an expensive place to produce." Not to mention, when he's off work, he whips around New York City in a sophisticated Batmobile.
All these things—the car, the factory, the long list of orders—seemed to embody Kerby's ascendance. But in light of his near-death experience in Queens, these material and professional successes haven't insulated him from being treated like any other black man on the streets of New York City. And it's that painful duality that's ever-present in his best work.
"I can't imagine myself doing anything else," Kerby said to me about the firestorm caused by his last collection. "I live to do this, but at the same time, I don't like the industry. People assign this magic to fashion, but for me it's about what you can do with fashion."
Although he's lost some business, his approach has earned him the respect of fashion vets such as Marc Ecko, who said to me, "I respect that he uses his platform and his time in this place to express something more than simply fashion as a product. He doesn't have to do that, but he does—and that's bold to me."
The sense of responsibility that Kerby brings to fashion can be traced back to his youth in East Flatbush. I rode there with him in his souped-up car to get a better understanding of who he is. Typical for New York City, the historically Caribbean neighborhood has changed a great deal over the past ten years. Today, it's becoming increasingly gentrified, with a Target and homes that can fetch $1,000,000. But when Kerby was growing up there in the 90s, the crime rate was more than 70 percent higher, and the neighborhood was ground zero for the crack epidemic and all of the violence that came with it.
Like Kerby, many of the artists who grew up in this area tinge their expression with the struggles of black urban life: Local rappers who've come to national prominence such Bobby Shmurda and the Joey Bada$$ use their music to paint grim pictures of the violence that Kerby saw growing up. Meechy Darko of the Flatbush Zombies put it like this in the song "Blacktivist": "My biography is gory. / My life [is] like an American horror story... / Second Amendment, nigga, grab your guns. / Invest in a vest if you're from those slums..."
Kerby saw this kind shit on a daily basis. His face still bears the scar of a stabbing he suffered on the playground by another student when he was only 11 years old. And our first stop in East Flatbush was the corner where his cousin, Maton Pierre, was shot in the back of the head in January 2012. It was also only a few streets away from where 16-year-old Kimani Gray was killed by two plainclothes police officers the following year. The fact that Kerby was able to avoid the perils that have decimated so many of the people he grew up with is not lost on him. "I have a certain survivor's guilt of being somewhat removed from the neighborhood," he said to me.
Next we went back to his childhood home, a red three-story walk-up across the street from his elementary school. He was raised there by his Haitian father, who still resides in the house. Kerby's mother, however, died in 1994, when he was only seven years old. The designer didn't find out she had passed until a neighborhood kid teased him about it when he was 11 years old. He came home and confronted his father, demanding to know what had happened. But his father felt that a young Kerby "couldn't handle" the truth. Instead, his dad told him that she was on vacation in Haiti. Kerby's father still hasn't revealed to him how his mother departed.
"My stepmother told me [she] had sickle cell anemia. But I was a science wiz at the time. [I knew] if she had the trait, then I'd have [it too]." Kerby said these misdirections only made him lash out more when he was young. Today, the pain is still with him. So he inscribes the number "94" on many of his garments, a nod to the year she died. And his brand's monicker is a direct homage to his mother's name, which was Vania Moss Pierre.
"My brother's mother passed when he was really young, and I think that has shaped him into a very ambitious person," said Florence Duval, Kerby's cousin, who considers Kerby her brother because they were raised together. "You know, when people go through things, it makes them want to have more and live better. He was always a very determined and focused child, and he always went for what he wanted."
When Kerby was young, what he wanted was sneakers. Even in his preteens, he was lusting after the kicks worn by the older high school kids, because they had everything—Air Max 95s, Jordan XIs, Huaraches...
"I couldn't really afford Jordans, so I would get the Eastbay catalogues and circle and cut out the ones I wanted," said the designer, who now has a collection of more than 700 pairs of sneakers he keeps in storage. His obsession with sneakers grew until those sneaker cut-outs covered his bedroom door and school notebooks.
When it came time to apply for a high school, Kerby saw in the New York City high school catalogue a course called "Garment Construction," held at the High School of Fashion Industries. He decided to apply there because he thought that class would get him one step closer to the sneakers he wanted and maybe a job designing at Nike. But it didn't work out quite the way he planned.
"The first thing I had to do in the class was make a baby romper out of fabric with M&M logos all over it. I hated it," he said. "The whole time I was making it, I was thinking, This is stupid. Who would wear this? But my sister had her first baby around that time, and I gave her the romper. It was a testament for me. It was like a launching pad, because I thought, What else could I make ?"
The High School of Fashion Industries, located in Manhattan's affluent Chelsea neighborhood, was an escape for Kerby from the Brooklyn street life that was swallowing up so many of his friends. But it wasn't a totally smooth transition. "I got in trouble for the first year for being disruptive in class, and my homeroom teacher gave me an ultimatum to either take a suspension or intern with her roommate, who was an assistant to fashion designer Kay Unger. I took the internship because I didn't want my dad to kick my ass."
Kay Unger is a veteran New York designer who's a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Her brand is found at nearly every major department store, and powerful women such as Oprah and Hillary Clinton wear her clothes. She met Kerby a week after he started his internship and quickly made him her personal apprentice.
"Right off the bat, I saw in Kerby an innate talent for design thinking and solving problems," Unger said. "He has always had an element of genius for understanding a consumer and for finding the straight line between two points."
In 2003, when Kerby was 15 years old, Unger gave him $150 so he could start his own T-shirt line, which was first called Mary's Jungle and later called Montega's Fury. In 2009, he sold that line for $14,000 to help pay for his tuition at Hofstra University on Long Island. When Unger helped actress Georgina Chapman and model Keren Craig start the high fashion label Marchesa, she brought Kerby on board so he could see firsthand how to build a successful brand. This was essential training for his future work with Pyer Moss.
"Kerby is an intellectual designer," Unger told me. "He has seen so much in his short life. Now a very successful brand, Pyer Moss is a platform for Kerby to share his knowledge, to voice his own perspective, and to interject against racism and unfair treatment of blacks throughout our country. Kerby's vision is all about how we move forward as a culture and as a society in order to redefine the narratives that haunt our past and define our present."
By weaving messages that question systemic inequality in America into his designs, Kerby Jean-Raymond is providing a new model for what high fashion can do and whom it can come from.
Kerby showed the first collection of Pyer Moss almost two years ago. "I needed stuff that would fit my long arms," he explained to me, holding his arms. "I made a motorcycle jacket and a few shirts that fit my arms and long torso. My girlfriend at the time said I should make it into a collection." His former girlfriend and current operations manager for Pyer Moss, Brittney Escovedo, helped Kerby's first camouflage motorcycle jacket get on the back of pop singer Rihanna, who wore it immediately and set the blogs on fire, creating hype that propelled the brand.
"I am a supporter of people realizing their dreams, so it was natural for me to push Kerby to start Pyer Moss," said Escovedo. "His passion was undeniable. He had a unique perspective that I knew would be well received. He worked tirelessly to get the fit and aesthetic just right, and I leveraged my relationships to make sure that Pyer Moss was getting the attention of the fashion elite."
Pyer Moss is all about mixing old-school tailoring and more futuristic athletic-inspired gear. As such, according to Kerby, "the Pyer Moss aesthetic is shorts over compression pants and a leather jacket." This blend of utility and luxury quickly attracted fans like LeBron James and performers like Usher, who had Kerby design his entire wardrobe for his last tour. "The man understands shape well," Usher told me. "He cuts his clothes in a way that represent the culture but doesn't bastardize it."
Today, Kerby's Pyer Moss label sits at the cutting edge of American fashion, not just because its unique pairing of sportswear and tailoring, but also because of its bold use of fashion to spark awareness about bigger issues. This political consciousness didn't start with the last collection; instead it's been growing steadily as a defining element of the brand. With this approach, Kerby puts himself alongside innovators like Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan, who challenged dominant perceptions in society with their bold presentations.
Kerby is also having an impact by simply being a black designer in the upper echelons of the fashion industry, which has long been plagued by diversity issues. Right now, African-American designers only account for 12 of the CFDA's 470 members. Not to mention, black designers only made up 2.7 percent of NYFW's officially scheduled 260 shows in the fall/winter 2015 season. And unfortunately, there are still a lot of institutional obstacles keeping things that way. Kerby commented on this with his fall/winter 2015 collection, which was partially inspired by the fact that a PR company who repped Hood by Air passed on representing him because it said it "already had a black designer" on its roster.
Of the small number of black designers who have actually reached the level attained by Kerby, the majority of them chose to remain silent about the injustices that plague the black community. By weaving messages that question systemic inequality in America into his designs, Kerby is providing a new model for what high fashion can do and whom it can come from. He's also creating a new lane for more youths from urban communities to drive down.
I saw this impact firsthand as I sat in the passenger seat of his Audi R8, racing west down 47th Street. When we stopped at a light in Midtown, a young Dominican boy wearing a baseball uniform saw Kerby, a young black man who looked like him, behind the wheel of his very expensive, elite car. He ran up on us and asked what kind of car Kerby was driving. Kerby told him with a smile. Then he started to guess what Kerby did for a living to have such a nice ride—but he couldn't get it right. Of course, design never crossed his mind. "Are you in real estate?" the kid asked. A stunned expression washed over Kerby's face. He poked his head out the window as he rolled through the light and said, "No, I'm a fashion designer."
Pyer Moss will be showing its fall/winter 2016 collection on February 13th during New York Fashion Week. Check back to VICE.com later this month for our coverage of Kerby Jean-Raymond's latest creations.
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