In Conversation with the Man, the Myth, the Legend: Kerby Jean-Raymond

Kerby Jean Raymond at Sole DXB 2019
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When people employ the phrase “a force to be reckoned with”, it is a warning. Forces of nature can decimate regions, lay waste to cities, and take out entire infrastructures. Contained in the phrase is the tacit implication that if one is to reckon with the force, one will lose. And in the fashion world, there are few forces beyond multi-billion-dollar multinational conglomerates that wield true power and influence. Individual forces are few and far between. One of them is Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss

He uses his position as one of America’s foremost designers to speak truth to power, to challenge the status quo, and to relay the black experience via art, music, and design. With a low voice that measures every uttered syllable with great intent and a steady eye-to-eye gaze, Jean-Raymond’s presence is authoritative. He is both the maestro and the orchestra; he’s in command of the art and facilitating it at the same time. His shows aren’t stale runway presentations with models stalking moodily down a catwalk. They are events. They have solo concerts, sermons, full choirs, and – of course – a fantastic array of explosively colorful and intricate designs. 

In working to reclaim and elevate the narrative of the struggle and triumph of being black in America, Jean-Raymond’s work is a call for empathy and understanding. More than just a fashion designer, he is a Creative Director building an immense body of genre-spanning work from his personal experiences, his dreams for the future, and from a generation of young black artists who have never had the chance to be visible. When people have encountered his force, they have been reckoned with. After a troubling experience with Business of Fashion, he penned an electrifying essay that called out the industry’s rampant commodification of diversity.

Recently, on Netflix’s new fashion design competition show Next in Fashion, Jean-Raymond was [spoiler alert] unwilling to bend his decision on the contestants the other judges wanted to send home. Instead of compromising – or caving – he walked off the set. We had the opportunity to speak with Jean-Raymond about racial politics in the fashion industry and his thought-provoking work as the Artistic Director of Reebok Studies during his time at Sole DXB. Listen in.

Kerby Jean-Raymond at Sole DXB 2019
Kerby Jean-Raymond at Sole DXB 2019 | Photo: Courtesy of Reebok by Pyer Moss

Let’s go through this decade. You were working at Sprint in 2009 and, now, you’re at the top of the fashion game. It’s been a wild ride, I’m sure, but it didn’t happen overnight.
No, it didn’t. I started going to fashion school in 2000 and I started working in fashion in 2001, so I’ve been at this since I was 14 years old. Fast forward to 2012, when I started to conceptualize what Pyer Moss would eventually become… it’s been a long, long journey. When I first started my post-college career, I didn’t really know where I was going to go. Was I going to go into fashion? Into politics? Into law school? I did actually go to law school – tried it, but it didn’t work. I was really trying to figure myself out.

Pyer Moss was born from, first, having a decade of experience before I started it and, also, from the inability to find a job. The hiring practices in the fashion space can be so elitist. Looking how I look and coming from where I come from and speaking the way I do, those opportunities that I got when I was young and cute and 14 – when it was a novelty to have me in the office – weren’t there when I was 21 or 22. So I struggled for a bit to find my place. I wanted to do this full time. For every door that wasn’t open for me, I had to build a door. I had to make my own space.

For every door that wasn’t open for me, I had to build a door. I had to make my own space.

That’s probably why you leave this door open for other people, and give them opportunities you didn’t have?
It’s important. I think back on how hard this decade was. My housing situation was unstable, and I was sometimes sleeping in my car – a  midnight-blue BMW ‘528ix’ from 1998 is what I slept in. When I look back on all of those hurdles, why would I as a human with a conscience want anyone else to go through that? Some people who grew up in a f*cked up environment say, ‘I want my kids to experience the same thing I experienced because it builds character.’ Listen, no, I don’t want that for you. I’m going to give some shortcuts, I don’t want you to have to sleep in your car just because I did.

But suffering also shapes who we are.
You have to trust your struggle for sure, but that doesn’t mean you have to struggle unnecessarily. Let’s look at it like this: I was coming from a place of zero. You’re still going to struggle if you start at 10, but I’d rather you struggle from a place of 10. If we keep our people – I’m talking about minority groups – in the dark, the place they’ll always start from is zero. I’m going to help them out because I don’t want them to start at zero.

When people call you a thought leader, does that feel like a mantle you want to accept?
No, I don’t want to be a thought leader. I don’t want to be known as an activist.

That’s what everyone calls you.
I hear it, I hear them – I hear their reasons for it. It’s just that, when it comes to activists specifically, we [Pyer Moss] tend to highlight Nadia Lopez, Valencia Clay, Precious Blood Ministries… there’s real people out here who are not just tweeting about it, throwing up a post, having a good cry, and jerking an emotion out of someone. They’re out here really doing the work. For me to put myself in the same breath as them, just because I have the means and a platform now, is not right. I wouldn’t say that I am an activist because there is a lot more I could do. When people say the word activist, I immediately think, ‘What are you activating?’

Kerby Jean Raymond Sole DXB 2019
Kerby Jean-Raymond at Sole DXB 2019 | Photo: Courtesy of Reebok by Pyer Moss

You’re injecting a lot of social provocation into your work. You’re synthesizing it with choirs and collaborations with overlooked black artists. What is, in your heart, the intention of Pyer Moss? 
You can call me an amplifier. We are talking to and about people who have been criminally underrepresented in the fashion space. For so long, fashion was all about showing you the unattainable. Pyer Moss’s way is to show you how you fit into your own aspirations. I’m never going to be blonde, skinny, and in a country house overlooking a horse ranch. That’s not my life.

But you don’t want it to be.
No, and that’s what we’re saying. You don’t have to accept these concepts that are rooted in self-hatred. Pyer Moss is an exercise in self-awareness, self-preservation, self-love, and self-care. We have to use this platform that we have at Pyer Moss to show people you’re beautiful in your own skin. You can be whatever the hell you want – as long as it’s you.

I want to touch on something that might be controversial. You’re not here for white people, that’s not why Pyer Moss exists. Let’s just say that. But you have an artistic directorship with Reebok Studies, the marketing of which is global. Is there a conflict between these positions?
Yes and no. That’s actually hilarious. You’re the first person to ask that question, but I’m actually happy you did. Black people have never been spoken to in this space. We’ve been marketed to in a way that specifically says, ‘I’m going to show you what you can never be.’ And black people are going to go and take bits and pieces of that, show out amongst each other, and say, ‘I’m cleaner than you.’

That was marketing for a long time. When I say we’re not speaking to white people, it’s because we’re speaking specifically to black people about their beauty and their contributions to the world. We’re not excluding anyone from receiving that message, but the message is created for black people and delivered to invoke an emotion of pride in black people.

Would you feel a way if you saw a random white kid wearing the shirt from your Spring/Summer 2019 collection that says ‘Stop calling 911 on the culture’.
No! Honestly, no, not at all.

Pyer Moss is an exercise in self-awareness, self-preservation, self-love, and self-care.

Because no matter what, it’s amplifying the message?
Yes, and because the culture is the culture. People who know that language know what the culture is. I could have said ‘stop calling 911 on black people’ and it would have been completely fine, but I probably wouldn’t have sold as many shirts. We’re not going to sell things if they feel alienating. The culture is the culture. If white people wear that shirt, to me, it’s a revolutionary act. If you look at our tagged images on Instagram, it’s about 50/50.

White people love black culture when it’s convenient for them. 
The truth is, none of us can exist without each other. White people need black people, and black people need white people – we all need each other. That’s the end-all-be-all. We don’t aim to exclude anyone, but we do market in a way that is meant to invoke a sense of pride in black people. That’s it. 

You bring music, print-making, art, politics, and social commentary to the table. You’re synthesizing a bigger world than just fashion. Fashion is a product. What fashion does is commodify minority experiences. You have tackled that issue before regarding the commodification of diversity. Do you ever feel cautious going into these spaces?
Oh, for sure.

You are clearly aware of it.
Absolutely. I know why I’m here. I’m no one’s puppet. What’s more dangerous than someone who doesn’t care about money and has it? We’re a dangerous group in that sense because we really don’t care. We don’t see ourselves as part of one industry. I’ll play music, I’ll direct films, and my art’s going to come out the same. The narrative is going to stay the same because it’s true to me.

Reebok Fury Trail sneaker
Reebok 'Fury Trail' sneaker | Photo: Courtesy of Reebok by Pyer Moss

I can play in any medium, and fashion is the one I am most comfortable with. Is it what I’ll do forever? I don’t know.

You’re in a really rarefied position because you have this lens and you’re so thoughtful about how you carry out your work. I think that carries over into the work you’re doing with Reebok, creating a cool shoe that has a soul and a message. Can you talk about the Ghanian term sankofa that inspired your new collection with Reebok?
It means ‘go back and get it’. It’s about reclaiming your identity, reclaiming your narrative, and staying true to your roots. It’s about being conscious and cognizant of who you are and what you represent. As far as Reebok by Pyer Moss goes, my work with Reebok is an extension of Pyer Moss. The whole collection is designed, and then we decide which pieces are going to Reebok. It’s not a complete departure from what I do on the runway.

Everything we do at Pyer Moss is with reason. We don’t make anything that doesn’t have meaning. When I was going to another big brand, they weren’t giving me creative control. They wanted to make my messaging work within their prescribed silhouettes. They wanted me to force my vision into these rubrics. It didn’t work. The conversation with Reebok was so fluid, it was like, ‘go ahead and do what you feel like you need to do.’

Let’s talk about your ‘Fury Trail’ design. Can you describe the architecture of the shoe?
We fight [with Reebok] about this design all the time. They don’t understand why we need to build up, why it has different levels. Lena [Waithe] wrote this line in Queen and Slim – which I worked on with her team – for when Daniel Kaluuya’s character gets on a horse: ‘Nothing scares a white man more than a black man on a horse because you have to look up to him.’ I have an incessant need to build up. That’s why the shoe has different levels, I need them to be high. There is a deliberate nature to these experiments. 

Do you think you’ll stay in fashion forever?
I think of myself as an artist, first and foremost. I can play in any medium, and fashion is the one I am most comfortable with. Is it what I’ll do forever? I don’t know.

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