The Designer Challenging Police Racism at New York Fashion Week
Before showing his womenswear collection, Kerby Jean-Raymond showed a powerful video addressing race and police brutality.
The lights dim at the Pyer Moss show and a screen at the end of the runway lights up.
A black-and-white video starts playing, showing police aggressively detaining a bathing suit-clad teenage girl in McKinney, Texas. As an officer pulls out a gun and charges at a group of young onlookers, the video ends and another takes its place.
This time, it’s the scene from inside the Fruitvale Station BART stop and Oscar Grant is being shot and killed point blank by the officer detaining him.
This is not your typical New York Fashion Week show.
In video after video, the scenes of police brutality that all-too-frequently light up our social media feeds play back-to-back with nothing held back—cops shooting at detained bystanders or violently bashing in car windows.
Bodies lying on the ground in a pool of blood.
Loved ones and onlookers screaming in protest and horror.
Most of these crudely shot phone videos have been seen before by the packed audience, but they never get easier to watch as the gasps that escape from the fashionably-clad and captivated group attests.
Thursday night marked the debut of 28-year-old Kerby Jean-Raymond’s first womenswear collection for his label Pyer Moss (pronounced “Pierre Moss”).
Yet, in the moments leading up to the show, he was still having doubts about sending his finished—and very powerful—collection down the runway. He thought maybe the video should stand alone.
The collection was conceived before Jean-Raymond decided to embark on a video project to address the issues of race and police brutality, and the way the victims are portrayed in the media.
Using his own money and team, the designer began conducting interviews with people ranging from the family members of victims—including Emerald Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, and Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant—to activists and fashion insiders.
He spliced cuts of these interviews between the graphic scenes of police violence. “For more information and insight, open your eyes,” read the most resonant message on screen.
“I have like 10 minutes to show you this video. I’ve got to get as much gripping information in that 10 minutes as possible. What’s going to leave people affected?” Jean-Raymond said to a group of reporters after the show.
“It’s not for shock value, but it’s what’s going to make you think about this…after you go to three shows. What’s going to make you think about this again at 11 when you’re done for the day? That’s what it’s about.”
The cause is personal for Jean-Raymond. A Haitian-American who grew up in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, the designer says he was stopped and frisked 12 times by the police before he turned 18.
After saving $3,600 to buy a Lexus while attending Hofstra University, he was pulled over and accused of a hit and run while driving back to college, where he was on a full scholarship and eventually graduated summa cum laude.
“I was yanked out of the window, and I had my head slammed in the back of the trunk,” Jean-Raymond tells a group of reporters after the show. “And then, you just start hearing, ‘He’s resisting, he’s resisting.’ And I was like…I’m 28 years old [now]. Imagine how skinny I was at 18. So imagine me resisting with like four cops. And they just kept on slamming my head, slamming my head.”
The lanky designer says he has “survivor’s guilt” from both living through his encounters with the police and “escap[ing] my East Flatbush upbringing,” something other kids don’t have the opportunity or “get a fair chance” to do.
But, even then, he wasn’t sure in the month leading up to New York Fashion Week if he was going to go through with presenting the film during his runway show. Then, something happened that changed everything.
Jean-Raymond broke a finger while in Ibiza and was fitted with a black cast that left only two of his fingers pointing straight out.
Shortly after, he was standing outside his apartment talking to his sister on the phone and he brought his hurt arm up to his face to scratch his itchy beard. When he looked behind him, he was suddenly confronted by the police, who had mistaken his arm cast for a gun. “I turned around, and I have two guns pointed at me.”
“If somebody points a gun at you, your first instinct as a human is to run. I don’t know what kept me grounded, but I felt like if I were to have ran, he would have like either tackled me, tazed me, shot me, whatever,” Jean-Raymond says.
“I think those videos show you how quickly those seconds can turn…The cop came over to me and patted me on the back, and he’s like ‘Next time, get a white or an orange cast.’”
His concerns about combining activism with fashion turned out to have some merit. He knows his fashion week presentation could cost him business, and he’s already seen some fallout. He said his design house had lost one of their biggest accounts, and a venue.
But, while he has a platform to speak out, he wants to use it. He says he “feel[s] a little freer after this. I said what I had to say.”
Jean-Raymond says that the problem is mainly one of “fearful” officers, and acknowledges that there are a lot of good cops. But, “if, for some reason, [the video] gets out there and the cops see, and a cop thinks for a second, ‘Wait, so maybe I should just chill,’ [then] I’ve just saved a kid’s life.”
While he may be young, Jean-Raymond has been working in the industry for a over a decade. He interned for his fashion mentor, Kay Unger, when he was just 14 years old and he worked for the fashion house Marchesa before launching his own menswear line in 2013.
But beyond having a strong foundation in fashion and an original creative point of view, Jean-Raymond has also been innovative on the business side of his label, making the unconventional decision early on to buy his own factory to keep his production in house.
While the video was the centerpiece and star of Thursday night’s runway show, the collection Jean-Raymond presented was cohesive and bold.
A continuation of the men’s collection he showed in July, the men’s and womenswear looks combined meticulous tailoring with less structured leisurewear.
White blazers were paired with netted leather basketball shorts over athletic leggings. The preppy—dress shirts, crop tops, tailored trousers, and asymmetrical overalls—met the casual— bomber jackets, track pants, and lots of details in netting.
The collection was initially conceived to tell the story of Ota Benga, a Congolese man who was captured and exhibited at the Bronx Zoo in the early 1900s.
Jean-Raymond asked graffiti artist Gregory Siff to collaborate with him, and glimpses of Siff’s work were displayed on the clothing through spray-painted messages like “Savage” and red and white lines streaking the designs that that artist describes as “poetry mixed with brutality.”
Siff explains the use of red not as a reference to the blood so often spilled by violence, but as a “call to attention.”
While models walked down the runway, Siff took up his paint cans and created work on their moving canvases. He took one model clad in an army jacket and brought her to the center of the space. She stared out at the crowd with a somber look while Siff worked on her back.
After he finished, she rejoined the line of models on the square runway and walked away from the audience, now with “Breathe, Breathe” emblazoned on her back.