For the Love of Culture and Community—Pyer Moss Couture Fall 2021

The most anticipated runway of Paris’ Fall/Winter 2021 Haute Couture Week was arguably the Pyer Moss show. Haitian-American designer Kerby Jean-Raymond was invited by the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode (the governing body of French fashion) to present his first couture collection as a guest member of the organization. As such, Jean-Raymond became only the third American (and first black American) designer to be designated a true couturier and present a collection as part of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, with Main Bocher in the 1930’s and Ralph Rucci from 2002 to 2009, and again in 2019. But true to form, Jean-Raymond, ever the social activist and creative outlier, did things his way. Rather than take his collection to Paris, he brought Paris to New York. He displayed his first couture collection of 25 looks in an extravaganza that celebrated Black excellence and ingenuity, and highlighted Black culture and community.

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Black history was incorporated into every element of the presentation, from the venue, to the theme, to the soundtrack, to the after party. The setting was Villa Lewaro, the Hudson River suburban estate of Madame C. J. Walker. Walker is credited as America’s first female self-made millionaire. In the early 1900’s, she amassed her fortune by developing a line of cosmetic and hair care products that were sold across the United States and Central America. In 1916, Walker commissioned Vertner Woodson Tandy, the first African American registered architect in the state of New York, to design her home as an example for her people “to see what could be accomplished, no matter what their background.” After its completion, it served as an intellectual meeting place for prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Today, it is part of the New Voices Foundation, which helps women of color entrepreneurs achieve their vision through innovative leadership initiatives.  As the backdrop to the Pyer Moss couture show, the torch was passed to Jean-Raymond, as the grounds once again served as a host of art, intellect, business, and community.

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The runway show was preceded by a rousing speech by activist and former Black Panther Party chairwoman Elaine Brown. Brown is the only woman to have spearheaded a chapter of the Black Panthers. In her speech, she spoke of being a revolutionary. She regaled the audience with stories of the Black Panthers’ deep community involvement and unified resistance alongside other social justice groups. Brown charged the crowd to look beyond their individualities, settle their differences, and come together to fight for freedom—because all power belongs to the people.

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Immediately following Brown’s prologue, the runway show began. Twenty-five looks, all inspired by Black inventions and modifications. Some looks had obvious references, like Garrett A. Morgan’s traffic light and Lyda Neman’s synthetic hair brush. Others were more fashionably abstract, like Thomas Martin’s fire extinguisher and Walter Sammons’ hot comb. And others were completely campy, like Amos E. Long & Albert A. Jones’ bottle cap and jar of peanut butter associated with George Washington Carver. But no matter how avant-garde or how traditional the look, each creation was a wearable outfit once the fanciful elements are removed.

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While the audience was visually entranced by the runway, they show was sonically buoyed by Brooklyn rapper 22Gz. Surrounded by roughly a dozen Black and Brown dancers, accompanied by a string orchestra and bucket drummers comprised of Black musicians and background singers, led by a Black conductor, the music artist performed a string of his songs, ending with his hit “King of NY,” to which Kerby and his team took their bow.

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And with that, the half-hour presentation came to an end. However, the event itself continued. The entire production was an homage to Black culture, and in keeping with Black traditions, an after-party, in the form of a family cookout, took place. Celebs, journalists, and tastemakers all mingled together as they ate soul food and sipped cocktails while the DJ played.

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This was the renewal of the FUBU (For Us By US) concept of the 1990’s. Kerby’s collections are renowned for showcasing the Black experience, the good and the bad (this collections final look was inspired by Frederick McKinley Jones’ refrigerator, with magnets that read “But Who Invented Black Trauma.” And instead of showing his collection in Paris and presenting before what would have presumably been a mostly white audience, Jean-Raymond presented closer to home, on hallowed ground, in front of an audience mostly of Black and Brown faces—faces that may never have otherwise had the opportunity to attend a couture show.

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This event, rained out on its original show date and rescheduled for two days later, brought together a true mélange of guests, lifestyles, and experiences—classical music, hardcore rap, Black activism, soul food, and haute couture. Saturday’s show has been added to the list of firsts, but hopefully it won’t be on the list of lasts or onlys. A Brooklyn boy has become a couturier. He has shown what can be accomplished, no matter your background. With this collection, Kerby Jean-Raymond continues to play the role of door opener rather than gate keeper, and continues to be the bridge between the ancestors and the future generations. Both should be pleased. Asè.

—Carl Ayers

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