T-shirts that read “stop calling 911 on the culture.” A beaded gown depicting a black father holding his newborn. Designer Kerby Jean-Raymond‘s men’s and women’s fashion label, Pyer Moss, has something to say. “My design philosophy focuses on rewriting us back into the story and normalizing blackness,” says the Haitian American Brooklyn native. Though Jean-Raymond has faced backlash for his outspokenness in the past—more than one retailer (whom he won’t name) dropped his line after he produced a video addressing police brutality for a 2015 show—brands now seek his perspective. Over the past year, he launched partnerships with Reebok and Hennessy (for a sportswear collection honoring pro cyclist Marshall “Major” Taylor). He also featured FUBU items at his runway show last September, which was held in Brooklyn’s Weeksville neighborhood—site of one of the country’s first free black communities. (The underfunded site is currently raising money to avoid shutting down over a budget gap.) Two months later, he won the coveted CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award for emerging designers.
Fast Company: Do you see your CFDA award as a sign of progress for the industry?
Kerby Jean-Raymond: There are people in fashion who genuinely want to figure out where they fit into the broader conversation about diversity, inclusion, and equity, but there are also people who only care what this means for their bottom line, which is why I don’t take on projects that don’t have some sort of philanthropic component. Hennessy, for example, donates proceeds to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. I will say that the American fashion industry is the most progressive about these issues. There are no other major fashion markets having conversations about diversity.
FC: Is there anything you would change about the the industry in America?
KJ: Where the American industry lacks is in championing its own. There’s a lot of Euro worship here, and by that I mean that the top creative director jobs here often go to Europeans. At LVMH and Kering, you see [executives] reaching out to young talent to make sure they continue the legacy of Paris fashion or Milan fashion. You don’t see Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren reaching out to make sure that the young American talent stays relevant. If we don’t fix this soon, it’s going to kill American fashion.
FC: Why didn’t you participate in Fashion Week this past spring?
KJ: I want fashion to be respected more as an art form, like sculpture or painting. Creating a collection two, four, eight times a year doesn’t allow you to create your best work. We’re seeing copies on the runway because people are just inspired by a recent trend. [I’m] adopting the model that’s been used in music, where you drop a body of work and tour it for the next year, then take time off and create the next body of work. That gives us the opportunity to do meaningful digital campaigns and activations and bring more people into our idea. The reason [Pyer Moss] is so important right now is because we’re giving you time to see and digest it. No one remembers the collections I did when I was moving at the speed of light.
FC: Speaking of copying: Virgil Abloh, artistic director at Louis Vuitton, has been accused of cribbing your designs. Flattering or infuriating?
KJ: It’s infuriating when you’re still rolling out your concept. In September, we’ll be unveiling part three of “American, Also” with Reebok. It’s like a thesis, right? So for someone to come in and take our idea and present it on a bigger stage before we even finish presenting is disheartening. I don’t have investors; no one here is making six figures. It just becomes really tough to pivot every time someone copies your shit. So the next collection will be “see now, buy now,” because I just can’t risk that shit anymore.
FC: Is there a piece you’ve sent down the runway that you were particularly attached to?
KJ: The opening look for my Reebok [collaboration at New York Fashion Week in February 2018], when we had [rapper] Vic Mensa come down in a white fur coat. After I had agreed to terms with Reebok, it took them nine months to sign me because the old management didn’t think I had enough Instagram followers. So I had this chip on my shoulder and said, “I’m just gonna give them a durag and a fur coat and see what happens.” When I submitted the design, the faces in the office were like, “What the fuck is this?” But when [Mensa] turned the corner, the audience was like, “Oh, holy shit!” We got a standing ovation.
FC: Do you ever feel nervous about prioritizing your creative vision over potential financial rewards? Were you worried about screening that police-brutality video during your 2016 show?
KJ: My design philosophy focuses on rewriting African-Americans back into this sense of patriotism that we don’t get to celebrate and enjoy. I wasn’t even thinking about the consequences, nor did I care. I’m a very spiritual person. Sometimes, I feel like God is driving. We woke up a very influential industry that wasn’t paying attention, at a time when you couldn’t go on social media without seeing an Alton Sterling or Sandra Bland. I was just the vessel.