Haute Couture Week is typically the most exclusive part of the fashion calendar: A cadre of largely white designers create elaborate collections meant to inspire their private clients, who will spend obscene amounts of money on custom versions of those outfits. But Haitian American designer Kerby Jean-Raymond has turned the entire concept of couture on its head.
Over the weekend, the 35-year-old designer behind Pyer Moss unveiled his first-ever couture collection, which was a glorious celebration of Blackness. Each of the 25 outfits was designed to highlight everyday inventions—from peanut butter to chess to refrigerators—that can be traced back to Black creators. The outfits were colorful, campy, and often hilarious, but the spectacle still managed to convey an undercurrent of Black trauma and how Black contributions have been regularly erased or co-opted by others. Jean-Raymond did more than highlight Black excellence and creativity; he showed that couture can transcend its elitist, racist origins and be relevant at a time of global racial reckoning.
Jean-Raymond debuted Pyer Moss in 2013, after working for designers including Marc Jacobs, Badgley Mischka, and Kenneth Cole. He launched the label with the explicit goal of using fashion to explore the Black experience. He’s never been shy about bringing politics into his work: His Spring/Summer 2016 show directly referenced police brutality and highlighted the Black Lives Matter movement. He’s also drawn attention to his own experiences of marginalization within the fashion industry: In 2019, he described being gaslit and used by industry magazine Business of Fashion after being offered, then denied, a cover.
Designers can’t simply choose to produce a haute couture collection. The French are so protective of the concept that only designers officially designated by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture—a trade organization that goes back a century and a half—can use the phrase and show collections with that label. In a sign of Jean-Raymond’s growing prominence, he made history in May by becoming the first Black American designer to receive the designation; he’s one of only 33 designers showing haute couture lines this year.
For his first haute couture show, he opted not to show the collection in Paris, but rather on the grounds of Villa Lewaro, an Upstate New York mansion built by Madam C.J. Walker, whose beauty business made her America’s first female self-made millionaire. While most couture shows are invite-only, Jean-Raymond made his show open to the public. Before it began, Elaine Brown, the former chairwoman of the Black Panthers, took the stage in a flowing white dress and checkered boots, and gave a speech about Black revolutionaries of the 1960s. Then the music began: On a round stage, rapper 22Gz performed around a circle of Black male dancers in white tuxes, the rapping overlaid with the music of violins and men chanting in the background.
And there wasn’t an exclusive after-party with caviar and champagne: After all the models had filed out, guests were invited to a cookout featuring jerk chicken and mac and cheese, followed by a dance party. (The show was originally scheduled for last Thursday, but was postponed until Saturday because of a downpour caused by Hurricane Elsa.)
When it came to the collection itself, Jean-Raymond also pushed the envelope. Haute couture shows tend to be very self-serious, with models wearing outfits fit for the most glamorous red carpets or weddings. Jean-Raymond seemed to take a page from designers like Moschino, which lean toward the absurd and the humorous. The first model to step out in the Pyer Moss show wore a red dress featuring a skirt shaped like a bottle cap. One wore a dress in the shape of a peanut butter jar. Another wore trousers that looked like an ice cream cone and a top covered in rainbow sprinkles. The cast of all Black models walked with somber, serious faces, but make no mistake: Jean-Raymond had a twinkle in his eye as he watched the show from behind the scenes. “Everyone knows me as the Black Lives Matter designer,” he told editors after the show. “I am that too, but I never really get to show my sense of humor.”
Rich fashionistas were definitely not Jean-Raymond’s target audience for this show. He has no intention of selling these outfits to clients or designing custom pieces for them. Instead, he sees these gowns as works of art. They will be sold at Nicola Vassell’s gallery in Chelsea.
Jean-Raymond developed the theme for the show when he came across a list of Black innovators who had created objects we use every day. Some—like paper and chess—can be traced all the way back to Africa. But others can be traced to individual Black Americans, like Augustus Jackson, who developed new techniques for making ice cream; John Standard, who patented improvements to the refrigerator; Thomas Stewart, who patented a new type of mop; and Oscar E. Brown, who improved the horseshoe. Jean-Raymond was shocked that he didn’t know any of these people, and neither did those around him. “I wanted to reintroduce them to Black people,” he said.
Indeed, Jean-Raymond’s foray into couture wasn’t about proving anything to the fashion establishment, which remains largely white. The show was a love letter from Black creatives to the Black community. A year after the Black Lives Matter protests swept the world, Jean-Raymond is making the case that joy is also an act of resistance. Still, the show didn’t ignore or erase Black pain. The last model to walk on the stage wore a dress in the shape of a refrigerator: The colorful magnets on it were arranged to say, “But who invented Black trauma?”