In fashion, a designer who is enjoying breakout success and buzz tends to be described as “having a moment.” Clare Waight Keller of Givenchy had a moment when she was revealed as the designer of Meghan Markle’s wedding dress. When Vetements lured the whole of the front row to an obscure Chinese restaurant in a gritty area of Paris, it was because the brand was “having a moment.” Alessandro Michele of Gucci, progenitor of trends like fur-lined slides, is having an extended moment.
By any such measure, Kerby Jean-Raymond, the founder of Pyer Moss, is the American designer having a moment.
The build really began this time last year, when Mr. Jean-Raymond, a 32-year-old Haitian-American who began his label as a men’s wear line in 2013, held a show in New York that was conceived as an ode to the black cowboy, and included his first women’s collection as well as collaborations with Reebok and the early 1990s urban brand Cross Colors.
Then, in June, Issa Rae, the first woman of color to host the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards, did so wearing a Pyer Moss gown complete with 180,000 Swarovski crystals and a belt that caused a stir on social media.
In September, Mr. Jean-Raymond took the fashion crowd out to the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn in the pouring rain for his next show, an exploration of what black American leisure might look like without the fear and police interference.
There was a 40-member choir, an all-black cast and collaborations with FUBU (the 1990s For Us, By Us street wear label) and the artist Derrick Adams (who had done a series of paintings inspired by the Green Book before anyone knew there was going to be a movie called “Green Book”).
There were also slogans on clothing like — “Stop Calling 911 on the Culture,” mixed among the men’s and women’s suiting — broad-shouldered jackets cropped and nipped in at the waist over languid trousers — the long, swishy silk shirts atop skinny pants; quilted satin duvet skirts; and tank dresses encrusted in a micro-mosaic of crystals picking out the portrait of a father cradling his newborn child, all of it imbued with the ease of sweats and the soaring dreams of gospel.
The show was crowned by Vogue Runway as one of the best collections in New York.
In October, Tracee Ellis Ross began her hosting gig at the American Music Awards in a pink Pyer Moss suit, setting the tone for a night in which she celebrated black designers. In November, Mr. Jean-Raymond took home the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award, the most prestigious, and lucrative, emerging designer prize in America (winners get $400,000 and a year’s worth of mentorship from an industry executive). And in December, he won Collaboration of the Year at the Footwear News Achievement Awards for his work with Reebok.
As traditionally marginalized minorities begin to speak up and demand a seat at the table — as industries like film and politics and tech finally begin to acknowledge their own failings when it comes to diversity — Mr. Jean-Raymond, with his ability to marry elegance of line with an unapologetic demand for social justice, increasingly seems like the right designer at the right time.
So what is he planning for New York Fashion Week, where his show would be one of the most anticipated on the schedule, to further capitalize on his particular moment?
“I have something to say, but I am not quite ready to say it,” he said. So he is sitting this one out. Simple as that.
Not really. Really, it is not simple at all. It is a gamble, with a business, a name and a cause. He may want to use his moment to signal that he is not interested in playing by the rules of what increasingly seems, to many small and under-resourced independent designers, an unwinnable game. That instead he wants to change the rules, in the same way that he wants to use his brand (which he likes to refer to as “an art project”) to rewrite establishment histories and “end the erasure of minorities and people of color.”
Because, he said, “the purpose of design is to solve problems, and I think I have figured out how to use this tool to solve this problem.”
But whether he can actually do it, or whether fashion (and the fashion consumer), with its notoriously short memory and obsession with New! and Hotter! will simply move on, is another matter.
The Big Risk
“It’s clearly a risk,” said Steven Kolb, the chief executive of the CFDA, who was one of the judges who awarded Mr. Jean-Raymond the Fashion Fund prize. “He doesn’t see the need to be chained to a traditional idea of a designer business. Whether he’s right, I don’t know.”
Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, recently met with Mr. Jean-Raymond. She heard him out, he said, and then asked if he was worried about losing his momentum. He told her no.
Not that he is oblivious to the issue of timing. He knows it is important because he has experience with what happens when you get it wrong.
Last month, sitting in a duplex penthouse in Paris, he said, “2015 was hard.” The apartment, just down the street from Jean Paul Gaultier’s atelier, had floor-to-ceiling windows with views over the city.
It sounds glamorous, and it was, kind of, but it was also an Airbnb, and Mr. Jean-Raymond and his four-person team were sharing the apartment. The elevator was so tiny that only one or two people could fit in it at a time, so there was a lot of stair climbing.
In 2015, he said, “people weren’t ready.” He was referring to a collection he had created around the Black Lives Matter movement and police shootings. It included a 12-minute video about racism in America that generated a lot of buzz, but also a lot of controversy.
“I was really invested in it,” he said. “We gave front row seats to the families of the victims.” That meant some editors got seated in the second and third rows, and some of them got mad and didn’t come. “Then a bunch of our stores dropped me,” he continued. “I got death threats.”
That collection almost capsized the brand before it began. Mr. Jean-Raymond was struggling to buy his business back from an investment partner after a relationship had turned acrimonious. He was selling off his furniture to raise money. “By September 2017, I had nothing left in my apartment,” he said. “I had eBay-ed everything.”
Then the Reebok deal, in which he created a Pyer Moss for Reebok sports-meets-fashion capsule line as well as sneakers, came through — it was a two-year contract — and he had enough money to take control again.
Still, when he was laying on his couch, unsure if he had a future, he was also figuring out exactly what his brand would stand for if he ever got it back. That’s when he conceived a collection drama in three acts, one that would put African-Americans back into the center of the national myths they’d been written out of. He would address social issues through the deceptively accessible wormhole of fashion.
The first act was the Western, and the second was the leisure class, but the third won’t be unveiled until September, when Mr. Jean-Raymond will also move in part to a see now/buy now schedule. That was why he was in Paris: to sell the first part of what he calls Collection 3. (Sitting this season out also means that he preserves the mystery of those clothes so they will seem new when they hit store floors.)
“It’s a question of priorities,” said Laurent Claquin, the president of Kering America (Kering is the French conglomerate that owns Gucci, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga, among other brands) and Mr. Jean-Raymond’s Fashion Fund mentor. Mr. Claquin said they had extensive discussions about the show question before Mr. Jean-Raymond decided to opt out this season.
“He has a limited team and budget,” Mr. Claquin said. “A generation ago a young designer would never make that choice, but he’s not a kid out of art school.”
Mr. Jean-Raymond also discussed the choice with Reebok, since he had incorporated the Reebok collection into his shows.
“The social impact was above expectations,” said Matt O’Toole, the president of Reebok, referring to the audience the collaboration reached on social media. Presumably, that may be a reason for Reebok to encourage him to continue with the runway.
But, Mr. O’Toole said, if Mr. Jean-Raymond was comfortable skipping the show, Reebok was, too. “What was clear is that there is purpose behind what he does, because there is purpose behind his brand,” he said.
Here’s the bet: When everyone is watching your every move, having to fake up some meaning just to satisfy a public date on a calendar may be worse than saying nothing at all.
When Everyone Wants a Piece of You
Mr. Jean-Raymond’s studio, which is on West 27th Street right across the street from the Fashion Institute of Technology, does not really look like the studio of a designer who is having a moment.
It is relatively small — a narrow space with two racks for clothes, a big banana palm tree, two small couches and a nook for work and an office (Mr. Jean-Raymond’s) with a desk and a fancy bike that was a gift from a project. He still has a very small team, 10 people, most of whom are not formally trained.
Mr. Jean-Raymond went to the High School of Fashion Industries in New York and then interned at Marchesa and Theory before graduating from Hofstra with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. (He then went to Brooklyn Law School but dropped out after a semester.)
He said the brand broke even in its first year and has begun to turn a profit, but he would like to have extra money to hire a merchandiser, production manager and content creator. He is currently both designer and chief executive, which is the kind of double duty most designers balk at, but Mr. Jean-Raymond isn’t looking for someone to take on the business side of things.
“I’d rather make the mistakes,” he said. “I want to own that. When I was growing up, my parents combined made $600 a week. I don’t even see this as work.”
He is getting a lot of offers, especially about collaborations. The other day, he said, a “big American group” wanted to talk about buying him.
“I turned them all down,” he said. “I’m not interested in coming in for a minute to bring the black audience they’ve been chasing, and that’s it.”
He is very conscious of fashion’s bad track record with race and of being used as a Band-Aid over the diversity issue. He is concerned about being pegged as a street wear designer because stores are focused on the hoodies and sweats and not the tailoring or the dress covered in crystals.
What he wants is to be named creative director at a big brand, because of the power and how he could use it to further his reach (even though these days those positions seem particularly insecure, and even though he says he would not do the standard six or seven collections a year, but two or three). Yet by skipping the show and potentially letting another designer set the agenda for the season, he knows he may be jeopardizing those chances.
But he has the ego to think the big brands will wait.
“No one needs so much stuff,” he said. “They need emotion.”
That’s what he provides. He once compared himself, in The New York Times Magazine, to Serena Williams and Colin Kaepernick. “The act of being black and public is unapologetically political,” he said, so he is going to use the platform he has.
“Clothes are our most common tool after music,” Mr. Jean-Raymond said. “In most places it’s illegal not to wear clothes. They are our canvas.”
His role models are Martin Margiela. Rick Owens, Dries Van Noten and Yohji Yamamoto. And he has a sense of his own position in history. Mr. Kolb said that when he and Diane von Furstenberg, the chairman of the CFDA, went to Mr. Jean-Raymond’s studio to interview him for the Fashion Fund competition, “he did something I’ve never seen. He had his own photographer, who documented it to create content for him.”
“I didn’t think it was obnoxious,” Mr. Kolb said, though he knew how it might sound. “I thought it was smart.”
In any case, Mr. Jean-Raymond isn’t apologizing for his decisions.
“In the beginning of Pyer Moss, I didn’t want people to know I was black because I knew they would make all these assumptions,” he said. “Now I fully embrace who I am. I’m black. I’m here. And I’m really good.”