Kerby Jean-Raymond believes that the fashion industry will look very different in the next five years.
More plainly, he said that the business of selling clothes is over and designers will have to sell experiences. He has the results to support his thesis: His business is up since drastically reducing his retail partnerships; his Reebok sneakers sell out within four minutes after launch, and the partners in July unveiled Reebok Studies, the division created to help new and young talents. The runway show for his third “American, Also” collection in September drew an audience of up to 3,000 people at the 2,500-person capacity Kings Theatre in Flatbush, Brooklyn, with an estimated 4,000 others waiting outside.
This season showed that Pyer Moss has gone from fledgling men’s wear brand to a marquee New York Fashion Week name that the industry looks forward to.
In a conversation with WWD style director Alex Badia, Jean-Raymond discussed the “American, Also” series; his business strategy, and taking full control of Pyer Moss.
WWD: Congratulations on the past two years. From your three last shows — the “American, Also” series — you gained global fashion recognition and the best reviews of your career. But you gained an incredible collaboration with Reebok, and in fact, you’re a creative director now. You bought back your company, you own it 100 percent, in July 2018 you were named a CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund finalist and a few months later you won the Fashion Fund for a prize of $400,000.
But when you launched Pyer Moss, things were not that easy. What was the vision of your company?
Kerby Jean-Raymond: The vision of the company then was unclear. I remember taking a deskside with you when you were in Midtown and you telling me, “What are you into?” And I was like, “I don’t know, I just want to make clothes,” and you were like “That’s not enough.” That was probably one of the most powerful conversations that I had back then, because I figured after that conversation that I needed to craft my identity into the clothing I was creating.
Prior to that, I was just trying to make things that looked cool, unique pieces or different colorblocking or graphic treatments. But there was no storytelling with it. And I remember you liking the group that I was coming in with like Shayne [Oliver], Virgil [Abloh]. You were like, “This is like when the Latin Explosion happened in music with Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony.” That was such a vivid analogy and I remember us having a conversation about it. You can come in and just be part of the wave and accept that when that wave is over you’ll be over, or you can start to differentiate yourself from the pack. I think a lot of us went and had those conversations and made sure that the uniqueness of who we are and where we’re from wasn’t overpowering the talent behind the brands and everything.
It was very unclear in the beginning and it soon started to become clear that I had to put my autobiography into my work. I could always design — I was always draping, I had been in women’s wear for a long time, I was always able to pattern-make and design. But it took me until about 2015 until I figured out how to put the things that I care about into the design language of the brand.
WWD: We have called you a cultural force at WWD. Do you think the role of the designer today is to be a cultural force?
K.J-R.: I think you have no choice but to be. I think the business of selling clothes is over. I think the business of selling clothes is completely done and I think what we sell now are experiences, cultural alignment and tribalism. Just looking at revenue, most of my revenue now comes from my alignment with other brands, whether it be Reebok, spirits companies, or consulting. We made more money selling merch at the show than we did for the entire collection.
I think what you’re looking at is brands, designers and houses in general need to shift from the business of “we’re going to sell this beautiful suit” versus “we’re going to sell this beautiful experience, “and the experience has to be authentic to the designer because at the end of the day people want to align to you. They want to know who you are as a person.
It’s a weird shift. This is the beginning stages of it, but in five years I think that we won’t recognize fashion as the way we used to. I don’t think the way we view collections, runways or any of that stuff is going to matter.
K.J-R.: I have a completely different disruptive vision of how this is going to look for me in a year and it’s not going to look the way it used to at all.
WWD: We’ll get back to that in a second. In 2017, you basically lost your company, and Reebok came and you started this collaboration. Could you talk to us about that time? What happened?
K.J-R.: It was a weird time. I had taken an early stage investment in 2014. I didn’t know much about business and didn’t know much about investing in businesses. I think both sides did it for the mutual admiration for each other, but neither of us knew what we were doing so I was underfunded. I think I took about altogether $250,000 and I gave them like 70 percent of the company or something insane. Some wild valuation that I would never do again in my life, but it was a means to an end and it got us to two or three sample collections. But after a while it became repetitive because we were making the same samples over because we didn’t have any more budget. We couldn’t grow, we couldn’t expand. We were kind of like in this rut. I still think that they’re great people, I just think that it was just a bad business marriage. I ended up making a deal with them to let me buy the brand back. They named their price and it was like double what they had invested. And I was, like, fine I’ll do it. I had no idea how I was going to get that money so essentially saying here I’ll give you half a million dollars, and meanwhile I had $17 to my name. But I knew that somehow, some way it was going to happen.
I had a couple of deals, I had a couple of collaborations that were meant to happen. One was with another footwear brand but it was with no royalties. The day I was supposed to sign that contract, I get a call from a guy at Reebok, Damion Presson, who’s like, “I’ve been looking for you.” And I was like, well, that’s funny; I’m about to do a deal right now and he was, like, I promise you I can give you 10 times the amount, at least 10 times the amount. I dropped the other deal that I was meant to sign because I took his word for it and it took months for Reebok to sign me. By the time Reebok signed me, I had such a chip on my shoulder because during that process of them telling me that they were going to sign me there was a lot back and forth of not going to sign. The minute we inked that deal I went like a bat out of hell and was like, I’m going to disrupt this company.
WWD: Well, your dream was always to design sneakers; that’s what you went to the High School of the Fashion Industries for.
K.J-R.: Yeah. Initially I got into fashion because I wanted to be a sneaker designer, but when I got into high school, the state cut the shoe program and they defaulted me into pattern making and fashion design and I hated it. It wasn’t until I got an internship at Kay Unger for being disruptive in the school that I got to see what she got to do on a day-to-day basis and that made me appreciate fashion more and start to take it seriously as a career.
WWD: Well, you’re a creative director of Reebok as well now.
K.J-R.: I’m the creative director of Reebok Studies. Essentially another part of the bat out of hell syndrome. I just went and I was like, I don’t like anything you guys are doing here and I need my own division, so that was part of my new contract: “I’m not staying unless I get to sign other acts and bring in other people.” My whole thing is, it’s super hard if you look, sound and come from where I come from to get into this industry at the time I came into it and it’s getting a lot easier now and I think that’s the collective work, a collective reasoning with everybody and collective consciousness of everybody and everybody is becoming more open to “other.” But I still understand that there’s a huge barrier of entry. Just because the understanding of openness is there doesn’t mean the barrier of financial is not there either. So, I wanted to create a division where I can sign talent, give them these collaboration deals, give them sponsorship deals so that they can have money to grow their companies. I’m doing something like that outside of Reebok as well. Reebok has some internal assets that they’re trying to elevate and I have options to bring them into Reebok Studies — but also we’re working on talent acquisition to bring in people outside, too.
WWD: Let’s talk about your trilogy, “American, Also.” What do you hope to accomplish with that, because it’s more than a show; it’s really much more of a cultural experience. You basically became the center point of NYFW. What do you hope to accomplish with that?
K.J-R.: With “American, Also,” when I bought the company back, I had a good seven months to sit with my thoughts. One of the things was, I was going to change the name of the brand…
WWD: To what?
K.J-R.: I was going to change it to my father’s name so I can get away from them cleanly, but Reebok wouldn’t do the deal without me keeping Pyer Moss. That was kind of a blessing in disguise with them forcing me to stick with the name, because it made me have to rethink how we do business. If I had changed the name I would’ve just continued to do what Pyer Moss was doing and what I thought was the right thing. I was like, what is the antithesis of this?
Let me first start with, why am I doing this? I had done the shows about Black Lives Matter, about my father and that’s a rhythm. That works for me speaking about things that matter to me and matter to my causes. And then also what doesn’t work? Well, doing shows two times a year almost bankrupted us. That’s the first thing that has to stop. Last year I did two.
WWD: But September was when you went to one a year?
K.J-R.: Yeah, and now it’s one every time we feel like it. When we have something to say.
WWD: Well, that goes in the completely opposite direction to what everyone else is doing. So many shows a day, unlimited amounts of drops.
K.J-R.: I think scarcity is the key. I think no one can really consume that much product. I think that even with our sneaker releases we try to time it out. If you see other brands who have the hot sneaker they want to keep striking while the iron is hot, but you can keep the iron hot longer if you space it out a little bit more.
Instead of doing a shoe every six weeks like what most brands do, we opt to do a shoe a quarter, and it builds a lot of buzz and we can see our units growing and we have an idea of what our fixed costs and fixed revenue are going to be by timing these things out correctly. Not only that, the fact that we only do one show a year makes a lot more people want to come and experience it and it’s a lot more time to incubate the thought process. There’s a sacredness to come to our show because there’s a chance that we won’t do another one. Our last show had 3,000 people inside and about 3,000 to 4,000 people outside with a 2,500-capacity theater. We’re building a cult around the brand.
WWD: Was that the main objective with this trilogy?
K.J-R.: The main objective with this trilogy is to accept the outsider. “American, Also,” the whole thesis, was created because of a conversation my friends and I had. We were in Long Island, we just finished playing basketball, and we crossed the street when we saw this old dude had on an American flag tracksuit and all of us felt threatened and we crossed the street. We didn’t even talk about it, it was just reflex. When we got in the car and were driving back, I turned off the music and was like, “Did you realize what we all just did?” And my boy was like, “I don’t know; I just never really felt American like that” and we were all born in the same hospital in Brooklyn. We’re all from East Flatbush, but we just never felt a part of it. So my purpose of doing this specific thesis, “American, Also,” was to take elements of popular American society and show how black people have a hand in it, like rock ‘n’ roll, the standard family values, the American cowboy, things that are so stereotypical White American and show, hey, this is actually black.
That’s a start of how to repatriatize people who feel left out especially in a time that’s so divisive and xenophobic and so homophobic. Everyone, whether you’re a woman, man, you just feel like you have to subscribe to some sort of clique, like you can’t just be part of the fabric of America and the divisiveness of American politics and just like the way we’ve operated for the past few years.
WWD: Do you think people are more receptive now? Because in 2015 you did shows that were sort of similar.
K.J-R.: I remember this top editor from a magazine that I won’t name, a financial magazine, goes, “You know, I’m not coming to any more of your shows. They’re just so negative.” And I was like, “You can’t see that this is for us? This is for us to see us. Everything doesn’t belong to you.” That was a mixed bag but I didn’t let up. I kept on doing what was right for me.
WWD: So, do you think that the industry has changed?
K.J-R.: I think the industry has changed. I think we had a little bit to do with that but I also think with the culture right now there’s a lot of movement and engagement as it continues to accept what people deemed as “other” for a long time. In music, you have Solange. In film and TV, you had Marvel doing “Luke Cage” and “Black Panther.” You have Viola Davis in “How to Get Away With Murder,” and “Scandal” — a lot of stuff happening. They’ve had it in the Harlem Renaissance, then in the Sixties, then the Nineties and this is the fourth wave of enlightenment amongst disenfranchised people and I think this time it’s going to stick.
WWD: Part of your reboot was a change in your retail strategy. You pulled back a lot of your retail accounts, invested in your e-commerce. You started selling again to some of them. I hear about international sales expansion. Talk to me about your retail strategy.
K.J-R.: Sure. Just to give you an e-commerce example — our shoes sell out within the first four minutes. The first thing to understand is that we only want to be in spaces that merchandise the whole brand. During this seven-month period, I was writing down this list of problems and one of the problems was that Pyer Moss kept on being categorized as a streetwear brand. And you see the dresses we make, and you’ve seen the tailoring that we do and sportswear and activewear.
One of the things we had to do was exist in spaces where we were fully merchandised and the only place that was going to do that for us was us, so we invested in our e-commerce to show everything. Even things that we had to do made to order of that we couldn’t risk taking inventory on, we wanted it to exist on the web site so you could see the whole breadth of it. Then we started partnering with retail stores that wanted to show the full breadth of what Pyer Moss was and carried Pyer Moss and Reebok by Pyer Moss. We also don’t think of wholesale as a business driver. It’s actually a loss for us, because the amount of money that you put into the dinners, into the shows, into the showroom setups in Paris, and the commissions you have to pay the salespeople, it never nets out. We have to look at it as a marketing spend. If you think of it as a marketing loss, you’re going to approach it completely differently. Now we only approach stores that are going to fully merchandise it, so we’re in Ssense, Browns, Net-a-porter, those type of stores that are going to give us the full range and the stores that are going to give us the full range are going to benefit from the extensive amount of marketing that we do. We want to involve the stores that are carrying us into that. We’re treating those stores like they’re mini Pyer Moss stores somewhere in the world, because we can’t afford to put a Pyer Moss store everywhere. If the stores are just trying to carry our hoodies and T-shirts, we cut them. Between Reebok and Pyer Moss, we went from 200 stores to 25 on purpose, but that actually grew our business. So now the value is a lot more.
WWD: What’s coming for 2020?
K.J-R.: More experiences. One of the tests that we did with this last show was we made it somewhat open to the public. We had tickets, we wanted to see how many people were going to engage and it was way more than we had expected, so we want to create more experiences like that that are ticketed.
We want to help accelerate other brands so that Pyer Moss is not the one that walked in the door and closed it behind them. I broke through the window so I can leave the door open, that’s my method. I look forward to helping designers build businesses and I don’t care about taking anyone’s equity, I really just want to help. This is what representation is — when you have a chance, you take other people up with you.
WWD: What do you think the future of fashion is?
K.J-R.: I think the future of fashion is experiential, and I think fashion is going to move from clothes to content, and I think there are going to be legacy brands that people are still going to invest thousands of dollars into, but they have to present themselves as art pieces. I think the days of pushing out product, trying to work against inventory is going to die with the more conscious thinking and sustainability as it pertains to that. I think you’ll see a lot more printing happening. There’s a company called Resonance who does this amazing program where essentially you go on PyerMoss.com, you click buy, they make it and have it to your door in six days. And that involves very little water usage, no waste of any fabrication. I think that’s what we’re going to move to. It’s going to be made to order, no inventory and brands are going to have to start creating experiences. Clothes are going to be the bottom of their balance sheet.