A wearable plush peanut butter jar, hot-roller cape and couture air conditioning unit? What was Kerby Jean-Raymond on? “Ayahuasca,” he said of how inspiration struck for his first Pyer Moss couture collection. But it’s even more universe-expanding than all that.
The activist designer has always had ambitions beyond fashion and he used the global platform of haute couture to express them, paying homage to overlooked Black American inventions and inventors with a collection of soft sculptures that may one day inhabit their own Pixar-like Hollywood universe.
Welcome to Kerbyland.
That the Pyer Moss couture show happened at all was a testament to Black entrepreneurial determination and was held in the cradle of it — the 100-year-old Villa Lewaro estate in Irvington, N.Y. Here, international hair care magnate Madam C.J. Walker, the first self-made female millionaire in the U.S., resided next to the Rockefellers and Goulds.
Jean-Raymond is also a first, the first Black fashion designer to win a coveted spot on the Paris Couture Week calendar. He went through an intense approval process to get there, building out ateliers in L.A. where he has been working with costume designers and soaking in inspiration from Hollywood, and his home base of Brooklyn; hiring seamstresses and sending sketches back and forth to the Federation de la Haute Couture et de la Mode in Paris.
That was all while being followed by a documentary crew for an upcoming film about the couture process (the rain delay just added to the drama), and balancing trips to Boston to work on Reebok, where his first collections as global creative director will bow in 2022.
So naturally, he wasn’t about to give up his first couture show because of a storm.
When the Thursday afternoon runway was rained out after three false starts, he regrouped for Saturday. And the sun was shining.
“The federation was really understanding of what we were going through,” said Jean-Raymond of the group’s decision to accommodate him by extending couture week.
“Kerby always has rain,” said Kay Unger, who hired the designer when he was just 13, of his experiences showing in bad weather. “Besides, this estate represents going through struggles and strife,” she added, referring to C.J. Walker’s journey from turning her own hair to a lustrous coif, selling products to help other Black women do the same, then spreading the wealth by empowering her female salespeople and salon owners to achieve their own economic independence.
Jean-Raymond has made racial justice and Black excellence cornerstones of his business, staging shows tackling police brutality, bringing the fashion crowd to the Weeksville Heritage Center historic site, and honoring rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
“There was no option for us to not show this collection, we worked very hard on it the last four months,” Jean-Raymond told WWD of his determination to show. “With couture, there’s no limits…with ready-to-wear, we think about what is going to sell and look nice on the red carpet and all these other factors that water down the vision. With this we were able to create a cool new expression of ourselves.”
A string quartet set the mood as people headed to their seats. Then it was time for some education about liberation. Black Panther party leader, writer and singer Elaine Brown opened the show. “I am a revolutionary,” she said, speaking about Martin Luther King Jr., Huey P. Newton and more. “We need to get back on the freedom train. Resurrect the Panther and the spirit of the Panther. We got to organize.…All power to the people.”
Then 22GZ took the mic amid a troupe of male dancers, the models stepped out from beneath the columned portico and it was on — Pyer Moss “Wat U Iz,” take two.
Using research from the Library of Congress and the Black Inventor Online Museum, Jean-Raymond highlighted Black innovations both serious and whimsical, including the automatic traffic signal on a Space Age-looking dress (Garrett Morgan patented the visual indicator and sold it to General Electric); a portable air conditioning unit framing a slinky gown (Frederick Jones developed many inventions in refrigeration); a portable fire escape as hardware over a catsuit (Daniel McCree helped save countless lives), and a plush peanut butter jar set atop legs and high heels (George Washington Carver devised dozens of uses for the peanut).
“The first iteration of this was prints, and trying to make ready-to-wear again, but then I started to think 3D, inspired by Pixar, by ‘Sesame Street,’ by mascots, by Disney and Universal Studios and those sorts of designers who go under the radar but are very special. I wanted to blend their world and my world,” Jean-Raymond said of the collection, which was a bit of camp, sure, but with noticeable couture details like the fluttering hem on the jacket of a gorgeous white pantsuit, and the drape of a white jersey cutout gown under a dramatic chandelier headpiece..
“The message is the same: I’m always reversing the erasure of Black people in the larger conversation around the African diaspora, but we need to evolve that conversation every time. I wanted this to be new, imperfect and fun. And some of the pieces are super hilarious to me, like the peanut butter one,” he said.
The art-meets-fashion pieces are destined for a gallery exhibition — and could also inspire an entertainment project. “Let’s look out for that,” said Jean-Raymond coyly, confirming that in addition to the documentary being made about him, he’s working on his own debut film project.
In the meantime, how rescheduling the runway show in a 48-hour time frame impacts Pyer Moss’ bottom line remains to be seen. “It’s a huge expenditure.…It’s probably going to affect some of the things I do this year,” he said, unsure of whether he will be able to go on with his New York Fashion Week show in September. (Calling Pixar, or another Hollywood sponsor, perhaps?)
Jean-Raymond is also not sure about his future on the couture calendar. “You know I don’t show on any particular schedule. If I don’t have a big idea, I don’t do it. But I’d love for them to continue to consider me,” he said.
The crowd that showed up both days was impressive, with A$AP Ferg, Tracee Ellis Ross, KiKi Layne, Raphael Saadiq, designers Aurora James, Anifa Mvuemba, Brandon Maxwell and Sergio Hudson, stylists Law Roach and Kollin Carter, model-activist Bethann Hardison, artist Deb Willis, Cross Colours founder T.J. Walker and many more among those who came out rain or shine. On Saturday, a portion of seats was also made available to the general public through a raffle.
“I was dying to see this estate, and I’m excited to support him and couture,” Ross said. “Madam C.J. Walker is one of my icons that has given me inspiration through my journey with Pattern [her own hair care line]. I think it’s special he figured out how to merge these things together, and it’s how we bring the legacy forward.”
“I wanted to see the next chapter. This is my first flight in over a year,” said the L.A.-based T.J. Walker, also a cofounder of the Black Design Collective, which hosted a talk with Jean-Raymond earlier this year. “I love his movement.”
“It makes sense to have this here, the first Black American designer featured during couture, for Richelieu Dennis whose foundation owns the house, to open it up, and to have this sense of music and fashion and the beautiful people. It’s really quite a statement,” said journalist A’Lelia Bundles, the great-great granddaughter of C.J. Walker and her biographer.
Bundles’ book, “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker,” was published in 2002, and inspired the Netflix series “Self-Made,” starring Octavia Spencer and produced by LeBron James’ Springhill Entertainment.
Now, Bundles is working on a biography of A’Lelia Walker, the only daughter of C.J. Walker, who was an arts patron and central figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
“C.J. Walker was more traditional because she was born in 1867. A’Lelia was more flamboyant in the 1920s….She went to Paul Poiret’s studio in Paris and he visited her here,” said Bundles of the character, played by Tiffany Haddish in the Netflix series, careful to add that the loosely historical “Self-Made,” “is entertaining, and means a lot more people know the name, but take it with a grain of salt, a whole shaker of salt.”
Dennis, who bought Villa Lewaro in 2018, was also soaking in the scene, while wearing a Pyer Moss T-shirt. He is the founder of Sundial Brands, now a subsidiary of Unilever, which includes the Madam C.J. Walker line of hair care products. Dennis was hugely inspired by her to become an entrepreneur himself and spread the profits of his own enterprise to the community.
In 2020, Dennis launched the New Voices Fund, seeding it with $100 million to support Black female entrepreneurs, and he hopes to use Villa Lewaro for programming related to it.
“Madam C.J. Walker was one of the most extraordinary people, and her legacy is the legacy Kerby is continuing. She did it in beauty, he’s doing it in fashion,” Dennis said. “Taking the lead in an industry that has excluded us from the top ranks, owning your work, product and business, that’s what Madam C.J. Walker is about. Having him do this at what I call the mecca of black entrepreneurship…that’s an example for all the world. That’s what equity looks like.”
“Black entrepreneurship is part of a broader complex solution to achieving true independence and freedom in this country and get laws changed,” said Jean-Raymond, who is paying his success forward through his link with Kering on Your Friends From New York, a platform to help fund and support creatives. “The mission is to create self-sustaining Black economies and self-sustaining Black narratives so we’re not at the mercy of institutions and systems that continue to erase us.”