The pieces pay tribute to the Black innovators who created a wealth of well-known everyday objects.
Sometimes you’re witnessing history in the making and you don’t even know it. Say, when you’re watching the unexpected pairing of players or teams at a high-stakes sporting event (there were a few notable ones this past weekend, right?). But other times, like with the case of the Pyer Moss haute couture debut on July 10, the sense of a momentous occasion transpiring before your eyes is just the beginning of the magical narrative that unfolds.
As the first Black American designer to be invited by the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture to present as a guest designer during haute couture week, Pyer Moss’s creative director Kerby Jean-Raymond had the eyes of the world watching his brand’s inaugural couture effort — quite literally, as it was livestreamed. And he shared a tale so rich with history, steeped in protest, and gratuitous in wit and beauty that we’ll be speaking of for decades to come.
Jean-Raymond and his team are no strangers to conceiving of collections and fashion shows that are laden with symbolism and design prowess. In the eight years he’s run Pyer Moss, he has revealed a level of acumen necessary to climb the ranks of the style world’s most covetable positions; in 2020, he was named Reebok’s global creative director and won a CFDA award for American Menswear Designer of the Year. And we were aware of the potential his designs had to be considered couture. The sensational gowns on view at the label’s most recent show in September 2019 were as grand as anything we’ve come to expect from a couture collection’s array. What we didn’t know was how this would manifest in this recent highly anticipated and significant occasion. To say expectations were exceeded is a true understatement for so many reasons.
Beyond the typical sense of drama we await during a couture show — one proffered by the sheer decadence and skill behind each laborious and lofty look — the Pyer Moss couture show had an escalated feeling of emotion given the event was initially cancelled due to torrential rain. The elegant runway that was created on the grounds of Villa Lewaro, the New York estate of Madame C.J. Walker — America’s first female self-made millionaire, entrepreneur and nurturer of the Harlem Renaissance — was deluged and slicked, making it a dangerous platform for the show’s models and performers, and an inhospitable arena for presenting what’s considered in fashion circles as the epitome of design and craft.
The crowd, which included Law Roach, Tracee Ellis Ross, Jidenna, Bethann Hardison and A$AP Ferg, stood its soggy ground under umbrellas and ponchos supplied by the label and tucked under tents, with the expectation that a weather-centric miracle would occur and the show would go on. However, at around 4 p.m. on Thursday, July 8, Jean-Raymond appeared on the runway to update the audience. He gave a bit of background on the collection, noting that the idea to create a couture line came after an ayahuasca ceremony, and said that the juncture would be the final false start for the day. A short time later, the affair was cancelled and the subsequent news arrived that it was rescheduled to Saturday. The Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode also stated that haute couture week would be extended to reflect the change. Back at Villa Lewaro, bottles were still popped and blunts — much to the amusement of attendees like New York Times reporter Guy Trebay — were passed. The crowd celebrated in spite of the storm with Saturday’s impending event in sight.
Suffice to say, once attendees including Aurora James took their seats, and activist Elaine Brown took to the re-constructed stage Saturday afternoon, hopes were high and the energy was coursing, even for those of us present via computer and phone screens. When Brown departed the scene, rapper 22GZ and a group of dancers emerged. And then came the looks, each more fanciful, evocative and potent than the last.
Part surrealist fantasy, part political statement and part example of extreme design dexterity, the ensembles were inspired by 25 achievements — overlooked and often omitted from history books — of Black inventors and creatives. For example, look 17 was a sweepingly silhouetted nod to the fire extinguisher patent granted to Thomas J Martin; a red, white and black asymmetrically structured look boasting one of the coming season’s hottest trends, exaggerated sleeves.
There was a chessboard-checkered suit (complete with 3D pieces which will hopefully make it into production, or at least have a hurrah on a red carpet somewhere); a traffic light mini-dress; and hip wader-ish trousers in the shape of ice cream cones topped with an ice cream swirl bustier. The spirit of fashion’s most irreverent and ingenious minds, from Patrick Kelly and Yohji Yamamoto to Franco Moschino, Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren was present — a combination of artistry, critique and cheekiness emblematic of what the best cases of design can accomplish: making us feel, interrogate and dream.
Post-show, the press release about it revealed another way in which Jean-Raymond is endeavouring to change the fashion industry. In a rare gesture, the names of the backstage crew, performers and others involved in its production were communicated to media and buyers — a move which illustrates Jean-Raymond’s crucial understanding of giving credit where it’s due. This was the clear ethos of the show in every aspect, whimsical and revolution-focused creativity aside, and the reason why it’s significant. Even in the days following the show, Jean-Raymond has shared more facts about the Black excellence that inspired the pieces, demanding we continue our educations now that the beauteous buzz has waned.
Because what is design without examination of the past? Other couture debuts this week at Maison Alaïa and Balenciaga saw the “updating” of philosophies and aesthetics for houses that have years-long lexicons to derive concepts from. Pyer Moss’s couture debut will be remembered as the launching point of a new direction for a thought leader who has already accomplished so much, and yet is still demonstrating he’s really just getting started.