One in a series on the clothes that had a moment at New York Fashion Week.
NEW YORK — The runway show was both cleansing and inciting, a fashion ritual transformed into a rainy-night revival infused with religiosity, sorrow and ultimately optimism. It was the kind of show in which the personal and the political are interwoven — the kind of show for which Kerby Jean-Raymond has become known.
The Pyer Moss designer uses the runway to draw attention to issues ranging from police violence and drug addiction to the beautiful struggle of the immigrant experience.
His willingness to tackle sometimes ugly, tough topics in the rarefied world of fashion has attracted growing audiences to his presentations. It must surely be one of the most diverse guest lists of any show on the official fashion schedule — an audience particularly invested in the cathartic experience of the show, if not necessarily the designer himself, as one critic noted.
Indeed, Jean-Raymond’s first look was a tall, angular model dressed in a long white shirt — vaguely clerical, wholly serene — moving forward as if towards a baptismal pool.
The Saturday night show opened with a co-ed choir dressed in white taking its place on high platforms at the top of the runway. (A bit of behind-the-scenes musical direction had come courtesy of singer and producer Raphael Saadiq.) The imposing choir director settled in behind the music stand and launched his singers into a gospel-tinged soundtrack that that began with a stubbornly optimistic plea — “Everything’s got to get better” — before launching into the heart-rending lyrics of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Home is Where the Hatred Is”:
A junkie walking through the twilight
I’m on my way home
I left three days ago, but no one seems to know I’m gone
Home is where the hatred is
Home is filled with pain and it,
Might not be such a bad idea if I never, never went home
The medley flowed into street language, with a refrain that invoked the n-word, about the controversial numbers of black men in Riker’s Island prison. In soulful tones they sang Kendrick Lamar’s chorus, “Every n—- is a star,” turning it into a melancholy observation.
They remade Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” into slow-tempo dirge, drawing out the song’s bitter words of despair for sharp emphasis. The show ended as the choir did, with Lamar’s “Alright,” a song embraced by the Black Lives Matter movement: “We gon’ be alright.”
Jean-Raymond understands the emotional impact of music, the way it instantly sets a mood particularly when songs are set free of videos, dancers and onstage pyrotechnics. When it’s just voices lifted in unison, there’s a kind of spiritual community. There’s tremendous power in commonality, and Jean-Raymond is able to harness it.
But he is also able to back up that sonic story with clothing that does not look like an afterthought to activism. His fall collection moves his design sensibility — and business — forward. In particular, he showed off his collaborative efforts with Reebok, which included a reworking of sneakers as well as offering his riff on warm-up suits and other athletic gear.
His main collection of men’s and women’s apparel evoked simple workman uniforms, cultural modesty and the Western and athletic styles that make up the American myth.
There were Western-style jackets and shirts, along with cowboy-ish hats hanging from the models’ back. Models wore ankle-grazing great coats that looked like something one might see in a high plains western film, with full-legged trousers. Jean-Raymond even offered his version of what might loosely be called cowboy boots.
For Jean-Raymond, the American story has a diverse community of equally important characters. Making that point was a pink Western-style shirt adorned with an American flag in shades of red, black and green — evocative of the Pan-African flag that became a symbol of black liberation — along with a patch referencing Cross Colours, one of the early brands in the realm of hip-hop entrepreneurship.
The shirt was also embroidered with “Psalm 91,” which reads, in part: “I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.” A soulful salve against whatever the world may muster.
A lot is communicated with one little shirt. And that’s laudable. But Jean-Raymond remembers that all that messaging would ultimately be lost, if it wasn’t a good shirt.
Also at New York Fashion Week: