NEW YORK — Designer Kerby Jean-Raymond believes in fashion’s ability to inspire, provoke and educate. He understands that the simple act of getting dressed can be political. And while that morning ritual is not as powerful as casting a ballot, it can also leave one emboldened.
Jean-Raymond looks specifically at the way in which black people are cast in the role of “other.” They are not the default face of America; they are the face that America shows as proof of its diversity, as evidence of its openness, as a testament to its welcoming spirit. Black folks are not simply American. They are also American.
Their mere existence in public spaces is being demonized as a simmering threat that must be stopped before it boils over, before black people have the audacity to believe they can exist anywhere, comfortably, confidently — freely.
The spirit of freedom is woven throughout this collection, which draws from black cultural life — not the fancy, high-profile elements that have shaped music, sports or cinema, but the mundane, quotidian pleasures. The clothes and the glorious harmony of full gospel choir in white robes and matching Reebok sneakers speak to the role of the church and the conviviality of Sunday service — and maybe weekday Bible studies, prayer meetings, weddings, choir rehearsals and fellowship dinners, too. The prints and shapes make references to cookouts and summer vacations, pick-up games and gossip sessions and the loving act of a parent gazing into the eyes of a child.
This isn’t streetwear but clothes about life at street level and the humanity of everyday people that is both universal and specific.
Jean-Raymond, who is a finalist in the CFDA-Vogue Fashion Fund competition, offers flowing white dresses and skirts and a long black gown that call to mind choir robes and ecclesiastical garments. Trousers and dresses are brightened with painterly brown faces with expressions of joy or serenity. A white cummerbund — not a throwaway T-shirt or a casual bomber jacket but an emblem of traditional masculine formality — is embroidered with the question: “See us now?” Black people may not be everywhere, but they belong everywhere.
These clothes have a thought-provoking message, but they are also desirable on a purely aesthetic, indulgent, gimme-it-right-now gut level.
Jean-Raymond’s runway also speaks to the current collaborative nature of the fashion industry. So yes, there is a signature sneaker — a high-top, high-tech, strappy bit of coolness in partnership with Reebok. That collaboration also includes abstract patterned leggings and a matching wind jacket that in a single flash call to mind heirloom quilting, Romare Bearden and a Nick Cave sound suit.
The FUBU logo with its “for us, by us” story of entrepreneurship and self-definition appears on several garments. Some models wore shoes by Aurora James, who through her Brother Vellies collection has made an effort to highlight the skills and aesthetics of cobblers in countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia. And the artwork that brings such energy to Jean-Raymond’s pajama tops and toga-like dresses was from the Brooklyn-based artist Derrick Adams , whose work explores the way race and class inform our ideas of who and how people engage in leisure time.
How to unpack the layers of history and culture and creativity built up over generations that conspired to create a single, purple iridescent dress with its image of a black man holding a baby in his arms? There are hints of Mickalene Thomas’s glamorous portraiture, subversive references to a classic Madonna and child posture, the everyday beauty in a James Van Der Zee photograph and the contemporary confidence seen in so many neighborhood girls who don’t need a corporate glossy or some Instagram influencer to tell them how to look good.
These are “just” clothes in the same way that a black man sitting down at a lunch counter undisturbed is just a midday meal.
Historically, the collection is informed by the “Negro Motorist Green Book,” an annual road manual to help African-American travelers safely navigate a segregated country, with guidance on welcoming restaurants and lodging, as well as identifying “sun-down towns” that were treacherous for black people after dark. The collection also speaks to contemporary times when white Americans have called police officers at the sight of black people sitting in Starbucks, enjoying a cookout, sleeping in a dorm room common space, canvassing for votes, or simply existing.
As the embroidery on one of his shirts says, “Stop Calling 911 on the Culture.”
Jean-Raymond presented his work in a safe space, not one devoid of dialogue about difficult subjects — everything about the spring 2019 Pyer Moss collection was about engaging on an ugly topic — but a space where such a lively conversation could be untethered, if only for a few minutes on a cold, rainy September night, from some of our darkest history. But he set the terms; he recalibrated the scale. He invited his audience to the Weeksville Heritage Center, in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood. Founded in 1838, Weeksville was the second largest free, African-American community in the pre-Civil War era. As industrialization and development encroached, the town was in danger of being lost to history when it was rediscovered in the 1960s and saved with neighborhood support. Its three restored houses are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Jean-Raymond asks his audience to imagine if Weeksville had survived. Consider if its residents and their descendants and their neighbors and their neighbors’ neighbors had been left to simply be American. More broadly, the Jean-Raymond allows himself to envision what it means to live fully, beautifully and freely.
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