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As the sun shone over Madame C.J. Walker’s former Irvington, NY residence, Villa Lewaro, constructed in 1918, the audience waited in anticipation of a dynamic storytelling experience. Many of the designer Kerby Jean-Raymond’s previous collections for his brand Pyer Moss use the intersection of contemporary art and fashion to center a variety of Black experiences to normalize how non-Black audiences perceive the Black community. For his debut as a guest designer of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, Raymond built on this storytelling and design aesthetic. . With the Pyer Moss team strategic in choosing the venues to present the collections, when Walker lived in the villa, she was already the first female self-made millionaire due to her thriving hair care line. Additionally, she opened her home to various gatherings of leading Black figures, artists, and activists from W.E.B Dubois to Langston Hughes. After her death, Walker’s daughter A’Lelia Walker lived and worked in the home, carrying on her mother’s activism. Furthermore, the venue set the collection tone, referencing the inventiveness across Black History that built the United States landscape.
Opening the show, Elaine Brown gave a powerful monologue, discussing the plight of activism during the 1960s to her time transitioning as a member, then leader of the Black Panther Party Movement. Her words resonated with empowerment, encouraging the tradition of Black people looking within themselves for advancement instead of waiting for oppressors to save them. Immediately after the music selection began, the first look came down the square catwalk. The ensemble, a red bodysuit and matching boots with a fabric pannier in the shape of a soda can that had the Pyer Moss logo and the slogan, “Deliciously Refreshing” printed on it. From a design standpoint, Raymond transported audiences into a surrealist world using compelling silhouettes to celebrate Black historical inventors, figures, and cultural shifts. Popular from the 1920s to the 1950s, surrealism seen in fashion was most notable in the work of couturier Elsa Schiaparelli and extended through the present in the collections of many designers and couturiers like Viktor and Rolf, Thom Browne, and the designs of Daniel Roseberry of the revived House of Schiaparelli.
Regarding the first soda can-like pannier, the printed slogan is a reference to Coca-Cola. After the Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton created his Coca-Cola “temperance” soda drink version of his cocaine and wine mixture (a copy of French recipe) in 1886, the drink was marketed to middle-class white people. Conversely, according to the New York Times article “When Jim Crow Drank Coke” by Grace Elizabeth Hale, she expressed that when Asa Candler took over the Coca-Cola business, “Middle-class whites worried that soft drinks were contributing to what they saw as exploding cocaine use among African-Americans. Southern newspapers reported that ‘negro cocaine fiends’ were raping white women, the police powerless to stop them.” Therefore, the first Pyer Moss Couture ensemble serves as a reminder that American institutions worked and, arguably, still work to suppress the social, economic, and political freedoms of the Black Community.
Building upon the storytelling narrative, there was the periwinkle satin dress with a cut-out halter bodice with a more traditional pannier; the model carried a wire horseshoe – a reference to Oscar Brown, who patented an improved version of the horseshoe in 1892. The peanut butter jar was a celebration of George Washington Carver’s legacy, which during his lifetime discovered more than 300 ways to use peanuts, soybeans, pecans, and sweet potatoes. There was also an “ice cream” bodice and matching thigh-high “ice cream cone” boots meant to honor Augustus Jackson, who produced improved ways to manufacture ice cream during the 1830s. The traffic signal dress with its reflective plastic to emulate lights was an ode to Garrett A. Morgan’s invention of the device, patented in 1923, which unequivocally eased the way we navigate our roads. The yellow one-legged “super-soaker” jumpsuit with padded shoulders signified Lonnie G. Johnson’s 1989 water-gun invention. The black lurex-like, shimmering gown with a mid-calf slit and cut-out bodice was layered with a life-size phone to honor Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, who is credited with working on various technological experiments at Bell Laboratories that led to the development of caller ID. Whether it was heralding figures like Nathaniel Alexander with his patented folding chair, Fredrick Jones and the automated refrigerator to the carbon light bulb filament invented by Lewis Latimer, the Pyer Moss Couture Collection 1 was an access point to audiences who never knew or sought to celebrate the identities of the endless products we consume on an hourly basis.
The red bodysuit with the fire escape structure was undoubtedly a celebration of Joseph Winter’s patented invention of the fire escape in 1878. Looking a bit deeper and using the fire escape outfit as an example, Raymond used these accouterments and product design innovations to emphasize and even introduce an extensive range of unconventional silhouettes to build out the shapes of each outfit. Haute couture has always served as a basis for experimentation and introduction to innovative concepts of fashion design. These forms in the Pyer Moss collection represented Raymond’s evolution as he continues his creative journey. Adding to the greater context, the couture show venue, Villa Lewaro, was a meeting place of various experimental thought leaders across the spectrum of Black experiences during Madame C.J. Walker’s and her daughter’s lives; thus, Raymond weaves in his expanding performance aesthetic to the location’s history. With that said, towards the end of the show, an orange banyan draped on the model’s body flowed under a large wig of hair rollers, combining a long history of contributors to the diversity of Black hair, including Walker. Walker’s work, activism, ingenuity, as well as the extensive list of Black inventors represented in the collection, are the source of vibrancy for this Pyer Moss collection and exemplify how these unsung stories can fuel the way fashion is received by many audiences locally and abroad. Having Raymond’s perspective amplified during the Haute Couture showings, the most Eurocentric symbol of fashion history held biannually works to break down the barriers built by the fashion hegemony in favor of a fashion industry that limitlessly includes unhindered viewpoints beyond whiteness.
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue