From the moment Kerby Jean-Raymond and Tracee Ellis Ross took the stage at Vogue’s Forces of Fashion this morning, it was clear this wasn’t going to be your standard panel. “I love these talks—it’s like having a conversation with a friend,” Jean-Raymond shared early on. And the tone was certainly unique: Having been collaborators for several years, Jean-Raymond and Ellis Ross share both a quick-fire rapport and a commitment to inclusivity within creative spaces. After all, as the designer and artistic director of Pyer Moss, Jean-Raymond has consistently put forth an uncompromising vision of style, informed by the power of blackness.
The African American experience in all of its intricacies, beauty, and historical context features prominently within Jean-Raymond’s work; and with each successive collection, he’s pushed the concept of the brand’s inclusive mantra, “American Also,” a step forward. His immersive shows in places like Weeksville, the Brooklyn neighborhood founded by freed slaves, and Kings Theatre, the iconic Flatbush performance space, offer his audience the opportunity to not just view his collections, but also to absorb the Pyer Moss universe in its entirety—a safe space for many who were once excluded from the fashion conversation. In doing so, Jean-Raymond has developed an enthusiastic following; it’s not every brand whose message moves an audience member to tears, after all.
And for Ellis Ross, who fell in love with Jean-Raymond’s designs after viewing his very first collections, the impact of his output feels deeply personal. “We have been designers and artists forming culture, leading culture, and defining it, particularly in the framework of style—but because the system mostly doesn’t recognize us, it’s often as if we weren’t there,” she said. “[Kerby] is building a narrative that speaks about heritage and activism. His first collection invoked knowingness and a sense of home. There’s something that happens when you see yourself and your culture represented, not as an object, but as a subject.”
On the meaning of the Pyer Moss name.
“My mom’s name was Vonya Moss, but when she moved to America in the ’80s, she had to get a green card. She changed her name to her cousin’s last name, which was Pye, in order to expedite the process. They spelled it P-Y-E in Haiti, but when she came to America, they changed it to P-I-E-R-R-E, but sometimes, in different contexts, there would be different spellings. She passed away when I was seven years old, and [on] one of the last pieces of paper that I have from her she wrote “Pyer.” So Pyer Moss is a combination of her American and Haitian names.”
On his “American, Also” collections.
“We’ve been asked to repatroitize African Americans in a time that feels very xenophobic, elitist, and exclusionary. So we’ve been highlighting the stories of African American contributions to the American popular space. The first collection of the series was done here [at Spring Studios], so we met you guys where you were. The second one was at the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and the third takes you back to where I’m from in Flatbush, Brooklyn. We turned the Kings Theatre into a hood fashion party, it was definitely a sight to behold. It was the craziest thing to behold because there were 3,000 people inside and another 1,000 outside. We reactivated the choir, have done film collaborations, to tell this story and make it into something that was truly special.”
On breaking away from the traditional seasonal schedule.
“Every show that I do, I feel like it might be my last one; there are times when I do feel that way. Just because I refuse to do a show unless I have something to say, I don’t base it on the season. There has to be a purpose; there has to be a reasoning behind it. My first job in fashion was when I was 14 years old, so I’ve been doing this now for 18 years.”
On fashion’s push towards greater inclusion.
“This conversation about diversity and inclusion is key, [and] it’s recurring. A lot of people are doing their best to try and understand and figure out what their place is or how they can help. For all of that, I’m grateful. When companies fuck up and do things that resemble blackface, then turn around and do a change-makers program, I love seeing that. It’s never gonna be perfect. It’s never gonna be clean, but I love that there is a deliberate intent to right a wrong and try to understand [the situation.]”
On his initial desire to be a sneaker designer.
“When I was younger, I went to a public school, but we wore uniforms in my least favorite color in the world, navy blue. There was a canary yellow dress shirt, a plaid tie—it was horrible, but [sneakers] were the way that we differentiated ourselves. I grew up in a very poor community, so that was our way of showing off, of showing we had just a little bit more. So that was something I got really big into. I knew sneakers so well that it got to the point where I could tell you every sneaker there was, just by [looking at] the bottom.”
On owning the title of artist.
“I’m an artist. Actually, my friend Kennedy started calling me an artist recently, and [at first I thought], ‘shut up,’ but then she made some good points. I have a nonlinear approach to everything. I don’t focus on any one element, [instead] I’m collaborating. I’m not painting, but I’m working with painters; I’m not a director, but I’m working with directors and DPs to create something meaningful. I’m moving in multiple spaces, thinking about how to be in them without having to be the absolute perfectionist.”
Go Behind the Scenes at the 2019 Forces of Fashion Conference
Originally Appeared on Vogue