Words by Sharon Edelson
Photos by Tone Woolfe
Talk about your mothers and fathers of invention.
Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond did more than talk for his inaugural couture show. Jean-Raymond delighted his audience with a series of soft sculpture garments such as a plush peanut butter jar – one of George Washington Carver’s many peanut discoveries – and just one of many innovations by Black Americans.
In a gesture as inspiring as it was symbolic, Jean-Raymond held his runway show at Villa Lewaro, an estate in Irvington, New York, which was the home of the first Black female self-made millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker, who developed a successful line of hair care products. The original show scheduled for last Thursday was doused by torrential rain, but the sun shown on Jean-Raymond’s second take on Saturday.
In his show notes, Jean-Raymond said that Madam C.J. Walker’s wealth was more than money, adding that Black prosperity begins “in the mind, in the spirit, in each other. She knew that no dollar amount could ever satisfy the price tag of freedom – that green sheets of paper and copper coins could never mend souls, heal hearts or under the evil we’ve had to endure.”
So Jean-Raymond did Madam Walker proud. He paid homage to Black American inventions overlooked by history and said ayahuasca helped him find the inspiration for his first Couture collection, which was accepted by the Federation de la Haute Couture et de la Mode in Paris, making him the first Black designer to win a coveted spot on the French calendar.
“Wat U Iz,” the name of the collection, drew a host of celebrities from the worlds of music, Hollywood, fashion, and more, with A$AP Ferg, Tracee Ellis Ross, Aurora James, Law Roach, 24Golden, Joey Badass, among others.
The collection was plenty campy at times. Jean-Raymond didn’t take himself or the inventions too seriously. After all, the collection included a cape and head-piece made of hot curlers wrapped with hair, a ruched silk jersey corseted and hand-beaded dress with matching bespoke lampshade hat richly embellished in Swarovski crystals, and a portable air conditioning unit attached to a frame held by a model wearing a yellow gown.
“Everybody’s inviting a narrative,” Jean-Raymond said. “If you’d seen my work when I was 16 and doing T-shirts, it’s the same. I’ve just updated my work, but I’ve never really changed the ethos of it. I want people to experience that black culture is not a dirty thing. It’s the creativity, inventions and ingenuity that contributed to [our] independence.”
There may also be some debt owed to Moschino’s campier creations by Jeremy Scott, whose tongue-in-chic designs poke fun at the fashion industry by not taking themselves too seriously – think of the cartoonish Marie Antoinette dresses and wedding cake extravaganza – but Pyer Moss’ designs are imbued with deeper meaning, shedding light on inventors who’ve been canceled or merely forgotten by the culture at large.
The looks resided at the intersection of fashion and art with soft sculpture for some designs, and others involved welding and fiberglass molding. A giant hand-shaped puffer coat enveloping a mannequin was holding a mop – the invention – while another model wearing a stunning pale blue gown with cutouts held a life-size horseshoe. A soft-serve ice cream top with rivulets of sprinkles was paired with oversize chaps that looked like ice cream cones. And so it went. Visual puns and stunners, such as a white Avant guard suit with a belt of black and white typewriter keys came out of the mansion to the music of 22gz and the sound of commanding drums.
There were fire escapes on a model wearing a red and orange body leotard and a pair of handlebars and metal skirt worn over a white bodysuit. A refrigerator with alphabet magnets spelled out, “And who invented Black trauma,” in keeping with Jean-Raymond’s activist side and challenging the audience to think as well as see the spectacles. That and the incredible construction elevated the collection well above costume. With this freshman show under his belt, we are all eagerly awaiting couture 2.