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Is Fashion Woke?

There’s a psychological concept known as a double bind. Coined in the 1950s by psychologist Gregory Bateson while researching World World II veterans with schizophrenia, the terms refers to a form of control when there’s no way to win; damned if you do, damned if you don’t. For example, when someone tells you to “be spontaneous,” there’s no outcome you can pull off that’ll allow you to follow directions while also being spontaneous — and Bateson posited that continued exposure to double bind situations in childhood can result in schizophrenia in adults. During yesterday’s Pyer Moss show, designer Kerby Jean-Raymond attempted to ask, What if double binds happen to a group of people, not just one person? What does schizophrenia look like for a whole community?
Photo: Courtesy of Pyer Moss.
Photo: Courtesy of Pyer Moss.
Jean-Raymond, by admission, is not an activist. “Designing gives me a platform to communicate my very real feelings towards the things I see and deal with. I don’t consider myself an activist, though — I’m an artist, maybe even a provocateur.” But judging from the explicit theme of police brutality from his prior collection, Jean-Raymond might subscribe to the Nina Simone school of activism. She famously said, “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”

It’s a time when young Black men are told that they are are too violent when they agitate for change, but then are blamed when they don’t assert themselves. Black women are told they are impotent and powerless, but are expected to have supernatural resilience. Black communities are told that they need to keep their history in the past, but also to not question the fact that they’re still living out the effects of systematic discrimination that have kept communities in poverty.

“The Black experience in America is the ultimate double bind; a place where natural-born citizens live an immigrant experience in the only land they’ve known as home. A place where Black culture is praised, commodified, and appropriated, while Black people are criticized, vilified, and hunted for sport. A certain functional schizophrenia has to exist to cope with the dissonance of having a Black man in the White house while a Black body lies for four hours in the streets of Ferguson," read a statement from the brand.
So what happens after decades and centuries of these mixed messages? For one, it's what happened to MarShawn McCarrel — the Black Lives Matter activist who killed himself this Monday on the Ohio Statehouse steps — who posted a message on his Facebook page apologizing for his suicide: “My Demons Won Today. I’m Sorry.”

Those words, printed on a picket sign, accompanied the Pyer Moss show, which also included a smattering of campaign-style buttons printed with feel-better medications (Prozac, L.S.A., Oxy, Booze, Xanax, Lean). The McCarrell tie-in seemed so tragically timed (What's the word for the worst kind of synchronicity?); Jean-Raymond told us, “The theme of depression was always the focus of the clothing and the show. As we were styling in the studio the night before the show, we spoke about MarShawn and other suicides by young people, including Dave Mirra, and wanted to address it in a way that opens up the dialogue surrounding mental health."
The clothes were a juxtaposition of police and their prey — officer caps and combat boots wrapped shut with masking tape, worn with oversized sweatshirts, drawstring pants, and shearling jackets; worn with stylist and fellow artist/activist Erykah Badu’s personal glasses. Standout graphic tees provided blips of levity, with statements proclaiming “Why So Blue” and “You Don’t Have Friends In L.A.” (Said Jean-Raymond, “I tried to move out to L.A. and I came right back. It’s a different lifestyle out there — people were constantly flaking on me, breaking plans, and it was totally normal to not show up to lunches and dinners. I hated that shit.”)

The music, too, was a mix of “I know that song!”-style comic relief and the bleak comedown once the lyrics sunk in: a chorus sang the lyrics to Fetty Wap’s “RGF Island” and Future’s “Trap N-----” in fluttering, operatic stretches. "My n----s stack their money just to spend it / 'Cause when you die you cannot take it with you." For an intense stretch of 30 seconds, singers wove in and out of each others’ harmonies to just sing “n-----."
But as heavy as the messages could have been, the show was not pedantic. In fact, some in attendance found the experience fun and funny. It’s already incredibly hard to make a fashion show about anything more than just clothes — which is one reason why most designers don’t. For most Fashion Week shows, any “inspiration” or “reference” seems more arbitrary than necessary; you can interchange “Maria sunsets” and “Studio 54” with any of a dozen other keywords; it wouldn’t make a difference. For the few occasions when designers attempt to get political, the message they intend to project often gets lost behind the sheer fact that they’re selling expensive clothes. From Chanel’s “feminist” protest to Kanye’s “refugee” demonstration, commentary can feel like exploitation. Because there’s a price tag attached to the art, you get the feeling that for these designers, these topics are as fleeting as peplum hems and crewnecks.
Jean-Raymond is the exception, along with some other persistently political designers, including Vivienne Westwood, Stella McCartney, and Walter Van Beirendonck. But the fashion industry as a whole is — as they say — not woke. Its most powerful players have consistently, categorically, and systematically covered their eyes and turned their backs to the very real issues of the times. Superficially, it assumes that all its consumers are white, wealthy, and Eurocentric (see: here, here, here, here, and here); more seriously, the industry is responsible for some of the the most egregious environmental and human violations of the modern world. It kills people in the same breath in which it seeks to inspires them.

Fashion is as messy and dark a business as life is — but it is far worse at reflecting the struggle, strife, and injustices in as proportional a measure as it reflects joy and optimism. But as evident through Pyer Moss' collections, you can acknowledge the bitter and the sweet and have both the fists and the fripperies, all while creating something people will want to buy not only because the clothes are good, but because the message behind it is an extension of their inner thoughts — demons and all.