The Pyer Moss Fall 2021 Couture show made headlines before it even began. On Thursday, members of the press, friends of the New York-based brand, and celebrity fans like Black-ish’s Tracee Ellis Ross, stylist Law Roach, and model-activist Bethann Hardison made the 90-minute trip from New York City to the fashion show’s venue where, after three false starts due to Tropical Storm Elsa, it was announced that the show would be postponed to Saturday. Though this type of upheaval is a rare occurrence in fashion, an industry that often resists change and disruption, it was one that many embraced for a chance to see Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond‘s debut couture collection.
Even prior to Thursday, the buzz around this show was at an all-time high. Not only did the showcase mark Jean-Raymond‘s first couture collection for Pyer Moss and first runway show in almost two years, but it also awarded him the honour of becoming the first Black American designer to be invited to participate as part of Paris Couture Fashion Week calendar by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. The designer didn’t take this historical moment lightly.
The event took place far away from Paris’ runway haunts — at Villa Lewaro in Irvington, New York, the estate of the late Madam C.J. Walker, the Black beauty entrepreneur who became America’s first female self-made millionaire. Elaine Brown, the former chairman of the Black Panther Party, opened the show with a powerful speech about liberation, then 22Gz, a rapper from Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighbourhood where Jean-Raymond grew up, took the stage for a performance that would soundtrack the catwalk. Next came the looks, each one a nod to an invention created by a Black entrepreneur, culminating in a model wearing a ruffled mini-dress covered by a refrigerator adorned with magnets reading: “But who invented Black trauma?”
It was a resonant, but fitting question for the finale of a collection by a brand whose show notes read: “We are an invention inside of an invention. Inside of the creation of race, we made blackness. Uprooted from home and put in a foreign land, we made culture. And when they tried to strip our humanity, we made freedom so tethered to each other that it still shapes the world today... Black imagination is this world’s greatest technology.”
While it’s rare that designers, particularly ones of haute couture variety, sew that much meaning into their clothes, this isn’t the first time the CFDA Fashion Award-winning designer has addressed race in a Pyer Moss collection. Jean-Raymond‘s last runway show in 2019 marked the conclusion of a three-part series titled “American, Also.” that explored what it means to be Black in America. Its reception was full of acclaim — a career highlight that may have only been eclipsed by Vice President Kamala Harris wearing a Pyer Moss design the day before Inauguration Day.
Although fashion rarely delves into conversations on race (and is, in fact, often criticized for instances of appropriation and insensitivity), Pyer Moss has long tackled nuanced topics by presenting them wrapped in elegantly wrapped fabrics, bold colours, and voluminous silhouettes. In line with shows presented during Haute Couture Fashion Week, the “Wat U Iz” collection doubled down on the volume and drama with oversized ice cream cone-patterned chaps, a bottle cap-shaped skirt, a peanut butter jar art piece-turned-dress, and a Super Soaker-inspired blazer.
The over-the-top looks may initially bring to mind Moschino’s campiest collections. But whereas Moschino’s Jeremy Scott finds humour in poking fun at fashion, a notoriously serious industry, with this collection, Jean-Raymond is redefining what couture is and could be, by giving prime placement to iconic objects created by Black individuals, and recontextualizing what it means to give credit where credit is due. The effect makes show-viewers wonder whether household items like a folding chair and an old-school cell phone are part of the look or just props (fine, there’s some Moschino-level trolling on Jean-Raymond’s part), and why it is we take some things seriously, and others for granted. While it stands on its own, this trailblazing collection arrives two months before Met Gala’s “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” exhibit which promises to engage with conversations about who gets to create fashion in America and who has been excluded from the narrative. (Pyer Moss is one of the brands that will be featured in the exhibit.)
The surreal looks were juxtaposed with more “wearable” pieces — a baby blue gown with side cutouts and a Marie Antoinette-esque skirt (or, at least, the Sofia Coppola version of one), a gold sequin mini, and a white suit that would look great on the red carpet on the likes of Ross or Roach’s most famous client, Zendaya. Personally, I would love to see a celebrity wear the impossibly beautiful ruched pink dress with a Swarovski-crystal embellished lampshade hat that could even rival Billy Porter’s 2020 Grammys look.
While many might connect the surreality of the collection with the revelation that Jean-Raymond came up with it while doing ayahuasca, that would be missing the point. Instead, what matters about Pyer Moss’ latest is the thrilling way in which it exemplifies why the inherently elitist art form that is haute couture is still meaningful for those who can’t afford to buy any of its pieces: It creates a fantasy. But unlike fantasies expressed on the runways of Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week regulars like Chanel and Balenciaga — brides entering on horseback, royal-appropriate gowns, etc. — Jean-Raymond’s fantasy world is one that is both eminently possible and yet all too frequently out of reach: one where Black people are finally given the proper recognition for their many essential contributions to all our lives.
Ahead, see the new collection in full (the show starts at the 32-minute mark).