To be a black woman who works in fashion is to be both simultaneously ignored and copied. My tone is policed but my colloquialisms are added to text to make it “voice-y.” The hair that grows out of my head is only just now protected from discrimination in its natural state in New York City, yet non-black influencers appropriate hairstyles. My body is both emulated and ridiculed for its shape. Attending fashion shows, which should be the pinnacle of my experience as a fashion editor and writer, is just a reminder of Western beauty standards I do not fit: I’m short, I’m brown-skinned, and I am not a 00. So often when a black designer appears on the fashion scene, I look to them as a reflection of my culture on a grand scale. I’m usually disappointed.
Winning the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund and Anna Wintour’s admiration hasn’t changed Kerby Jean-Raymond. If anything, it’s helped him shine an even bigger spotlight on the work that he’s done since his first New York Fashion Week runway show in 2013. Jean-Raymond hasn’t changed, the industry has. In 2017, after the 31-year-old designed an updated version of the “They Have Names” shirts for Colin Kaepernick’s GQ ‘Man of the Year’ spread at the behest of the athlete’s stylist, Jean-Raymond told me he was hesitant to make another shirt like that.
Back in 2015, when he created the initial “They Have Names” shirt, he also did a New York Fashion Week show around Black Lives Matter, and he felt he had been “ostracised for a little bit and was like a pariah in the industry" as a result. He explained: "It took me awhile to get back to this level, and I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers. I just wanted to keep doing my social justice work on the side."
On Sunday, Jean-Raymond continued to spotlight what it means to be black in America, with his three-part series, titled American, Also. Lesson One was introduced February 2018, telling the untold stories of black cowboys, Lesson Two explored "What does a mundane Saturday look like when we’re just left alone? What is black leisure wear?" The series concluded Sunday with Lesson Three, titled “Sister” in Kings Theater in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood. Brittney Escovedo, the founder of Beyond 8, the experiential event production company that has produced all of Pyer Moss’s shows, pulled this season’s production together in three weeks. “This show was all about Rosetta Tharpe, the Godmother of Rock’n’Roll. The show is about women, their strength, their power,” she tells Refinery29. “We start from there and build out.”
It helps that she works with relatively the same vendors season after season for the show. “They know what I like and they know Kerby very well,” she explains. “Even the musical director is learning from last year, what nuances are and aren’t going to work. That’s what makes it such a seamless process, especially when it’s so stressful.”
I talked to Brittney at the musical run-throughs on Friday night in Midtown for Pyer Moss’s spring 2020 show. The choir hadn’t yet rehearsed in Kings Theatre, the show’s venue. Pyer Moss actually wanted its show to be on Saturday but the theater was having its 90th anniversary celebration. So Brittney and her team arrived on Sunday at 4 a.m. to build the set (By 3 a.m. Monday, the set was broken down). That last minute change in plans is nothing for Escovedo, a Bay-area native with almost a decade of experience. When she moved to New York 10 years ago, she interned at Seventh House PR. “I didn’t know what I was doing but did production from beginning,” she explains. Escovedo says she’s been self-taught for the last 10 years after graduating from fashion school. “I’ve failed forward, constantly learning and stretching myself,” she says. She always knew she would be an entrepreneur and three years ago, she started Beyond 8. “My mom is an entrepreneur and my grandmother was super strong,” she says. In addition to Pyer Moss, her company has worked with CultureCon, Wells Fargo, Bobbi Brown, Facebook, and on Nipsey Hussle’s album release party for Victory Lap. The number eight in Beyond 8 represents Brittney’s grandmother’s birthday, March 8.
“The possibilities of what we can create are beyond infinite,” she explains. “You’ll be mesmerised on Sunday. What’s so special about what we’re doing is creating a space where there is so much love.” What captivated me, wasn’t just the clothing but all the work Escovedo has put in over the years, culminating in a not-to-be missed show.
Black people made the excursion from Manhattan to Brooklyn in droves. There was a line around King’s Theatre well before 9 p.m. (the show had a 9:30 p.m. start time and started over an hour late to accommodate guests coming from the Tommy Hilfiger x Zendaya show in Harlem). A friend told me she overheard people leaving Prabal Gurung’s show say that attending Pyer Moss was a priority for us. Us, in this case, means black people. When I entered the venue I heard security say a woman had Google’d a random barcode in an effort to make her way into NYFW’s hottest show. I signed into another editor’s internet hotspot to make sure my barcode was visible and ready to be scanned.
“I literally pour my heart and soul, everything I have into this,” Escovedo shared on Friday. “We had a walk-through earlier today at Kings Theatre, and I had a meeting with the security team like yo, when people are walking though, they need to feel great, they need to feel celebrated, I want them to feel welcome. As they are going through their bags, I want them to be like ‘you look good, girl. You look amazing. We’re so excited to have you. We’re excited to see you.’ I want people to feel welcomed. I want people to feel special. I want people to feel seen and that starts from when you check in, in line. That experience throughout the entire night is an experience for me to create and so when you think through every single thing and you know that those touch points have happened, it makes me emotional.”
Escovedo’s flawless execution paired with Jean-Raymond’s vision was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It made me feel seen for the first time at a New York Fashion Week show. Author Casey Gerald delivered the opening monologue. “Four hundred years have passed since they brought our people to this land and I’ve come here to say you can’t hurt us no more,” said Gerald in reference to the anniversary of slavery in America. “They knew that no matter how their master treated them, no matter how the world treated them, they had freedom on the inside that the world could not take away. And we are here tonight to claim our wings.”
From the opening monologue that referenced The People Could Fly, a book of black folklore my mother used to read to me when I was younger, to the 19 songs transcribed to sheet music so that the 75-person choir could fill the 3000-person theatre with renditions of Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love,” Cardi B’s “Money,” Missy Elliott’s “Sock It To Me,” and Tonéx’s “Make Me Over Lord,” the accomplishments of Black women were celebrated on a grand scale.
“I think relatively few people know that the sound of rock and roll was invented by a queer black woman in a church,” Jean-Raymond told Vogue backstage, moments after the show. “I wanted to explore what that aesthetic might have looked like if her story would have been told.” There were silk tunics, dresses so light and airy they seemed to float, wide-leg pants, bolero jackets, and even a leather handbag in the shape of guitar. Jean-Raymond reunited with jewelry designer Johnny Nelson to create pieces featuring 21 women, including Rihanna, Diana Ross, Nina Simone, Janet Jackson, and Lil’ Kim. In the spirit of collaboration, Jean-Raymond also presented his next Reebok offering, bearing paintings by Richard Phillips, an artist who recently made headline news when he was exonerated after spending 45 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He also included a nod to Sean “Diddy” Combs’ iconic ready-to-wear brand, Sean John.
On my way out, I saw a security guard dancing in the doorway. The doors were open and the music rang out in the streets. I felt free. I felt lifted.