How This Designer Is Speaking Out Against Police Brutality At NYFW

Photo: Mireya Acierto/Getty Images.
Fashion brand films are usually just another medium for displaying pretty clothes, and not a means for making a statement about something ugly and politically charged. But buzzy label Pyer Moss is going there at its New York Fashion Week show this September. Kerby Jean-Raymond, the line's designer, is producing a short film about racism and police brutality that will debut at his show, which is also Jean-Raymond’s first-ever womenswear collection for his label. Jean-Raymond reached out to a variety of big names for the film, including Givenchy campaign face and Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz; fashion designer (and mentor to Jean-Raymond) Kay Unger; artist Kehinde Wiley; and The Washington Post’s fashion critic, Robin Givhan. He also spoke with Wanda Johnson, whose son, Oscar Grant, was killed by police officers in 2008 in a Bay Area train station (the 2013 film Fruitvale Station is about Grant's death), and Nicole Bell, whose fiancée, Sean Bell, was killed by NYC police officers in 2006. Jean-Raymond’s friends served as the film crew.
Jean-Raymond isn't the first fashion figure to make a statement about racial strife: At Public School's menswear showing in July, a mix of models and notable non-models stood in front of a background that resembled a police lineup. It looked like a pretty clear reference to recent incidents of police brutality that have sparked national dialogue, though the brand’s designers, Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow, were somewhat vague about the concept: “[By] creating a backdrop that normally contextualizes and marginalizes a specific group of people reinforces the need of this kind of solidarity, shaking up the traditional notions and images of who you would normally assume to see in this setting. But we're really all the same when we're lined up side by side," the designers said in a statement. This isn’t Jean-Raymond’s first time speaking out about these incidents through his work — he made a T-shirt last year, shortly after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri that said,“They Have Names," with a long list of names of those murdered as a result of police brutality. Jean-Raymond initially designed the shirt for himself, but after wearing it at his spring '15 Fashion Week presentation, and receiving requests for the piece, the designer had the shirt manufactured — proceeds are going to the ACLU. The shirt generated so much attention that the Pyer Moss’ website crashed four times. Additionally, last month, Jean-Raymond worked with artist Gregory Siff on a spring '16 menswear collection that referenced Ota Benga, a pygmy from Congo, who was put on display at the Bronx Zoo’s Monkey House in 1906. Recently, we spoke with Jean-Raymond to learn why the film came about — and why it almost didn’t happen: Why did you decide to create this film?
“The film is part of the rollout of the Ota Benga collection Gregory Siff and I are working on. We went into the film idea with a completely different concept than what you will see in September, and after some thought, I had decided to scrap the film idea altogether. The day I said I wasn’t doing [the film] anymore, I had a run-in with the police that almost left me dead: I was wearing a black cast for a broken hand that they mistook for a weapon. It was a sign for me that I couldn't just look away and do nothing.” Why are you showing it during NYFW?
“People only listen to me two times a year. I’ll have other collections, but this thing that’s happening right now in society is time-sensitive.” Why is it important for your work to include bigger cultural messages?
“There are 17-year-old boys being killed by grown men hired to protect a community. The purpose of using Benga as a reference [at Pyer Moss’ spring '16 men’s show] was to say, 'Has the perception of the black man really changed from 1906 until now?' Are we still seen as less than human, aggressive, and beasts? Why else would you use lethal force on an unarmed child?' We need to address the fear.” Is it challenging to incorporate politically and racially charged statements into a fashion showing?
“I’ve gotten everything in my life that I’ve prayed for. I’m not rich, but I’m doing what I love, and I'm happy to get to my studio every day and work on things that actually make me happy. Two years ago, I was in a completely different place. I’m blessed to have made it through that and have the ability to earn this platform to show my art. If I have to sacrifice a few of my shows for the sake of saving a life, that’s such a f*cking minor trade-off between me, God, and this universe, to have this gift.” How did you work with the likes of Victor Cruz, Kehinde Wiley, Robin Givhan, Nicole Bell, and Wanda Johnson on the film?
“Those people are all part of the outreach, but not part of the film yet. I can’t say who is in the film yet until the final cut. We approached every subject of the film the same way — we wanted to have a conversation about finding a solution, not pointing fingers, and most people were on board. Some can’t speak on this subject because of how it can affect their business. I still have the same fears for my own business. I can’t blame everyone who backed out; we’ll still remain friends, but it can be a fan of their music, sport, art, or a fan of Pyer Moss victimized by this one day. We should care enough about them to protect them.”

More from Fashion

R29 Original Series