Politics Comes To The Runway : When Pyer Moss Brought Police Brutality To The Runway
In the last two years, Kerby Jean-Raymond, the founder of Pyer Moss, has become something of a New York Fashion Week star, famous for taking the African-American experience and putting it front and center on the runway, using such inspiration figures as the black cowboy and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. He has won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award, become artistic director of Reebok Studies and collaborated with Hennessy.
But in 2015, he almost went out of business after a show that opened with a 12-minute video about police brutality titled “This Is an Intervention.” It featured interviews with the relatives of many of the black men who had been killed by police: Eric Garner, Marlon Brown, Sean Bell. Praised and excoriated in almost equal measure, the show thrust the then largely unknown label into the spotlight, and was the first time a designer forced fashion to grapple with its own culpability regarding race.
This is its story and the first time the video has been shared since that time.
Kerby Jean-Raymond, founder and creative director of Pyer Moss
In July we had done a standing presentation in TriBeCa for men’s wear called “Ota Benga.” At the time, the case of Mike Brown was getting public attention, and Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. Ota Benga was an African man who was kept in the Bronx zoo ’til 1906. We wanted to juxtapose this story with the modern-day prison system and police brutality, to show we shouldn’t be repeating these mistakes.
But at the event I realized it was going over everyone’s heads. People were having a good time. They were reacting, but they weren’t reacting the way I wanted them to. So that night at dinner we were like, “Let’s turn this into a runway and do a second show.” Two months later, we did a women’s collection for the first time.
Brittney Escovedo, show producer, Beyond 8
We spoke a lot about the fact this industry is in a lot of ways, and especially at that point, not penetrated by these stories. They’re not talking about it. The editors, the journalists, the influencers that come to these fashion shows aren’t thinking about these issues. So we have 20 minutes of people’s attention, and we can use it as an opportunity.
Before that, we were strictly a men’s wear brand. The company wasn’t doing well. I was in a partnership with a backer, and they were pretty much fed up. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I didn’t address these issues. I was prepared for it to be my last show.
Dario Calmese, show director, then casting director
So much of one’s existence in the fashion space was trying not to ruffle too many feathers. For you to take a stand as a quote-unquote black person would kind of eliminate you.
I knew I wanted a video, knew I wanted an experiential element. A live art element. Wanted Brenmar to do the music live. There were a lot of moving parts. It was probably the most complicated thing I had done. We started shooting a guerilla-style documentary that featured Usher, people in the fashion industry and the family members of victims of police brutality. I think we shot the whole thing for $1,500.
It wasn’t hard for me to reach out to the families because I felt like it was important, but it was hard for them to trust us and to understand what our motives were. I remember having multiple conversations sharing who I am, who Kerby is, what the brand stands for and that this wasn’t just about death and loss. It was about what this could be: education, love, so much more than just being shot.
Shikeith, artist and one of the “This Is an Intervention” editors
Kerby and his team handled the principal photography for the project — they had shot the footage of the interviews. There was a decision to include YouTube clips of police brutality, to project light on what was happening all around this country. There were hours and hours of footage of various public figures. I remember sitting with all of that in front of me, at 24.
We knew that we were all taking a risk, and it was very important that we all do it together the entire team. It was almost like a pact that we signed up for, because although Kerby wanted to make a statement, we were all part of that statement.
Clara Jeon, publicist
Then we lost a venue.
We had talked to the New Museum about potentially having it there, and once we shared what the show was about, they just declined and said we couldn’t have the event there.
We had to scramble and ended up with a venue that was too big and way out of our price range, the Altman Building on 18th Street. We ended up paying close to $20,000, which was definitely money we didn’t have.
I remember thinking, “Wow, maybe this is a sign that we’re not supposed to do this.” I was really scared about what people would say. We already had some people we thought were partners backing out before anything had even gone public. What if fashion media who at the time weren’t even covering Pyer Moss widely what if this is the thing that makes them not take us seriously as a fashion brand? I don’t think people realize how close we came to not doing this show and canceling it altogether.
Then, right before we did the show, right outside my apartment in Southside Jamaica, Queens, I had a cast on my hand, was talking to my sister on the phone, was coming in from buying a beef patty, and I look up and I hear, “Put it down, put it down!” And these cops had their guns drawn on me.
He told me the next day, when we were walking around SoHo. He said, “I could have gotten shot last night.” That was the time I’m not black when I felt what the black community must feel all the time, that fear of losing your friend or your son or your husband at any given moment over just living your life. That was when my mind was made up. I was like, we need to do this.
I wanted to invite the families of the victims. Editors and whomever was coming to the show — they would have another opportunity to be at a show, but these people deserved to be honored. So I was like: The front row is yours. Press and editors can sit second row.
Seating is extremely stressful for publicists, because it is very political. It is the way a brand communicates to editors and publishers their relationship with them or priorities. I pre-emptively tried to explain that it would be the families of victims in the first row, so the second row is the best seating available. The majority of press understood. A couple would not come to the show.
It was crazy, because most of the I’m-not-comings came from black stylists.
We really wanted a diverse cast. I don’t think we were at the point where we were making a statement with casting all-black models. But we definitely wanted to open with one and make sure they had a substantial presence on the runway. The casting job continued all the way up until the show because one model was stuck in fittings for, I believe, Alexander Wang, and I actually had to pull a blogger from the audience and put her in the show. I told her: “Give us your Venmo. We’ll send you some cash.” I didn’t know her name. She just came to enjoy the show.
Jon Reyman, hairstylist, Aveda
Kerby and I had talked about what he wanted a few days before whether it should be big, or small, or sort of like a flat top but right before the show he called me and said he just wanted it as simple as possible, so it would almost disappear. So it wouldn’t call any attention to itself, or be part of the story.
What I initially wanted to do was not even have clothes and put everyone in tights. I wanted everyone to feel a sense of nakedness, to put black bodies on display.
That had actually been a discussion in the days leading up to the show: Do we even show clothes? Is that still something we do? But it’s a fashion show. People come to see clothes. And we wanted to make it clear that we wanted to be at the forefront of a conversation in fashion, within the industry, where this was just not talked about ever.
Outside of the show, there was a truck that had a projection of one of the designs that I made, a globe that said “Pyer Moss News.” As it pertains to the media, and how black life and blackness is portrayed, there’s a sort of a reductive lineage that is caught up in caricature and stereotype all racist, all symptoms of white supremacy. For the show, it was important to emphasize the control we had over the narrative through this signifier of “Pyer Moss News,” to represent taking control of the narrative and speaking to truth.
Gregory Siff, artist who spray-painted the collection live
Everything is dark. The audience is out there. The film goes on, and it’s like a punch to your gut.
We didn’t really tell people what to expect. We maybe should have, but I would say 99.9 percent of that room had no idea what they were sitting down to watch. After the video, there was 2 to 3 seconds of complete silence before people started to applaud.
After the movie, people were gasping, some people were crying, some people walked out, and I started to get cold feet about what we were doing. I told Dario not to send the models out. And he got so combative with me and was like: “I’m sending them out! I’m sending them out!” I was just standing behind the projector screen. I was like a little kid in trouble because of what we’d just shown everyone.
Then Kerby whispers to me he was next to me “Now, go out there and shake the can.” It was all silent, in the dark, and then the lights come on, and I am shaking this can.
The models all stood on a U-shaped runway, and they stayed there, straight-faced, and you could actually feel the life and souls of those we had lost in the models that were standing there.
We’re always trying to marry runway and presentation. So the models were coming out in this really kind of militaristic style, but in rehearsal I didn’t have enough time to figure out how to cue them to move to the next spot. So I was like, “I’ll just stand in the middle of the runway, and scream ‘Go!’” And every time I did, the models would move.
I think there were three to five models I painted. For me, it all happened so quickly. I was reacting in the moment. I had painted all the boots beforehand: a lot of repetition of “I can’t breathe,” which was Eric Garner. “Call my Mama.” Some of the shoes had black overspray. But having written so many times on the shoes, “I can’t breathe,” I felt like I needed to write the opposite. So the last line I painted was “breathe, breathe, breathe” on the back of one of the jackets.
The last model didn’t get the instruction right Gregory had spray-painted on the back of her jacket, but you couldn’t see it. So I walked onto the runway and grabbed her shoulders and threw her around. I think I might have made the last picture on Style.com.
I was watching the crowd reaction from the side of the stage, and everyone was off their phones. There’s very little video footage from that show because people were off their phones. At the end, people wanted to clap, but we shut the lights off and you heard Oscar Grant’s mom she had sent us audio because she couldn’t come and that put everyone back in their seat.
Charity events, galas are used to celebrate and bring awareness and raise money. But this was the first time I saw a designer really using his fashion as a platform to speak out against injustice, and so overtly. It was very much: I have you captured in the audience, you’ve shown up, and I am going to show you something you may not know about.
While there was a lot of public positivity in the press that covered it, a lot of support in terms of sympathizing with the black victims and wanting to help address the issue, it also opened us up to direct attacks on social media: backlash from white supremacists, people who thought that our message was an attack on police and would send us #bluelivesmatter messages, who said we had no business showing something like this at a fashion show.
I started getting death threats. They had me on a watch list for stormfront.org, a white supremacy forum. I was getting emails like “I’m going to kill you nigger.” Lots of stores dropped their orders. It put me in a really dark place.
Kerby didn’t know if his business would stay around or if he was going to make it. And once he did, and got through, that set the tone for him understanding the importance and significance of being a black man in America, a black designer, and solidified his voice and all of our purpose.
A big question is: What was the impact? How are we moving forward? What lessons have been learned? Have there been any lessons learned?
This article originally appeared on New York Times