It has been a year since Pyer Moss invited Fashion Week to Weeksville, the historic black neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Last year's second installment in “American, Also,” a three-part series of collections addressing the erasure of African-American narratives in popular culture, the moving show was hailed as one of the best of the season and positioned the brand squarely in the New York spotlight. So when Haitian-American creative director Kerby Jean-Raymond decided to go on hiatus last season, shortly after winning the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award, many wondered if he could keep the momentum going. With the Pyer Moss name in bright lights at the Kings Theater in Brooklyn last night, Jean-Raymond was ready to turn the volume up in a major way. The endless lines of people outside the venue—a combination of industry insiders, celebrities, and those fans who were lucky enough to score one of 500 free tickets—gave some indication of the scale and ambition of the project. Walking onto the scene, it was easy to imagine the production costs running well into the hundreds of thousands, which they did to the tune of around $400,000. Passersby on Flatbush Avenue seemed to be asking themselves the same question: What kind of performer draws a sold-out crowd at this 3,000-person-capacity venue on a Sunday night? Entitled “Sister,” the third and final chapter in the Pyer Moss trilogy paid homage to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. A singer-songwriter who rose to popularity in the 1930s and ’40s, Tharpe is widely considered to be the godmother of rock and roll, though her legacy has been grossly diminished in music’s history book. “I think relatively few people know that the sound of rock and roll was invented by a queer black woman in a church,” said Jean-Raymond backstage, moments after the show. “I wanted to explore what that aesthetic might have looked like if her story would have been told.” Beyond being places of worship, churches have long served as safe spaces for black communities across America, though you could just as easily add nightclubs and dance halls to that list. No matter what form it takes, the notion of creative refuge and freedom of expression has become more vital than ever for people of color in the tumult of Donald Trump’s presidency. Delivered by writer Casey Gerald, who is known for his incisive social commentary, the sermon that opened the show was both uplifting and unapologetically political. “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.” It was at that moment that the band and so-called Pyer Moss Tabernacle Drip Choir Drench in the Blood took center stage. Buoyed by their 70-plus ethereal voices, Jean-Raymond set forth his vision for rock-star style. As the first model bounded down the runway to the sound of Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love,” sporting rhinestone-studded wide-leg pants, a bolero jacket, and a halolike Afro, the staid rocker archetype—skinny, white, male—was instantly turned on its head.
There were obvious nods to Tharpe’s musicianship; the shape of her guitar was threaded through the curvy lapels of satin overcoats, and the most literal reference was a novelty guitar-shaped handbag. The subtle nods to her style resonated the most: a slightly monastic scarlet silk tunic layered over matching satin pants, for example. Tharpe wasn’t the only prolific black songstress on the Pyer Moss mood board. Look closely at the chunky gold beads that were threaded onto braids and strung on statement necklaces, and you’ll find they were brilliantly molded in the likeness of Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu. The rousing soundtrack included songs by several more legendary black female artists too, most notably Missy Elliott, who was recently honored for her phenomenal contribution to hip-hop with the prestigious Vanguard Award at the MTV Video Music Awards last month. After last season’s partnership with Derrick Adams, Jean-Raymond sought out the talent of Richard Phillips, an artist who recently made headline news after he was exonerated after spending 45 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. His brightly colored figurative paintings lent a sense of exuberance to techy black track tops and oversize T-shirt dresses. Sean John was on the list of collaborators this season, as well, the last in a trio of black legacy brands Jean-Raymond has worked with for “American, Also,” including FUBU and Cross Colours. With his new role as artistic director at Reebok, Jean-Raymond is adding a another string to his bow. The clothing he showed as part of an ongoing collaboration with the sportswear label was his most confident capsule yet, and it included a chunky Pyer Moss–ified version of the brand’s classic shoe done in an array of eye-catching colors. Known as Reebok Studies, the new division he will oversee will act as an incubator for young talent, and it affords him the power to raise up a new generation of designers. “I remember when Puffy won the CFDA award,” said Jean-Raymond, who was working at a sneaker shop just blocks from Kings Theater at the time. “As a kid, I never thought that I could get into fashion if I didn’t learn to rap first.” These days he doesn’t second-guess himself, nor should he. He’s living proof