Cover Story

The Free Agent

Equal parts designer and disruptor, the Pyer Moss founder Kerby Jean-Raymond is turning his fashion label into a cultural powerhouse.

Like so many millennials, a generation that came of age in the throes of a series of shadow wars—on drugs, on terror, on public goods—Kerby Jean-Raymond speaks in a vocabulary punctuated by expletives: “Fuck Barneys,” “fuck the Grammys,” “fuck stupid motherfuckers on Twitter.” In a country dominated by corporate interests, the only available rejoinder is often a four-letter word. Jean-Raymond, the Haitian-American designer behind the multimillion-dollar fashion label Pyer Moss, has dressed Usher, Alicia Keys, and Colin Kaepernick, and he has only had health insurance since last year.

Jean-Raymond launched Pyer Moss in 2013, and has since shown five collections, all but one of which he claims to hate. His designs are often referred to as monumental, and his runway shows have been called revolutionary. He has received accolades from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Vogue, Footwear News, Time, and the Business of Fashion, the last of which he renounced in a Medium post with characteristic flair: “[F]uck that list and fuck that publication.” The rest of his awards are kept in a pile on the floor of his Brooklyn apartment, right underneath his bicycle, which functions more as an awkward furnishing than a means of transportation. It was a gift, and Jean-Raymond hates to bike.

Pyer Moss is now a marquee name in American fashion, but Jean-Raymond has “mentally closed” the brand five times. After the spring 2016 runway show, during which the designer debuted a collection inspired by Black Lives Matter, Pyer Moss reportedly lost more than $120,000 in business. The families of victims of police brutality supplanted editors in the first row. The next day, six of Pyer Moss’s biggest accounts dropped the line. Although the show was an economic failure, it launched the brand and its designer into the mercurial arena of public discourse. The Fader named Jean-Raymond one of fashion’s “most promising pioneers.”

A white nationalist internet forum began publishing death threats. Around this time, Jean-Raymond says, his body started exhibiting strange symptoms: backaches, canker sores, swollen cheeks. He stopped seeing friends and couldn’t even go to the gas station. “I was depressed,” Jean-Raymond tells me, “but I didn’t grow up privileged enough to identify it.”

In 1956, the anthropologist Gregory Bateson described a theory of communication in which a child receives a series of contradictory messages. They might, for example, be told they are loved while treated as if they are hated, creating a paradox known as a “double bind.” In lieu of consistent messaging, the child is forced to manufacture a set of false beliefs through which information can be made tolerable; crucially, the double bind contains no lines of escape.

At the height of his depression, Jean-Raymond fled first to Copenhagen, and then to Los Angeles. “I realized I didn’t have anybody,” he tells me. “I felt really alone.” He sent a letter to his staff telling them Pyer Moss was shutting down—he didn’t think he could afford payroll. But within 36 hours, he was working on a new collection, to be styled by Erykah Badu. “She talked me way off the ledge,” Jean-Raymond says. “She said, ‘Use what you got, baby,’ and I figured I could find the money some way, somehow.” His show director, Dario Calmese, suggested he call the collection “Double Bind.”

Like the one that preceded it, “Double Bind” took design cues from events both historical and personal. A model in a cornflower-blue jumpsuit and round aviators carried a sign reading “MY DEMONS WON TODAY I’M SORRY,” a phrase pulled from the final Facebook post of MarShawn McCarrel, a Black Lives Matter activist who shot himself on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse a few weeks before the show. Bomber jackets and shirts were emblazoned with text reading “YOU DON’T HAVE ANY FRIENDS IN L.A.” Less than two years after the collection debuted, Reebok announced a major deal with Jean-Raymond. The partnership, which yielded a line of clothing and sneakers that won Collaboration of the Year at the Footwear News Achievement Awards in 2018, enabled him to buy Pyer Moss back from its investors, making the company entirely black-owned.

Because Jean-Raymond is black, and because his early collections seemed to appeal to the ideals of utilitarianism, his work is often called streetwear, a label he detests. When he was asked to appear as a guest judge on Netflix’s Next in Fashion earlier this year, he was promised the episode would be themed around sportswear, but the editors, he claims, pulled a bait-and-switch, airing the episode under the guise of streetwear. Jean-Raymond left the show halfway through taping. “As soon as I got on set, I was like, I see what’s up,” he tells me. “They brought the pro-black designer to eliminate black contestants.” When the show premiered on Netflix, Jean-Raymond looked strangely shiny—the white stylist who did his hair used Bertolli olive oil as moisturizer, and it dripped down his forehead like sweat.

If a shopper were preparing for the race war, she might choose to outfit herself in one of Jean-Raymond’s earliest styles; in his camo leather jackets and paint-splattered military boots, she would likely find a suitable uniform. But as Pyer Moss’s designs have evolved, they’ve shrugged off their defensive posture. His skirts and dresses are often loose and asymmetrical, as if attempting to evade the capture of their wearer. And his early use of printed text has, for the most part, been swapped out for intricate pattern- and beadwork. “American, Also,” a three-part series of fashion shows that concluded this past September, was comprised of performances staged at venues including, in Brooklyn, the Kings Theatre in Flatbush and the Weeksville Heritage Center in Crown Heights, which commemorates the community of free black people who settled there in the 19th century. Paintings by Richard Phillips, an artist who was exonerated after spending 45 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, imprinted dresses, skirts, and knee-high boots. Each presentation was accompanied by a live performance by the Pyer Moss Tabernacle Drip Choir Drenched in the Blood, an all-black ensemble that Jean-Raymond and Calmese convened in 2015, and which has grown from 16 to 75 members since its inception.

When I ask how Jean-Raymond’s politics affect his more recent designs, he tells me that they don’t. “I try not to create protest-wear,” he says. Nevertheless, it seems to me that if his earliest collections provided a wardrobe for the last gasps of a failing empire, his contemporary designs might outfit us for life in the wake of emancipation.

Kerby Jean-Raymond was born in East Flatbush in 1986. His father, Jean-Claude Jean-Raymond, emigrated from Haiti in 1980 and worked as a cab driver and technician, installing illegal cable boxes on rooftops and stereo systems in the cars of “all the local drug dealers.” He held one salaried job, at General Electric, which he quit after a refrigerator he installed crashed through the floor of a customer’s home and into the basement. In the one-bedroom apartment Jean-Raymond grew up in, spare TVs and VCRs populated the floor space like furniture. Jean-Raymond describes the relationship between his parents as “violent” and “super dysfunctional.” When he was seven, his mother, Vania Moss-Pierre, moved back to Haiti to “get away,” leaving him in Brooklyn with his father. Soon after, the house his mother was staying in caught on fire, and she died in her sleep. Jean-Raymond didn’t find out until he was 10, when the son of a family friend told him his mother had “burned in hell.”

As if in the opening scenes of a fable, his mother, whom he describes as his “best friend,” was replaced by his stepmother, whom he calls “really fucking nasty.” Their relationship was one of “psychological warfare,” but in her son Jean-Raymond found an avatar for experiencing joy. At Christmas, his stepbrother received gifts, while Jean-Raymond received nothing; to compensate, he learned to feel excitement by witnessing it in his double. “My happiness was always vicarious,” he says. But the bind cut both ways. Their apartment had erratic heat or hot water, and so the family filled baths with water warmed on the stove. When Jean-Raymond’s stepmother poured scalding water onto his bare skin, his stepbrother “laughed, like he enjoyed it.”

When you step into positions of power and don’t take black people with you, you end up alone. I refuse to let that shit happen.

Jean-Raymond calls his father “charming” but “irresponsible.” Their histories, like their names, reflect each other imperfectly: Jean-Claude was one of 57 children, and his mother, like Jean-Raymond’s, died when he was seven. As he speaks about his father, Jean-Raymond flits between cautious reverence and disavowal, as if he’s in the mounting stages of delivering a final judgment. He doesn’t “trust his intentions,” and yet the only Pyer Moss collection he claims to love without reservation is the one he designed in the image of Jean-Claude, called “My Father as I Remember, 1980–1999.” It featured shearling coats, contrast-stitched suits, and a T-shirt imprinted with his father’s green-card photo, an image Jean-Raymond hopes to get tattooed onto his forearm.

Jean-Claude still lives in the East Flatbush apartment he shared with Jean-Raymond, though he’s planning to move; Jean-Raymond is in the process of buying him a home. “The problem,” he tells me over lunch, “is getting my father to grow up.” “In my life coaching and all of my self-help, the thing that I learn constantly is how to redirect the blame. When you point a finger, three fingers are pointing back at you. So you have to understand what you did to cause it, or how you taught this person to treat you. But when you’re a child, you’re out of power. Children are victimized, and they don’t have anything to do with it—you can’t tell your parents, ‘Don’t fuck with me,’ or ‘You got me fucked up.’” The  waiter interrupts, and Jean-Raymond asks for an Arnold Palmer, his third. “Everybody wants to work so they can provide better for their parents. What happens when you get the things to provide for your parents, but you don’t really fuck with your parents?”

Later that day, we’re driving in an Aston Martin toward the garment district, where Pyer Moss is headquartered. The car is a loaner while Jean-Raymond’s fancier Aston Martin is at the shop for repairs. He rides the gas like a teenager, speeding to cut a line of traffic only to slam the brakes at a red light, but has the control of a professional—which makes sense, because he’s been driving since he was 13. On the weekends, he and his drag-racing group will sometimes drive to Philadelphia. Whoever arrives, eats a bite of a Philly cheesesteak, and returns first, wins. I ask how many miles per hour they hit, but Jean-Raymond deflects the question—they take public highways. Robbins Cleozier, Jean-Raymond’s friend from childhood, confirms the designer’s heavyfoot driving. “With every car Kerby has had,” he tells me, “I’ve had some crazy-ass, let-me-out-the-car experience.”

Jean-Raymond is often framed as a loose cannon. “Fashion is an industry that hasn’t evolved in its business models, and Kerby does things his way,” says Steven Kolb, the president and CEO of the CFDA. Laurent Claquin, the head of Kering Americas, refers to Jean-Raymond as a “free agent.” These days, most designers show two collections a year, supporting both with pre-collections, through which a brand can receive up to 90 percent of its revenue. Pyer Moss, on the other hand, shows only once per year; each collection is followed by a series of mini-presentations, the most recent of which took place in Dubai, Shanghai, and Lagos, Nigeria. “As soon as I felt like I had enough of a cult following,” Jean-Raymond says, “I was like, I don’t need to abide by the rules.” When we reach his studio, he reads a headline from a Vogue Business article published just hours earlier: “Should New York cancel fashion week?” He laughs. The answer, from his perspective, is an obvious yes.

When Jean-Raymond introduces me to his employees, he tells them to “watch their mouths,” which is ironic, because he’s already told me a number of things I would assume he’d like to keep private. In his office, he plays me unreleased music by Joey Bada$$ and Kehlani, whom he counts as collaborators, and describes the music video he’s writing and directing for Wale’s single “Sue Me.” Music production is a new venture for Jean-Raymond, and when I ask why he finds himself gravitating toward the industry, he says it’s like asking him why he likes water—he needs it. When he was 15, he read Russell Simmons’s Life and Def and tried to start his own record label; he hoped it would help him get out of the house. “My heroes and role models all came from hip-hop,” he tells me. “It’s an easier industry to connect with, because there are more people that look like me.”

My whole intent in starting a business was to create the family I didn't have.

Jean-Raymond tells me he feels comfortable with me because I remind him of his casting director, but I get the sense his professional life is preternaturally intimate. His assistant is tasked with arranging his calendar and also keeping track of his father’s bills. For his debut Pyer Moss collection, which he designed and fabricated after being fired from his job at AT&T, Jean-Raymond named each piece after one of his childhood friends: Robbins, Ryan, Derrel, and Smith, all of whom helped him with the accompanying photo shoot. Ryan wore the pieces, Derrel took the photos, and Robbins and Smith held up the white bedsheet that served a backdrop.

Jean-Raymond got his first job, at the sneaker chain Ragga Muffin, when he was 13. The legal working age was 14, but he faked papers by copying a friend’s license and changing the name. While attending the High School of Fashion Industries in Chelsea, he interned with the designer Kay Unger, whom he calls a mentor, and at Marchesa and Theory. After college, where he studied business management, he enrolled at Brooklyn Law School—he wanted to be an immigration attorney. His aunts and uncles had been deported to Haiti throughout his childhood, and he saw himself as their natural advocate. But after an internship at an entertainment law firm, where baggies of coke decorated the bathrooms like toiletries, he dropped out. “I was like, If this is the top, I don’t wanna go up, and I definitely don’t wanna see what down is,” Jean-Raymond says. “So I figured out other ways to advocate for people, and how to blend it with my art.”

“Kerby works for his community, which isn’t always his client,” Claquin tells me. Pyer Moss itself is an homage to Jean-Raymond’s mother; her given name was Moss, but when she immigrated to the U.S., she adopted her cousin’s name, Pierre, which she thought would help facilitate sponsorship. Pyer is its patois spelling. “My whole intent in starting a business was to create the family I didn’t have,” Jean-Raymond says. The artist Kennedy Yanko, Jean-Raymond’s best friend, describes his work as “an expression of love.”

In his 1994 New Yorker profile of the fashion editor André Leon Talley, Hilton Als describes the fraught position of being an industry’s “only one.” “In the media or the arts, the only one … is not just defined but controlled by a professional title, because he believes in the importance of his title and of the power with which it associates him,” he writes. “If he is black, he is a symbol of white anxiety about his presence in the larger world and the guilt such anxiety provokes.” Despite sharing a syllabic heft, Kerby Jean-Raymond and André Leon Talley could not be more different. The cape- and caftan-clad Talley speaks in a series of rococo declarations addressed to no one; everyone is his “darling.” Jean-Raymond, who is often dressed in monochrome, expresses himself in the white-hot language of first impressions: Some people are “motherfuckers,” but everyone has the capacity to be helped. When I describe the Als piece to Jean-Raymond, he initially tells me he has “no comment.” But after a beat, he relents. “When you step into positions of power and don’t take black people with you, you end up alone. And I refuse to let that shit happen.”

Styled by Aleksandra Koj. Hair by Nigella Miller; makeup by Jen Myles at Streeters. Models: Cindy Bruna and Chu Wong at The Society, Nyarach Abouch Ayuel at New Icon New York, Charles Oduro at New York Model Management. Casting by Edward Kim at The Edit Desk. Digital Technician: Nicholas Ong; Photography assistants: Nick Brinley, Willy Lukaitis; Stylist assistant: Nick Jakola. Special thanks to Gracey Connelly at Craig McDean Studio.

We were only meant to have lunch, but by nightfall we’ve traversed the city at frightening speeds. Jean-Raymond is, for lack of a better phrase, really easy to hang out with. He speaks without the hesitation of a person being recorded, and often laughs at his own jokes before he’s finished delivering them. His disposition is unfailingly cool, but when he smiles his whole face sacrifices itself to the expression. I haven’t seen photos of Jean-Raymond as a child, but I can’t help but think, in these moments, that something of his past is animating his present: He looks like a boy, glowing and unbounded.

We arrive at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center to see a Nets game, which I imagine will be our final destination for the night, but is ultimately only our first. Joey Bada$$ has set aside courtside tickets, and greets us in his suite. As we file through the bleachers and tuck into our row, a group of white men tries to get Jean-Raymond’s attention. “Are you famous?” they ask, huffing out the question like a chortle. When he ignores them, they direct the question at me. “Is he famous? Can we get a selfie?”

I mean it when I say Jean-Raymond looks plain. He isn’t wearing sunglasses, or even jewelry—just leather pants and a yellow Pyer Moss puffer with a matching hoodie underneath. Hours before the game, while we were still in his studio, Jean-Raymond read a headline from his phone: It’s Trayvon Martin’s birthday. He was murdered almost exactly eight years ago, on the night of the 2012 All-Star Game. LeBron James scored 36 points, with six rebounds and seven assists. Had George Zimmerman not shot him during halftime, Martin would have been 25, the same age, I imagine, as the white men accosting Jean-Raymond.

I ask him if this is a frequent occurrence; he tells me it happens all the time. “When you’re a black man with money, people assume you must be famous,” he says. “They don’t even care what I’m famous for.” But those who know, know. As we file up the bleachers and into the street, Jean-Raymond is approached by a handful of fans. They shake his hand and thank him for his work. Each of them calls him “brother.”

This story appears in the March issue of Surface. To be first to experience the complete issue subscribe here.

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