Come torrential rain or blazing sunshine, Kerby Jean-Raymond knows how to stage a Black-stravaganza. The award-winning designer and creative director of Pyer Moss is the first Black American designer to be invited to present during Haute Couture Week; a historic achievement he doubled down on by centering Black history in every aspect of his first Paris couture show.
However, Jean-Raymond eschewed the prototypical Parisian fanfare for a location both closer to home and Black history. For the site of his trailblazing haute couture debut, titled “Wat U Iz,” he chose the home of another trailblazer, staging his show in the garden of Villa Lewaro, the legendary estate built by Madam C.J. Walker in Irvington, N.Y.—now owned by Shea Moisture founder and Essence Ventures owner Richelieu Dennis.
A predominately Black crowd of fashion luminaries, insiders, and celebrities were on hand for the historic event—including 24kGoldn, A’Lelia Bundles (great-great-granddaughter of Madam Walker), A$AP Ferg, Ade Samuel, Alexandra Shipp, Anifa Mvuemba, Aurora James, Bethann Hardison, Brandon Blackwood, Chi Ossé, Cordae, Dana Scruggs, Diane Guerrero, Duckie Thot, Edvin Thompson, Ian Isiah, Jason Rembert, JID, Jidenna, Joey Bada$$, Justine Skye, Kailand Morris, Kiki Layne, Kollin Carter, Law Roach, Logan Browning, Maxwell Osborne, Misa Hylton, Raphael Saadiq, Raul Lopez, Richelieu Dennis, Ryan Jamaal Swain, SAINt JHN, Sergio Hudson, Shaka King, Tracee Ellis Ross, Tschabalala Self, and Tyler Mitchell. Even more were bussed upstate for the landmark event last Thursday, where DJ Clark Kent was on hand, and Ciroc was freely flowing, courtesy of Diddy.
Unfortunately, Tropical Storm Elsa had other plans, forcing a postponement of the show after hours of delays, as the tiered runway was too waterlogged to safely navigate (the after-show cookout did go on, though). But as of Saturday, the show was back on for “Take 2,” and the crowd eagerly reassembled to see what Pyer Moss had in store. Photographer and all-around creative Dario Calmese (perhaps best known for Viola Davis’ viral Vanity Fair cover last August) was once again at the helm of the production, marking his sixth year of directing shows for Pyer Moss—and doing double duty this round as conductor of an all-Black orchestra and chorus, all clad in white.
Also wearing white—save a pair of Pyer Moss black-and-white checkered boots—was former Black Panther chairwoman Elaine Brown (activist, singer, and author of A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story and the 1973 LP, Elaine Brown/Until We’re Free). Brown opened the presentation with a fiery speech reflecting on the history of the freedom movement—fitting, as this year marks the 55th anniversary of the Black Panther Party.
Then, it was 22Gz’s turn to take the stage, representing Jean-Raymond’s native Flatbush, Brooklyn as he provided the soundtrack to the runway presentation. The rapper was surrounded by a cadre of white-suited dancers, who would become shirtless by the end of their extended performance.
Nevertheless, the main event was on the catwalk, as Jean-Raymond sent down an array of pop art-worthy looks inspired by Black inventors and innovators. Among others, tribute was paid to George Washington Carver (the peanut), Garrett Morgan (the traffic light and gas mask), Henry T. Sampson (the cell phone), and even Madam Walker herself, as she was widely credited with innovating (if not inventing) the hot comb.
The outfits were equal parts whimsical, fantastical, and poignant, as Jean-Raymond gave his interpretations of the fire escape (Joseph Winters), folding chair (Nathaniel Alexander), typewriter (Christopher Latham Sholes), and more. “But who invented Black trauma?” asked the magnets arranged on a garment paying tribute to Frederick McKinley Jones, inventor of mobile refrigeration (as seen in our header).
Perhaps the most show-stopping piece was a hooded cape made of rollers—an homage to its inventor, Solomon Harper—which equally gave a nod to the ongoing respectability politics regarding Black women’s hair and grooming.
The inspiration behind the collection was explained via a press release provided to The Glow Up:
Madam CJ Walker’s wealth was more than money. Black prosperity begins in the mind, in the spirit, and in each other. She knew that no dollar amount could ever satisfy the price tag of freedom — that green sheets of paper & copper coins could never mend souls, heal hearts, or undo the evil we’ve endured.
History will tell you that she was the first female self-made millionaire; we know that she was community-made in the finest of ways. She built this house with her money. She built her home in kinship with black folks.
We are an invention inside of an invention. Inside of the creation of race, we made blackness. Uprooted from home and put in a foreign land, we made culture. And when they tried to strip our humanity, we made freedom so tethered to each other that it still shapes the world today.
The stories the world tells us about us are about pain. The stories we tell about each other about our own lives are about how grandma loved us with bible verses and lemonade, how bloodlines never defined who our aunts and uncles were, how the house was always big enough to take in everybody we loved. We hold stories of glory in our bodies. Black imagination is this world’s greatest technology.
At our best, we create space and tools for those who will come next, knowing that we must pay it forward. What will you leave behind? What will they build from what you’ve done? Or have you not yet learned and are only building for yourself in this world.
Having proven well worth the wait, Jean-Raymond received a standing ovation when he took the runway with his team, at last celebrating their history-making moment in the sun. If you missed it, you can view the show in its entirety on Pyer Moss’ YouTube channel; the label graciously provided us photos of the entire Haute Couture Fall/Winter 2021-2022 collection below.