Erykah Badu Makes Her NYFW Styling Debut

Erykah Badu
Pablo Frisk

Erykah Badu & Pyer Moss AW16 show on Feb. 13, 2016 at Milk Studios, New York. 

At the start of a new season, designers typically put together what’s known as a moodboard -- a collage of old photographs, postcards, fabric swatches, color samples and other mementos that influence the aesthetics of a new collection. There’s comfort in knowing why something is the way that it is, in tracing origins -- and these moodboards always manage to offer up an easy and clear explanation to the question fashion journalists ask first: “What was your inspiration this season?”

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But that’s where Kerby Jean-Raymond, the 28-year-old creative director of menswear label Pyer Moss, takes a sharp and radical turn. Jean-Raymond isn’t interested in moodboards (“I’ve never made one in my entire life”) or tangible objects as inspiration, for that matter: he’s a designer who draws fuel from pathos.

The New York native who got his start interning with Kay Unger at 14 and then Marchesa at 16 made headlines last September for a collection that interwove themes of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement into the clothing. There was outerwear with blood-spattered patterns and footage from the deaths of Eric Garner and Walter Scott that played in the background -- mixed medium statement pieces that plunged into a political conversation the overwhelmingly white industry isn’t used to having. (The New York Times reported in 2015 that black designers composed 2.7 percent of labels showing at NYFW.)

“Truth and honesty is what compels me to design,” Jean-Raymond, who founded the label in 2013, says. “I feel a responsibility to be myself, to be completely relevant in my thoughts and my emotions and not give into societal pressures. If something is bothering me, I’m going to talk about it.”

On Saturday, the focus was mental health. While a quintet and chamber group performed operatic versions of Fetty Wap’s “RGF Island” and Future’s “Trap N----,” the designer explored the notion of “double bind” -- a theory first proposed by anthropologist Gregory Bateson that describes a situation in which a person is confronted with two irreconcilable demands that can sometimes lead to depression. Mixed in with the oversized wool coats, trousers and structured turtlenecks were sweatshirts listing symptoms that require medical attention (panic attacks, anxiety, hallucinations). At the very end of the show a model dressed in a sky-blue denim button-down carried a sign that read “My demons won today / I’m sorry,” a reference to the last statement Black Lives Matter activist MarShawn M. McCarrel II posted on Facebook before committing suicide last week.

Pablo Frisk
Erykah Badu & Pyer Moss AW16 show on Feb. 13, 2016 at Milk Studios. 

There to help bring Jean-Raymond’s vision to life was Erykah Badu, who was initially introduced to the designer through stylist Jason Rembert a few years ago and flew in from Dallas with seven trunks of personal accessories to style the show. Though the boundary-pushing music and style icon (she was the face of Givenchy in 2014) had been on the road to promote her newest mixtape and at Sundance to promote her new film The Land, Jean-Raymond notes, “She was there in the studio until three or four o’clock in the morning making sure that this shit happened. She is not by any means just a celebrity’s name on top of something.”

Her touch was evident. There were chauffeur and military-style hats, her signature round and dark-framed sunglasses, metal jewelry from the designer Ugo Cacciatori and pins with words like “Zoloft” and “LSD” that Badu made herself. She even embraced the theme of double bind right down to her own fingernails with one hand painted in an electric coral hue and the other in bright yellow. “They’re competing,” she said backstage after the show.

The psychological rabbit hole Pyer Moss dove down this season was comparable to reading a sentence and not understanding some of the words. It was possible as an attendee to have a visceral response to Jean-Raymond's work, but one would have been more profoundly rewarded for diving in deeper to understand the root of his message; Badu and Jean-Raymond uplifted those who felt compelled to join them.

Billboard spoke with the duo backstage at New York’s Milk Studios on Saturday. Here are excerpts from that chat:

Erykah, what first drew you to working with Kerby?

EB: I wore his clothes for some interviews and I kept them. You’re not supposed to keep them, and when I got home, Jason Rembert -- the guy that pulled the clothes who is a mutual friend of ours -- said, “Kerby wants the clothes back.” 

I was like, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll get to it” [smiles].

I have a super masculine style, silhouette-wise, and I love what he does with the body. I learned that Kerby had wanted to work with me in some capacity for a few years.

How did the concept of double bind come about, and how did you guys develop that concept?

EB: Kerby told me that he had gone through a bout of depression and was in conflict with his art, relationships, and things. And out of that came the need to create. Double bind is a term that means two conflicting ideas that don’t necessarily agree and a solution can’t necessarily be found; it can lead to depression, and it’s also a degree of bipolarism.

Pablo Frisk
Erykah Badu & Pyer Moss AW16 show on Feb. 13, 2016 at Milk Studios. 

In terms of working with Erykah, how did she affect the collection and the process? What did she contribute to it?

KJR: Everything. You know, I didn’t know she was going to be as -- when she got into it, she got physically into it. She made all of those pins, she sourced all of those hats, she taped all of those boots, she dressed all of those models.  We worked with Maurice Scarlett on this collection too, he did the art. It was a good synergy to have between us.

Can you tell me about the decision to use the Future song for this show?

KJR: First of all, I love the song. I love Future and Fetty Wap because they’re both Haitian, like me. Trap music within the hip-hop world is sometimes seen as not being real hip-hop; it’s seen as the bullshit version of hip-hop because it’s very rhyme-y, catchy hooks. But it’s still dealing with depression, with insecurities. If you really listen to that song, to the lyrics of that Future song, he’s insecure as shit! And I think that’s important to sing it out, so you can hear the words and really hear how everything is composed.

Pablo Frisk
Erykah Badu & Pyer Moss AW16 show on Feb. 13, 2016 at Milk Studios. 

Erykah, when did you first connect with clothing?

EB: As a kid, watching my Mom -- being in love with album covers because we didn’t have videos. Falling in love with those concepts and things.

Is there something you remember getting as a kid that felt very special or impactful to you?

EB: My uncle one Christmas bought me some knee high stockings that were white lace with a seam in the back, and I would take care of those stockings. It was around the '80s when Madonna was out, Pretty in Pink. And I’d wrap them up and put tissue paper around them after I wore them; if they got a run, I was really careful to sew them. It was a very special thing. I learned later that they cost something like $1.99. I felt like I was in the 1920s when I wore the. They always made me feel good, feminine.

You released a mixtape in December, had a film at Sundance and worked with Kerby. Do all of these things interconnect for you?

EB: Yeah, because it all comes out of that same need to create. I don’t make any money off of any of these things. It is really about a complete love for the process. The adrenaline right before the show, the throwing things together at the last minute, staying up all night . . . that’s why I’m delirious right now. Making the buttons for the hats, all of those things.

In terms of styling, when do you know that a look feels complete?

EB: When someone says “ooooo, yes.”

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So it’s not like finishing a song?

EB: Sometimes it is. It really just depends on the mood. Sometimes you’re in those moods when you really don’t care too much, you put the best shit together. Sometimes it’s like songwriting, the layering the color palette- - it’s art. You just feel it. There is art in everything.

As an artist, what is one of the most valuable lessons that you’ve learned?

EB: To be in the moment.

How do you do that?

EB: You just breathe, you count stuff. I’m looking at these words on your notepad, your jewelry, this watch on your arm; we are here. There are a lot of things on our minds that cause anxiety that eventually become depression, worrying about the past and the future.

Do you think technology induces that anxiety?

EB: Not if you use it correctly.

Kerby, on a larger scale, do you feel that fashion as a medium should be more socially engaged and active?

KJR: I mean, why not?! If you look at music, people in music talk about what’s going on. What’s bothering them. Why does fashion have to be so elitist? Why does it have to be exclusionary to people with problems? Why does it have to avoid being part of the bigger conversation? We have such a huge audience: everyone has to wear clothes. Everyone with these high end collections has to show the clothes to an audience, so why not talk about something that’s really on our minds -- whether it’s a human issue, a social issue, a political issue. And it varies with me. Sometimes I’m down, sometimes I’m up. This collection was focused on a time that I was down. And why can’t I talk about that? Why does it have to be something about veganism or animal rights -- which are important topics, don’t get me wrong. But is that the only conversation that’s up for discussion in fashion right now? 

It doesn’t make sense to me. 

In our culture, especially in black culture, it’s taboo to talk about depression, to talk about when things bother you. People say “man up,” but that’s not a real diagnosis and I think that it’s important that we address it. Nina Simone had a great quote. She said: “How can you be an artist and not represent the times?” And that’s one of the mottos that I live by.

Pablo Frisk
Erykah Badu & Pyer Moss AW16 show on Feb. 13, 2016 at Milk Studios.