Pyer Moss Creator Kerby Jean-Raymond Talks Activism Through Fashion, Hip-Hop's NYFW Influence

Amber De Vos/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images
Kerby Jean-Raymond and Jean-Claude Jean-Raymond (father) pose at Pyer Moss at The New Museum on Feb. 14, 2017 in New York City. The Pyer Moss Fall 2017 collection was inspired by his father.

Pyer Moss may just be the music industry’s best-kept fashion secret. Label designer and founder Kerby Jean-Raymond has a longstanding history of respect and support from some of music’s most notorious creatives: Rihanna wore his camouflage biker jacket in 2014; Erykah Badu collaborated with Kerby as a creative director on his Fall/Winter 2016 collection; and countless others, from Rick Ross to A$AP Ferg and MS MR's Lizzy Plapinger, have turned up to support his shows.

Kerby's admiration for musicians is mutual and Pyer Moss is now notorious for sound accompaniment that's as impactful as the designs themselves. For instance, at the Spring/Summer 2016 show in September 2015, Kerby became one of the first fashion designers to address modern social injustice in the Black community. He did so highlighting the subject as a small choir sang operatic trap lyrics while models strutted in re-imagined pinstripe jackets and KRS-One's "Sound of Da Police" blasted. 

Billboard sat down to chat with Kerby about the role and impact of music in his creative process, why it has become so critical in his runway show and how lyrics themselves shape his collections' identities.

For the past few seasons, music has played a considerable role in how your collection is rolled out and in your collaborations. But how does music influence your creative process, and how does it shape and define your creative outcome?

I don’t know which was the first love -- music or fashion. My earliest memories of defying my parents were through music. I remember Rap being banned in my house, and then getting a Cam’ron album. My first CD purchase was Cam’ron's S.D.E. and unfortunately for me, I tried to lie and say it wasn’t what they thought it was. But the CD had the track listing on the physical disk... and one of the songs was “Fuck You.” [Laughs]

My dad took the CD, turned on the oven and burned it and I watched it crackle and pop and, like, explode. But nothing that my father and step-mother could do would deter me from listening to rap. I was so determined to collect everything and get everything first. I would go to the distribution places like Beat Street and buy records and CDs as soon as it was delivered. They would just give it to you two nights before it dropped. I would make a point to memorize everything so that by the time my friends got it, I already knew the songs. 

In my shows, I always try to incorporate music because it’s the most natural way to set a tone. So if I want to do a show about depression, I use the opera. If I want to do a show about greed, I use spoken word. If I want to do a show about the injustice that’s taking place in the world, I might play Sam Cooke. It’s a way for me to pre-deliver a message before I deliver said message through fashion. And the way it's been coming out in my shows now, I feel naked without a live music element on the runway.

What is your creative process and how is music layered into that? 

I’d say that maybe the last three or four collections have been triggered by some lyric. 

When I did that first show to make a political statement, the Spring/Summer 2016 collection, what triggered me to do that -- besides my own personal experiences and what was happening to me at the time -- was that I was listening to “Let's Get This Paper” by Rich Boy. And in the outro of the song he has a long, profanity-ridden rant about how black people are treated in Mobile, Alabama. And it triggered a lot of the graphics and the words that I was using. And furthermore, I would listen to Jay Electronica’s Exhibit C and it helped me formulate the idea better. 

For the Fall/Winter 2016 Collection with Erykah Badu, and the reason why I even called her in, was because I was listening to “Drama” on Baduizim. At the time, I was feeling really depressed and I wanted to do a show around depression. So it started off with “Drama” and then it went to “Pour Me Comprende” by Véronique Sanson. And the show stayed in that tempo. And everything I designed was in that tempo. People describe it as synesthesia or something, but it's just part of my process. 

Sometimes, like what happened with Fall/Winter 2016, I get to a point where I'm done and really excited about everything coming together so I try to add a music element that's a little more upbeat... But then it starts to feel contrived because the whole collection wasn’t created around that tempo.

So then I had to do it in an opera format. Kind of best of both worlds.

 

Going back to your father, I know this season was created with him in mind. What was your relationship with your father like, especially when trying to navigate around rap music?

I grew up in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. At the time I was growing up with my father -- before it was gentrified -- it was a very rough neighborhood. He felt that if I got into or started embracing the rap culture, I would be one step closer to being on the streets. 

He didn’t want me to speak in certain ways, he didn’t want me emulating rappers style at all. The stereotypical rap guys with parts in their hair, who wore gold chains, and were drug dealers -- he felt like rap was the segue into that lifestyle. It was more of him just trying to shelter me and trying to protect me from those things. And I appreciate it now. It was a tricky thing to navigate as someone who was raising a son on his own and didn’t have much money. We couldn’t just change neighborhoods; we had to make due with what we had. His thing was, "as long as we’re here you’re going to follow my rules you’re going to do things the way I think they should be done".

At the show, I wrote out kind of like a timeline of my father as I remember from 1980-1995; from when I was born until when I learned how to speak English, we listened almost to all Haitan bands like Coupé Cloué, System Band, The Tropicana; big band Haitian music. And then as he progressed and after my mom died, he started hanging out with a bunch of Jamaicans and he started listening to Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff. And that was the most aggressive thing I was allowed to listen to -- Bob Marley saying “Stand up for your rights”. But God forbid there was anything with a curse word.

Someone got me Will Smith's Big Willy Style and I was playing it in the car one time. Worst album in hindsight, but at the time it was great. My dad heard something in the song that he didn’t like -- like, “Ay, Papi” or something like that -- and he pulled over took the CD out the car and flung it out the window. Even Will Smith was not PG enough!

For my dad, rap music was the gateway to the devil’s playground. But now, it's different. He knows I’m friends with so many rappers and he's cool about it; he took a picture with Rick Ross at my last show [laughs]. 

Who would you still want to do a collection with?

I want to work with fine artists like Hank Willis Thomas and Kerry James Marshall. Exploring those options. But for musicians, I think Erykah Badu was definitely the top -- the one that I wanted forever. The next collaboration I'd want to do would be with Frank Ocean

Why do you think you and Pyer Moss appeal so much to people in the music industry?

I think because it’s expressive. It’s not just clothes, it’s messages -- it’s like lyrics.

I think that’s what makes rap and R&B more special than any other genre, because the lyrics are that much more complex. And I think what I’m doing with fashion is just adding complexity to it. Pyer Moss isn't just clothes going up and down the runway on skinny white chicks; it is layers, message. It's borderline disrespectful and it's controversial. And people who already create that form of art can appreciate it on a new canvas. 

I just heard the wildest Eminem verse -- “Fuck Ann Coulter with a Klan poster” -- that [line is the essence of who] Pyer Moss is. It’s a very disrespectful verse in a rap song.