Reebok by Pyer Moss has been named FN’s Collaboration of the Year and will be honored Dec. 4 at the 2018 FN Achievement Awards (watch the livestream here). Below is an article from the magazine’s Dec. 3 print issue about how the blockbuster partnership is building cultural awareness on a bigger scale.
Site-crashing shoe releases and celebrities clad in fur coats — some might say that Reebok and Pyer Moss are tied up in a dreamy fashion courtship, but that was not the initial plan.
Since launching his New York-based luxury brand five years ago, founder and creative director Kerby Jean-Raymond has wholly transitioned the label from its men’s streetwear roots into a full-fledged multigender collection that he considers an “art project” more than anything. Reebok, ever-crafty with its own storied collaborations, recognized the designer’s talent and offered a partnership. But the brand had competition from another undisclosed company.
In the end, Reebok sealed the deal by offering Jean-Raymond something more than a quick check: complete creative control. “I get to keep my voice, and I get to make Reebok more like me, instead of me more like Reebok,” said the 32-year-old, who also recently nabbed the first-place prize from the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund.
His culturally packed runway shows and campaigns spotlight various aspects of African-American life and of other underrepresented communities, a brazen approach that scared off some accounts in the brand’s early days.
But for Reebok, the union is “a perfect marriage,” according to Kelly Hibler, GM of its Classics division. “In China [last month], Allen Iverson was doing his [“Answer 1”] tour, and he said, ‘You allowed me to be me, and that made me great.’ I think [Kerby] is one of those examples — dealing with a designer who is fearless in their approach,” Hibler said.
The fanfare surrounding their collaboration has even widened its original intent. What started as a one-shoe contract for the DMX Fusion has spiraled into an entire “Experiment” sneaker series, including the Daytona (out now), plus the Mobius and a fourth style, both launching in early 2019. The apparel range was another added bonus and includes an assortment of throwback tracksuits, geometric one-pieces and floor-length furs that have been adopted by the likes of Janet Jackson, La La Anthony and Vic Mensa.
“I took the money for my design fee and made a whole collection. I got overzealous and created something bigger, and it exceeded expectations. I just bet on myself,” Jean-Raymond explained.
These victories are a 180-degree shift from his spring ’16 show, which proved divisive after he used a chilling documentary on police brutality against black people as the backdrop for his runway presentation. While recently the industry has finally begun to wake up to issues surrounding diversity and inclusion (and old accounts are now vying to get back in with Pyer Moss), the brand still faces some criticisms, namely concerning pricing.
“I thought putting my T-shirt at $125 was doing a service but didn’t realize that’s still an astronomical amount of money to some people,” said Jean-Raymond, who considers Pyer Moss a “luxury bargain.”
“But there’s no way for me to retail my product for less because we’re not making our stuff in sweatshops; we’re doing fair labor, and everybody’s being paid a decent wage. These revolutionary ideas come at a cost.”
Joining forces with Reebok has helped propel the label (and its so-called radical ideas) to a wider audience. The most premium product in the collab collection has top-tier distribution at stores such as Farfetch and Ssense, while midtier items are stocked at Foot Locker and other elevated mall shops.
But no matter the channel, the first two Reebok by Pyer Moss sneakers sold out in under five minutes, leading the partners to plot grander plans. “It’s a lot bigger than any of us thought, so we just have to refocus,” said Jean-Raymond.
The companies are in the process of drawing up a new contract to continue the partnership, which was originally set to end in June.
“Kerby is a visionary designer. He has a way of interpreting current events, politics and causes he is passionate about and translating them into his collections in a meaningful and personal way. I was immediately drawn to Kerby early in his career because of his humble personality and the vision he had for Pyer Moss,” Federico Barassi, senior director of menswear buying at Ssense, told FN.
“The one thing we realize is how incredibly broad Kerby’s reach is with both the message and product, which is why we are so excited to expand,” said Hibler. “We’re open to taking risks. If we fail, we fail forward.”
For more from the interview with Jean-Raymond, read on below.
How are you feeling with all of your recent successes?
“I’m still taking everything in. I keep hearing the same complaint from everybody — ’Why are you not more excited?’ It’s not that I’m not excited; I just don’t have the time to process anything yet. This new ascension is happening all within the last nine to 10 months so it’s a lot.”
The brand is being embraced in a new light now, but are you still facing any subtle backlash?
“It’s 50/50. A lot of people are altruistic and understand times have changed and are embracing me as a thought leader. On the other side of it, you have some people who think that activism and social consciousness in fashion is just a trend they have to adhere to for the time being, so you can tell who’s putting up with me because [of that]. I deal with both of them on a daily basis, but they don’t know that I can tell the difference.”
Is your interaction with those two groups different?
“I’m generally a respectful, peaceful person, so I don’t call people out until they need to be called out, and I give people the benefit of the doubt because I could be wrong. But [for example], I have people responding to emails from 2013 saying ‘circling back here.’ For that kind of stuff, I’m not going to be too friendly, but if I think you’re going to be positive, I will embrace you and try to help you steer your thoughts and business in the right direction.”
What gave you courage to keep going after feeling “pigeonholed” when you first spoke out, as you once stated in a Washington Post article?
“I had friends in this industry, other designers who were doing big business and trending and building hype brands, and they’re doing it without anyone having any sort of expectations for them. Sometimes I’m envious of that because I feel like every time I put work out, people expect some sort of depth to it. For a while, it was bothering me. I didn’t want to always do that, but in these recent collections, I figured out a way to do it where it’s more positive. There’s more a spirit of repair instead of picking at people. Even though I deal with a lot of unscrupulous people who don’t have their heart in the right place, I keep doing it because I know it’s right and I know this work is going to outlive me.”
What is the first shoe that made you realize you wanted to design sneakers?
“The [Nike] Airworm was the first sneaker that stopped me in my tracks. First of all, it was being worn by a kid that I really idolized in the neighborhood because he was a professional rollerblader. When he didn’t have his rollerblades on, he was wearing one or two colors of the ‘Worm, and the black and red ones were the first sneakers I saw with a zipper, and it had this big graphic on the side. Plus, Rodman was my favorite player. It was the first time that I saw someone’s personality in a shoe. It looked like Dennis Rodman’s personality.”
Do you have a stronger affinity for designing shoes or apparel?
“I’m always going to be an outerwear designer, but because sneakers got me into fashion in the first place, it’s something that’s always going to be near and dear to me. We have an original shoe coming out soon for Pyer Moss’s main line, a sneaker.”
What else is next?
“We just signed four deals now with a few companies that I grew up loving, and you’ll see them in 2019-2020. New York Fashion Week is our home — we’re not leaving New York — but we’re figuring out where and when and how to make our shows and these experiential moments open to people who are fans of the brand. There’s growing pains, but I think whatever we do is going to set the standard for designers and creatives who are socially conscious to have a rubric to play off of.”
In your fall ’18 campaign, you asked subjects one question that I’d like to pose to you. Do you feel American?
“Do I feel American? I absolutely feel American. Do I feel patriotic? Yes. I feel American, I feel patriotic. I don’t feel like America treats me American, and that is what we are trying to resolve here. We’re trying to reverse the erasure of African-American contributions and African-American presence in this country by continuously reminding people of our beauty, our status and of our history here.”
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