Why Kerby-Jean Raymond Is One of Fashion’s Most Irreverent Change Agents

On Dec. 3, Kerby Jean-Raymond will be honored as Person of the Year at the FN Achievement Awards. Below is an article from the magazine’s Dec. 2 print issue about how he is rewriting fashion’s rulebook.

Visionary. Innovator. Disruptor. Activist. Artist.

It’s been just two months since thousands of fashion insiders gathered at the historic Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, N.Y., to see Kerby Jean-Raymond pay homage to the undervalued contributions of black women with his Pyer Moss spring ’20 New York Fashion Week show.

Now the designer, who is currently one of fashion’s most irreverent change agents, is back in that space for a cover shoot with FN to recognize his 2019 Person of the Year award.

Sitting in a backroom as his groomer crafts small twists in his hair, Jean-Raymond is characteristically stoic and reflective. As much as the Pyer Moss founder and Reebok Studies creative director is appreciative of the coveted titles the fashion industry has bestowed upon him in the past year, he is quick to remind its gatekeepers that there’s a more-personal purpose driving his work.

“I’m not speaking to anyone besides us,” Jean-Raymond asserts, gesturing toward the other people of color in the room, most of whom are members of his team. “I’m not making work for white consumption. I love everybody, but I can’t speak to a community I don’t know. I’m speaking to a community I know.”

kerby jean-raymond pyer moss
Kerby Jean-Raymond at Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, N.Y. Photographed for FN.
CREDIT: Andy Boyle

As the broader industry faces mounting pressure to radically evolve its execution of diversity and inclusion efforts, Jean-Raymond has been unapologetic in expressing his point of view.

At his September show, against the backdrop of a black church, a sermon and a performance by a gospel choir, the designer presented the final installment of “American, Also,” his three-part series aimed at shining a light on the often-unsung black heroes of American culture. His muse? Queer black female artist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the unrecognized pioneer of the rock ’n’ roll genre.

Collaborator and friend Aurora James said there’s no denying Jean-Raymond’s capacity to pilot the industry toward broader change.

“He’s done a really good job showing how to do things because it comes from your heart,” James said. “So when someone [like Kerby] is doing something that’s so pure to [him] and is so much from [his] heart, it shines a light on [those things] and it doesn’t let [other] people get away with making half-hearted attempts. When it comes to diversity and inclusion, we’ve seen a lot of half-hearted and quarter-hearted attempts, and once attempts. When you put that next to his work, you know that it really doesn’t cut it.”

Model on the catwalkPyer Moss Collection 3, Runway, Spring Summer 2020, New York Fashion Week, USA - 08 Sep 2019
Pyer Moss spring ’20 runway collection at New York Fashion Week.
CREDIT: Masato Onoda/WWD/Shutterstock

Since launching Pyer Moss in 2013, Jean-Raymond’s focus on inclusion and authenticity — with nods to the Black Lives Matter movement and themes like mental health awareness — has garnered varying degrees of attention and acclaim. But several unprecedented achievements by the designer in the past year have put an undeniable exclamation point on his sticking power.

Case in point: Reebok’s announcement this past summer that Jean-Raymond would head up the newly created Reebok Studies division was a first-of-its-kind move. It was an idea he pitched to the company that fulfills his desire to create more inroads for minorities and act as a conduit for authentic fashion messaging. And, in true Jean-Raymond style, it’s a significant departure from the typical designer-brand collaboration.

“This took me banking on myself and putting my money where my mouth is: I took a deal that was more royalty heavy than endorsement heavy,” Jean-Raymond explained. “I don’t do any [endorsement] deals with companies because everyone just wants you to pull up and check off this cool card or hype card or this trend card. If I do that, I’m telling all the kids [who] aspire to be in this position that that’s OK. I have to take the long road.”

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Kerby Jean-Raymond at Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, N.Y. Photographed for FN.
CREDIT: Andy Boyle

Rather than pulling “a sneaker and coloring it up and tossing my logo on it,” Jean-Raymond said that at Reebok Studies he’ll tap “influential” brand partners to work on capsule lines and collaborations. The division will deliver men’s, women’s and unisex footwear, apparel and accessory collections.

So far, Reebok president Matt O’Toole noted, Jean-Raymond’s affinity for the path less traveled has been a boon to business since they began working together in 2017.

“At his core, Kerby is a visionary,” O’Toole said. “He is unafraid to make headlines and generate conversation, both in and outside of our industry, if it means catalyzing positive change. This bold, unapologetic mentality transcends to his collections and everything they stand for, which is why we’re so proud to have him as a part of the Reebok family.”

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Kerby Jean-Raymond at Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, N.Y. Photographed for FN.
CREDIT: Andy Boyle

The Council of Fashion Designers of America was likely banking on some of those same qualities when it tapped Jean-Raymond in September to serve on its board of directors — joining other new additions Virgil Abloh, Maria Cornejo and Carly Cushnie. Jean-Raymond in 2018 also received the top honor at the CFDA/ Vogue Fashion Fund Awards, taking home $400,000 to help develop his brand.

Although it’s only been two months since his appointment, Jean-Raymond said he’s already having serious conversations with CFDA leaders about “creating a reason and means for designers of color and people in the creative space to want to be a part of [the organization].” Among his suggestions: relaxing barriers of entry, such as hefty membership dues.

“If I’m [considered] a first in my [industry] and I’m not addressing the issues that made it so hard for me to get here in the first place, I’m essentially closing the door behind me,” Jean-Raymond said. “I’m not making it any easier for anyone to come up and be the next me or bigger than me. Which is my goal: to see a whole generation of artists and designers who speak and look and feel this way come in in droves.”

kerby jean-raymond pyer moss
Kerby Jean-Raymond outside of Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, N.Y. Photographed for FN.
CREDIT: Andy Boyle

He added, “It’s going to be impossible to do so if I’m not kicking and screaming for their right to be able to express themselves and feel free in their own skin.”

The 33rd annual FNAA ceremony will be held at the IAC Building in New York. Sponsors for the event include Klarna, Geox, The Style Room Powered by Zappos, FDRA and Micam Milano.

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