How one New York designer is putting a spotlight on racism and mental health
A couple of months ago, I wrote an article in response to Barbie’s latest advert “Imagine the Possibilities”, in which I slated companies for appealing to social justice discourse in order to sell us yet more products It seems that companies and social justice simply should not mix. Are expensive clothes with social justice references on them ever going to be anything other than either a misguided attempt to put radical ideas into the “mainstream”, or a shameless way to capitalise on the fight for equality?
Well, in the case of Pyer Moss’s latest collection “Double Bind”, I can state that here, it is neither. Pyer Moss is the fashion line of Kerby Jean-Raymond, a 28 year old African-American designer from New York City. Since launching the brand in 2013, Jean-Raymond has designed and produced five popular collections, retailing in dozens of stores worldwide alongside established couture brands such as Alexander MacQueen.
In his Fall 2016 collection “Double Bind”, Jean-Raymond startled the fashion world and beyond with an astonishing series of pieces revolving around the theme of mental illness. Models walked down the catwalk wearing pieces that were stamped with phrases such as “you have no friends in L.A” and “why so blue?”, accompanied by pins printed with the names of substances often used to medicate mental illness: Prozac, LSD, booze. This certainly isn’t the first time Jean-Raymond has intentionally rocked the fashion world by placing a spotlight on difficult themes: in his Spring 2016 collection earlier he focused on the Black Lives Matter movement. Jackets sprayed with BREATHE BREATHE BREATHE – a reference to the last words of black American Eric Garner, murdered by police in broad daylight in 2014 – accompanied boots splattered with red paint and painted with the names of more black Americans killed by police. The collection received a mixed reaction; the brand lost over $120,000 in business when retailers pulled their orders because they perceived his message as inappropriate for their sales.
It’s all well and good to draw attention to important matters, but is fashion an appropriate place to explore these issues? Surely fashion is frivolous, not as legitimate a creative output as poetry or painting?
High fashion may seem absurd: ridiculous outfits for obscene prices that no one can even wear off of a catwalk, but that isn’t the point. High fashion pieces take time, effort, and extraordinary skill to create, just as pieces of art hung in a gallery do. They can be beautiful, grotesque, bizarre, or entertaining.
Emotion belongs equally in the fashion world as it does in the more conventional arts world, and the Pyer Moss collection does a powerful job in exposing the horror of institutionalised racism, the pain of depression.
Whilst it could be argued that these immensely carefully designed pieces offer a sanitised, couture take on the Black Lives Matter movement and experiences of mental health, it can also be argued that the clothes themselves are only a part of the whole experience of the shows. The Spring 2016 collection opened with a 15 minute video covering sixteen incidents of police brutality against black people in the US. Combining raw footage from camera phones and police dash cams, and interviews with friends and family of the victims, the video was an unnerving start to the show. The Fall 2016 collection was accompanied by a live, all-black choir singing operatic renditions of trap music and the black American national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
So, is it possible to combine high fashion with social justice and mental illness? In the case of Pyer Moss, Jean-Raymond does it impeccably. As a black American man who recently experienced a period of depression, the issues his collections focus on are his lived experience, and thus, are handled with a combination of sensitivity and defiance at a world that so frequently refuses to acknowledge both the injustice meted out against black people, and the silent suffering of those with mental illness. The fashion world has been guilty of appropriating black culture without acknowledging black experiences for years, and for an African-American designer who experiences institutionalised racism on a regular basis (last August, he was nearly shot by police who thought his arm-cast was a gun), it is Jean-Raymond’s right to make art that reflects his experiences, and his right to use his visibility as a successful designer to share those experiences.
In the case of Pyer Moss, the use of social justice themes is not shameless exploitation, but well-needed exposure.
[Morgaine Das Varma]