It’s been over a month, but let’s not forget the most progressive show of New York Fashion Week! Despite the political, social, and environmental upheaval taking place around the world, we still stop and stare at curated spectacles of art and culture. These spectacles include fashion shows, encapsulating the silhouettes and current events that are relevant to us at a very specific moment in time. The most impactful show this past runway season was the Pyer Moss Spring/Summer 2020 show. It reached far beyond the expectations of the fashion world, taking social justice to a new level, and by proving a more sustainable way of thinking, yields jaw-dropping results.
It’s been an exciting season overall for climate change and the fashion industry. At the G7 Summit in August, French President Emmanuel Macron initiated the “Fashion Pact” — a concerted effort to create targets for sustainability in the fashion industry with 150 major brands pledging their commitments. Towards the end of September, NYC was the ecstatic host of Greta Thunberg, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Rebeca Sabnam, and other youth climate activists for the Global Climate Strike in anticipation of the UN General Assembly. There is a new wave of interest in environmental sustainability buzzing in the air and the fashion world is getting on board.
To be clear, the sustainability movement is not simply about “going green” and recycling.
Sustainability is about ensuring longevity and the ability to thrive over time for all life on earth. So what does this mean for fashion and what did Pyer Moss SS20 have to do with any of it?
The Pyer Moss SS20 show dealt with a multitude of complex subjects, the main ones being the most obvious; race, representation, black identity and black history were at the forefront of this show. Kerby Jean-Raymond has built up a reputation around his intentionality, making Pyer Moss a standout brand in the evolving landscape of fashion and consumerism. I’m hopeful around the latter being transformed by his approach. His actions around his vision make him a progressive thinker and a champion for sustainable fashion. Jean-Raymond himself might not even understand the impact of his subliminal messaging in a larger context of the fashion industry, and that’s the space I’m exploring here.
To start, Jean-Raymond took a season off in 2019. This shocked industry onlookers to the core. It left them wondering if he was burnt out from his high profile successes, which were building rapidly. But he wasn’t hiding. He was honing his vision. We learned it was a very deliberate choice by him to skip showing a Fall/Winter 2019 collection. The industry pressures talent to move at the speed of light (or assume failure if you can’t keep up), but Jean-Raymond made an unrecognizable decision in the face of his growing success. This was an investment in his brand and his creativity, and it returned to him in the form of numerous accolades for the historic show he put on for SS20. By taking off one season to develop his ideas, the underlying message conveyed was one of reclamation and respect.
Jean-Raymond’s intention to reclaim is a central theme in the show, making this a power move defining the next generation of fashion designers. He reclaimed time in a way that has not been seen in the fashion industry since its inception. No less, it is the reclamation of time by a black man in an industry founded by, and known historically to cater to, white men and women.
Jean-Raymond’s SS20 show, titled “Sister”, was the third installment in a series of fashion collections that were conceived around what it means to be black in America. By creating these collections, he reclaims black tradition and influence within fashion, which has been written out of history books and appropriated for decades. One legacy of the Africans brought to the United States by permanent settlers 400 years ago is time that was stolen, and continues to be stolen from black people in America today. The power dynamics of colonialism in history have set up people of color and indigenous people to be systematically oppressed, and that includes the inception of fashion, trends, and the life-cycle of clothes worn by people like you and I. When white European designers use motifs and silhouettes from other cultures and profit from it, appropriation thrives, companies run by a privileged few at the top make major profits, and disenfranchised people of color from rich cultures do not benefit from the spread of their traditions and craft. This has been well documented in fashion for the last 107 years, starting with the “King of Fashion,” Paul Poiret debuted Arab inspired clothing at this “1002nd Night Party” in 1911 Paris. This type of cultural appropriation has become so mainstream, sometimes it’s hard to see. But Jean-Raymond reclaims his culture and heritage, owning historic black influence in fashion so that the people who brought these styles to life can once again be credited with their contributions.
The importance of this is paramount if we look at the trickle down effect of high fashion. If you’re unfamiliar with the trickle down effect, Meryl Streep gives an epic breakdown of it to Anne Hathaway in the 2006 film, The Devil Wear Prada. Her explanation is on point. Runway shows wrap up, fast fashion companies immediately jump on the trends laid out for them, and in less than four weeks we see clothes on the floor of H&M and Forever 21 that have a hint of the runway shows from that season stitched into their details.
However, slowing down this process is integral to sustainability in the fashion industry. Slowing down ensures the lives of seamstresses in developing nations are not endangered by capitalist ambition to providing cheap clothing to hungry western audiences. Slowing down ensures quality products made from materials that don’t disintegrate in the washing machine after six washes. Slowing down ensures land is not decimated for materials and waterways are not polluted so that a passing trend can be lived out by unassuming young people who didn’t know any better.
My hope is that while Jean-Raymond is investigating his history and championing people of color in fashion and America, that other designers and industry leaders take note of the immense success and beauty he created in slowing down. The trickle down effect I am dreaming of is one where there is a new standard for the fashion industry, to respect and protect the humans on the lowest rungs of the fashion ladder, and to give Earth a season off to breathe while she regenerates. I’m imagining what would arise if designers took a season off so to develop art and products that are innovative and worthwhile, rather than cooking up a boring collection of dresses just to show something at fashion week (I’m looking at you, Victoria Beckham).
Cheers to the future of fashion, turning the tide in favor of slowing down, and the beautiful spectacles of art and culture that show up in the space of reclamation and respect for all. What’s possible in a world of sustainable fashion is equity for all and a planet where life flourishes alongside our creative developments. I’m looking forward to Pyer Moss in 2020, and will be keeping both eyes open for emerging new stars in the industry who are not only pushing boundaries, and doing so in the most sustainable way possible.