In a historic theater in a part of New York City far from the usual runway haunts, in front of thousands of ravenous fans (including some very famous ones) who stood in lines around the block waiting for admittance, in a room swollen with the voices of a 65-person choir, expectation and glamour, a fashion week force gathered critical mass.
No, I am not talking about the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where Tommy Hilfiger and Zendaya showed their latest see-now-buy-now collaboration in front of a faux Harlem street of brownstones at the service of a live stream.
I am talking about the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, where Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss unveiled the last in a series of three collections conceived to re-examine some of most basic American pop culture tropes through an African-American lens. In February 2018, it was the cowboy; last September, it was family time and the backyard barbecue; and this season, it was rock ’n’ roll. And it is at the service of actual life.
Each time, he pulls in multiple collaborators (artists, formerly famous black brands) to expand his community, and in all cases the point was — as the writer Casey Gerald said in an oration before the show that called out the anniversary of 1619 and the arrival of the first slaves in America — to reclaim black history and the stories we tell ourselves about how we got here. Mr. Jean-Raymond isn’t trying to change the shape of clothes (he’s not Rei Kawakubo, challenging the definition of “garment”); he is trying to change how we think about clothes and who gets to be a part of making that myth known as “American fashion.”
It’s been a long time since a New York designer displayed real riotous ambition — ambition that doesn’t have anything to do with Instagram or likes or serving here-today-gone-tomorrow desires. A long time since one took on the national conversation with nuance and a lack of fear. “Diversity and inclusion” have become buzzwords of the moment (they are included in the handout at practically every show), but this wasn’t about that. It was about ownership.
It was about forcing a deeper reckoning at a time when race has become a dividing line in the country, and embracing a different understanding in order to move forward. That Mr. Jean-Raymond can do it so gracefully, without accusation, and with such multilayered meaning, is what makes him so effective.
So, for example, this collection, titled “Sister,” began with the history of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a “queer black woman in the church,” according to Mr. Jean-Raymond, who also happened to be the “founder of rock ’n’ roll” — though her contributions are often unacknowledged.
To celebrate that, he reached out to Richard Phillips, a black artist who was wrongfully imprisoned in a Michigan jail for 46 years (he was exonerated of homicide charges in 2017), as well as Sean John, the clothing line founded by Sean Combs, the first black designer to win a Council of Fashion Designers of America award.
The models had been found during an open casting on Instagram, and it took place in the Kings Theatre, because the surrounding neighborhood, East Flatbush, is where Mr. Jean-Raymond grew up. He was opening up his doors and bringing everyone home. Literally and metaphorically.
That’s a lot of meaning to sew into clothes, and sometimes it weighed down the results. Mr. Jean-Raymond has what is starting to look like a signature silhouette — zoot suit-shouldered jackets cropped at the waist atop liquid trousers for both men and women — but hanging a little piano keyboard at the hem of the jacket flirted with kitsch. Better were the broken keyboard pen and ink prints, and the curving cuts of the jacket lapels, which just hinted at the curves of a guitar, seizing them back from the skinny white rockers of legend.
Also the painterly silk tee dresses with portraits by Mr. Phillips, the swishing long shirts over skinny trousers, the pleated soul goddess gowns in gold and periwinkle, with trainlike sleeves. Not to mention the Reebok collection, with its graffiti-led cool. (Mr. Jean-Raymond was recently named artistic director of Reebok Studies, charged with making a kind of creative hub for the brand.)
But those are small quibbles, and this was a show — this is a designer — to be reckoned with. Backstage afterward, Mr. Jean-Raymond, who is 32, rejected the characterization of himself as a “leader” and insisted “I’m not the race guy.”
Fair enough. But his choice of subject matter has the effect of making the poetically self-conscious color wheel stylings of Sies Marjan and the creased cocktail florals of Jason Wu, both pretty as they are, seem increasingly narrow and small in focus.
At least Prabal Gurung’s 10th-anniversary show, which had the pertinent and somewhat flammable title, “Who Gets to Be an American?” (inspired by both a 2018 Time magazine cover and a disheartening conversation the designer had with a financier), dared grapple with a bigger question.
That Mr. Gurung chose to answer it by settling on a hodgepodge of stereotypical fashion tropes — white cotton, denim, seersucker, red, white and blue, power suiting, benefit circuit dresses — and then reinterpreting them his own way, adding flounces to the denim, hippie tie-dye to the flag-waving, and peacenik pastel florals to the suiting, frittered away some of the point. The connection between identity and dress was the right one, but there was too much focus on surface.
By contrast, Mr. Jean-Raymond is preoccupied with essence, with an ability to make it personal. He was willing to sit a season out, as he did last February, because he needed more time to map out his ideas, and because he thinks consumers need time, too, to save money to buy clothes. But he won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award last year. He is outside the system and also of it.
In a post-show interview backstage at King’s Theatre, he said thought he could use fashion to correct the record because “I don’t care about selling clothes” and, in the same breath, that “I want to make money.” It sounds absurd, but in his world, those two realities can coexist. The ability to not worry about the one lays the groundwork for the second. It could be a genuine game changer.