A black American designer shakes up French couture

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Villa Lewaro, the Palladian estate built in Irvington, New York, by Madame CJ Walker, a child of slaves turned beauty mogul and the first self-made female millionaire in the United States, is geographically quite far from Paris – approx. 3,605 miles.

But this is where the sewing the shows ended, with a – what do you call it? – installation, performance piece, happening by Pyer Moss, courtesy of Kerby Jean-Raymond, the first black American designer to be officially invited to parade on the couture calendar. Or to be streamed live on it, to be precise.

That’s where they concluded two days late, as Pyer Moss’s initially planned debut was marred by the aftermath of Hurricane Elsa.

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A mannequin in an organza dress with a refrigerator for a front, completed with a message in the magnets. (Source: Rebecca Smeyne / The New York Times)

And where a model strutted down an elevated runway in a rust-colored satin tuxedo dress combination and a large, floor-length hooded cape made of thousands of… no sequins, no crystals, no caviar pearls but hot rolls. Each one wrapped in circles with strands of fake hair.

It was after Elaine Brown, the Black Panthers’ only female leader, took a fiery tour of the track, preaching the story of the party and demanding, “Where do we go from here?”; after 22Gz, an artist from East Flatbush, Brooklyn, where Jean-Raymond grew up, had stepped onto a catwalk and started rapping in the midst of a troupe of white costumed dancers in the middle of a parade that also included a black tiered dress cut to the thighs in front with a leather bodice that looked a lot like a gas mask and a giant leather hand, much like a baseball glove and worn as a cape hugging the body from the shoulder to the knee , a mop pinned between the curves of the “fingers” and hissing languidly along the floor on one side.

And that was before a short ruffled cocktail dress appeared, with the ruffles at the back rolled up like rose petals and the front obscured by a fridge. Complete with fridge magnets. It was written “But who invented the dark trauma?”

It was sharp and kitsch at the same time: a small giant Claes Oldenberg “Clothespin”, a small Moschino, a small PT Barnum and entirely Jean-Raymond. Each soft look / sculpture correlated with an invention on a list the designer had seen in the Library of Congress and attributed to a black individual (or culture: chess, the subtext of a pantsuit to harlequin motif, originally from Africa) and now at the heart of everyday life.

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So maybe it would be fairer to say that this is where a new era of fashion shows, with a promise different from what’s possible, began.

Models wait backstage at Pyer Moss’ first couture show. (Source: Rebecca Smeyne / The New York Times)

Because what Jean-Raymond, who became a star of New York fashion thanks to very popular parades that take as a common thread the reconquest of the role of blacks in the history of the United States, was not just an argument. for its own great ambitions. as a designer of haute couture – for his desire to be “the next Prada, Bottega Veneta, Maison Margiela”, as he put it on a call before the show. It was a new definition of what could constitute “tailoring”.

Similar to Demna Gvasalia, who put denim and parkas on her Balenciaga couture show, and Iris van Herpen, who treats laser cutting and 3D printing as if it were a needle and thread , Jean-Raymond is part of a new generation of designers who play by the rules of the most traditional and elitist fashion while reinventing them in their image.

Although Jean-Raymond has sought the official designation of the Federation of Haute Couture and Fashion through the usual formal channels, his couture is not, and never was meant to be, old French couture. It’s more couture.

(Thanks to Your Friends in New York, a group created by Jean-Raymond to support creators who may have been marginalized or exploited in the past because of their skin color, their sexuality or their gender, it is was close to the Kering group, the luxury conglomerate, and Francesca Bellettini, CEO of Saint Laurent, became its couture sponsor.)

He doesn’t have, for example, a classic workshop: he put together teams he met in Los Angeles after a stint on “Insecure”, which included costume designers and little hands from Pixar and Imagination studios. (Track parts had to be shipped across the country on the type of trucks that normally carry race cars.)

It’s not going to welcome fabulously wealthy clients to a lavish, mirrored salon where they can try on the collection and order pieces made to their specifications as they please. The creations will be sold by Nicola Vassell, one of the few black gallery owners in Manhattan, as is, take it or leave it. And although “heritage” and “heritage”, two of the principles most closely linked to sewing, play a key role in its work, it is not heritage in the sense of manual labor and craftsmanship, but rather. broader political and cultural sense.

Jean-Raymond’s strength as a designer has never been so much the silhouette, the intarsia and the magic of the lines as his ability to imbue his clothes with substance – not for blah blah blah on the beauty of the world but for “reverse the ratio of the contribution of blacks to culture to fuel the black imagination.

“Sewing shows have attracted such a specialized audience,” Jean-Raymond said beforehand. “The sultans, the queens, the wealthy elite. We don’t have a black answer to that.

That’s why he was willing to spend around $ 1.2 million, he said, to make it happen. That’s why he was willing to risk the fact that “this show could ruin me”. That’s why he called the show “Wat u Iz”.

A model wearing a padlocked helmet joins other models for a group photo. (Source: Rebecca Smeyne / The New York Times)

The clothes are almost irrelevant. That’s not to say they’re not worth considering – although some pieces, like a portable giant peanut butter jar (George Washington Carver was a peanut pioneer), wouldn’t be considered clothes, and others normally lacked subtlety and finesse. associated with sewing.

But a white double-breasted jacket over matching pants, complete with a typewriter belt (inventor: Lee S. Burridge and Newman R. Marshman) and an airy loose leaf train? A lilac dress gathered at an angle with a tear of skin down its throat under a crystal-dripping shade (co-inventor of the flashlight: Lewis Latimer)? A mini-dress in gold T-shirt reconstituted from hundreds of metal discs under a cap with padlock (inventor: WA Martin)?

Those pieces someone – maybe Kiki Layne, sitting in the front row; or A’Lelia Bundles, the great-great-granddaughter of CJ Walker and his biographer; or Vice President Kamala Harris, who chose a Pyer Moss trench coat for one of her inaugural appearances – could wear it with aplomb.

At the end of the show, Jean-Raymond led his entire team down the track for a curtsy, stopping to hug a man sitting in the front row: Richelieu Dennis, the black businessman who bought the Villa Lewaro in 2018 with plans to restore it and make it an incubator and center for black female artists and women-run businesses, just as it was once a center for Harlem artists and intellectuals. Renaissance.

Jean-Raymond’s couture, which will now be exhibited at the mansion, was just the beginning. In all kinds of ways.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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