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Kerby Jean-Raymond Is Expanding the Fashion Canon

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Kerby Jean-Raymond Is Expanding the Fashion Canon

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Kerby Jean-RaymondCreditCreditCeleste Sloman for The New York Times

Interview by Thessaly La Force

  • Oct. 11, 2018

You’re one of the most prominent independent black designers in the fashion industry, yet you’re regularly sidelined as “urban” or “streetwear.” What do you think of those words to describe certain kinds of fashion — in particular, fashion worn by black people? I think that people have gotten a lot more creative with saying the N-word. People don’t want the language used to describe me to be the same language that describes them, because that would make us equals, and they don’t want that. Alexander Wang and I basically designed the same jacket, and his will always be considered men’s ready-to-wear and mine would have been called streetwear had I not spoken out. I was using the same fabrication, the same factory, the same models. But it’s not a fight that I’m going to win, because this is not an optics thing — this is an emotional resistance.

Your most recent collection, “American, Also: Lesson 2,” debuted during New York Fashion Week. It featured a swag-surfing gospel choir and was presented in Weeksville, one of the first free black communities formed in the 1830s in Brooklyn. What were your goals with the show? “Lesson 2” is about mundane African-American life and what that looks like. What these collections really aim to do is to shift the narrative that’s constantly being told about what it means to be and look and act black. Equality starts with humanization. We talk about ourselves in such an extraordinary or tragic way that it dehumanizes us, so I’m trying to reverse that.

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When Issa Rae hosted the Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards earlier this year, in an outfit of your creation, she joked, “I’m about as fashionable as Kanye is black — only when it’s convenient.” What do you think about him at the moment? I bought every Kanye West album ever sold. I watched every single video of his multiple times. I dressed like him, had the collar flipped up, everything. We hold him to being the person he was in 2004, and now we have to understand that this is a different person. He might really believe this [expletive]. But he’s a superstar, and he’s still in charge of the youth culture right now. So he has to be very careful about what he co-signs because, like it or not, he is a role model.

This year, you’re collaborating with the renowned ’90s labels FUBU and Cross Colours. Do you see yourself as trying to create a canon of black designers? Every time American designers are brought up, they say the same four or five names: Donna Karan, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein. They always omit Cross Colours and FUBU, as if these brands weren’t grossing a quarter-billion to over a billion dollars a year. They were never given credit for being as influential as they are. Now that I’m one of the American designers who represents African-American culture, I want to help them reverse their erasure.

The fashion industry is famously apolitical, and you lost an account early in your career because of a show that featured footage of police killings. Where do you think the line is between activism and fashion? I think there’s a creative license that allows me to do both with ease, because there was no guide before me.

The new fashion vanguard is seeing more people of color and different genders and body types on the runway. Do you feel part of that? I don’t want to sound narcissistic at all, but I do believe that I am one of the thought leaders that have emerged in the past five years. Every industry had a person that led the march to modernizing the understanding of what black life is: In music, it was Solange. In television, it was “Insecure.” In sports, it was Colin Kaepernick and Serena Williams. And in fashion, I don’t think there is another me. I take my position — as the one to start this — very seriously, because although sometimes I just want to be a young kid with money and act stupid, I have to understand that my impact is probably going to outlive me.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 50 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: Kerby Jean-Raymond Is Expanding the Fashion Canon. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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