In fashion, things seem to be constantly changing – trends, seasons, etc – however some things always stay the same. One of these is the world of haute couture. By definition, haute couture (French for ‘high sewing’) is the creation of one-off, custom-fitted clothing that is handcrafted from start to finish. Haute couture designers show their collections twice a year in Paris, and for decades the couture catwalks have been ruled by a small, elite group of designers who are put on a pedestal for work that represents the utmost craftsmanship and artistry.
This year, however, things are being shaken up. In May, it was announced that Kerby Jean-Raymond, the 34-year-old founder of fashion label Pyer Moss, had been invited as a guest designer to show at this July’s Couture Fashion Week, making him the first Black American designer to do so. But this means more than just another designer on the schedule – it’s a powerful symbol of progress and a vital opportunity for growth in an industry that has long been stuck in its ways.
Haute couture is widely considered the pinnacle of fashion, and due to the time-consuming process of creating handmade, one-off pieces, it is jaw-droppingly expensive and thus reserved only for the wealthiest in society. Regular couture clients – some who have built up museum-worthy collections – often include billionaires, heiresses, and those who have had the time and money to foster longstanding relationships with fashion houses and their designers. Because of this inherent exclusivity and high barrier of access, couture is hard to break into regardless of whether you’re a designer or a client. For clients, the price of a single item can start at around $20,000. For designers, it takes years of work to demonstrate the talent and skill required to be invited to Couture Fashion Week by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture – the regulating commission that determines who is eligible to be considered a true haute couture house – and there are several strict criteria that must be fulfilled.
Naturally, houses with the longest legacies, biggest budgets and most powerful backers are the gatekeepers of Couture Fashion Week, and the longest-standing official members include the likes of Chanel, Christian Dior and Giorgio Armani. It therefore goes without saying that couture is particularly difficult for any young or up-and-coming designer to break into. But it is arguably even more difficult for designers from minority backgrounds, who the fashion industry has a long history of excluding and exploiting. However, Kerby Jean-Raymond could be just the person to break the cycle.
“Haute couture is a very sacred practice that’s set on a high, artistic pedestal,” says Darnell-Jamal Lisby, a fashion historian, curator and co-host of the Fashion Victims podcast. “So, it’s fascinating that Kerby has been invited because he creates clothes for the masses, not just a particular sect of people.” Jean-Raymond’s work with Pyer Moss has become renowned for its unique take on the streetwear aesthetic, combining casual, youthful pieces with sharp tailoring and edgy evening wear. Since founding Pyer Moss in 2013, Jean-Raymond has gone on to win the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, collaborate with iconic sportswear brand Reebok and, in 2020, was appointed Reebok’s global creative director.
But Jean-Raymond’s work is about more than just great clothes. “He considers everything from the music to the location, set design and theme,” says Eric Darnell Pritchard, a writer, academic and fashion historian. “I admire how he minds the black cultural memory with the stories he tells through his designs, and how he always speaks so intentionally to matters of social justice, anti-blackness and systemic racism. When I heard he’d been invited to Couture Fashion Week, it was meaningful on all those levels.”
Jean-Raymond’s use of fashion to speak out about social justice has become synonymous with the Pyer Moss brand. In 2015, he garnered widespread attention (and backlash) for showing a graphic 12-minute video about police brutality at one of his runway shows. Pritchard adds: “Fashion has a serious problem with addressing racism, inclusivity and diversity. But if the industry is sincere about making changes, and couture is seen as the pinnacle of that industry, of course Kerby should be there. Because he’s the standard-bearer.” Taniqua Russ, the founder and host of the Black Fashion History podcast, adds: “On top of being a great designer, Kerby has proved himself to be a man of the community. When he experiences success, he uses it to champion other Black creatives. He’s a pioneer in the industry, so it only makes sense for him to take this next step.”
However, Russ says that “it’s important for us not to be so hungry to celebrate a first that we forget all of the people whose work has paved the way until now”. In the modern cultural imagination, there’s a tendency to think of haute couture as a white, European creation and institution. But this is simply ignoring history. Lisby adds: “We need to celebrate people like the Cameroonian designer Imane Ayissi, who has been showing at Couture Fashion Week as a guest designer for the past few seasons. And before him, there was Jay Jaxon, who was the first Black man to work for an haute couture house. There’s a history there and a groundwork that was laid. But unfortunately, the industry tends to dismiss that.”
The announcement about Jean-Raymond has also exposed another hypocrisy surrounding haute couture; namely, the idea that it can only involve the most expensive, luxurious materials and be sold at the highest price points. Pritchard says: “We think of couture as a French construct and something that Black people have historically been positioned outside of.” But, as Pritchard points out, if the basic definition of couture is made-to-measure clothing, this is something that Black people have been doing for decades. They add: “When I look at old photographs of my family, their clothes may not have been expensive, but they looked expensive. A lot of that had to do with the way they fit. Making and tailoring our own clothing has been one of the ways that Black Americans have historically achieved a look that’s associated with couture. We’ve always had to draw upon that skillset, because we wouldn’t have been able to have those clothes otherwise.”
Although, there were times when Black people were exposed to couture in a way that no one else was. In 1958, Eunice Johnson, wife of Ebony and Jet magazine founder John Johnson, started the Ebony Fashion Fair – a travelling event that visited hundreds of cities across the US and Canada showcasing the work of African American designers. But Johnson also used the Fair to display couture clothing she had collected herself from Paris. Russ says: “Eunice showed couture pieces in the Ebony Fashion Fair that weren’t even available to other people. Her looks were dramatic and avant-garde, which Europeans and white Americans weren’t really interested in at the time. But it appealed to the Black community because we love over-the-top, outrageous clothing. And in that way, Black people were getting this exclusive look at couture fashion.”
So while Kerby Jean-Raymond being invited to Couture Fashion Week has been framed as something of a ground-breaking leap forward – and in some ways, it is – there is nonetheless a rich and important history of Black people contributing to the art that is haute couture. But whether the powers that be continue to implement these changes regarding diversity, representation and inclusion in the future remains to be seen. Lisby has doubts: “Kerby has been invited as a guest designer. Imane Ayissi is still a guest. We can get excited about this, but we need to see them admitted as members.” Pritchard though, is more optimistic. “Time will tell,” they say. “It’s an opportunity for Kerby, but also for the industry to benefit from his talent and ideas. And that’s what couture is about. It’s about ideas, and it's always been the ideas machine of the industry. There is no one like him, and we need that.”
Credit photos: GettyImages
Written by Robyn Schaffer