When Kerby Jean-Raymond, the founder of Pyer Moss, was growing up the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, he worked after school at a sneaker store called Ragga Muffin, where most everyone he knew got their kicks. For four years, from age 13 to 17, he would wander home from the store past a billboard that dominated Flatbush Avenue, advertising such services as divorce help and class-action lawyers.
“It’s what people expect in this neighborhood,” he said recently. But Mr. Jean-Raymond has built his business on challenging expectations: of what a luxury brand looks like, of what (and whom) it can represent and where it can originate. He didn’t see why the biggest signage in his childhood hub should be any different.
So he decided to change the picture.
For the next month, the billboard, shot by Shikeith, his longtime collaborator, will be home to the first large-scale advertisement for Mr. Jean-Raymond’s first full women’s shoe and handbag line. It’s also his first real foray into ready-to-wear other than sneakers for Pyer Moss since his last New York Fashion Week show in September 2019, held just down the street at the Kings Theater. And, as the company’s 10th anniversary looms in 2023, it represents an effort to forge a real business to exist alongside the shows that have become famous as political theater dressed up as fashion collections.
“It’s an experiment,” Mr. Jean-Raymond said, of both the billboard and the bags and shoes. “I realized that we couldn’t just be entertainment.”
As he talked, he was driving around East Flatbush in a big, black custom-built Mercedes-Benz G-Class SUV (one of his seven cars), pointing out landmarks from his childhood: PS 181, where he went to school; the three-story brick apartment building where he grew up; the graveyard where some friends were buried. In 2020, he moved into his first house, on the Columbia Street waterfront in Brooklyn, and during the pandemic he moved his father out of the family apartment, first to Long Island and then to Florida. But he still considers East Flatbush his community.
“Bottega Veneta sells clothes and has shows,” Mr. Jean-Raymond, 35, said. “Chanel sells clothes and has shows. Pyer Moss was known for shows, but people are going to get their basics from somewhere, so they should have the option to get them from us.”
He just took a somewhat roundabout way to reach that conclusion.
The problem, he said, was that the shows that made his name — that helped win him a Vogue/CFDA Fashion Fund award and get named global creative director of Reebok — were a trilogy created in response to what he saw happening in the world around him — an effort to put Black contributions to culture and history back in the center of the conversation.
Collection 1, for example, in February 2018, focused on the Black cowboy; the second, the following September, imagined a Black leisure class without fear of police violence; and the Kings Theater show was inspired by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose gospel recordings influenced early rock ‘n’ roll musicians.
But then, between 2020 and today, things started changing so fast that by the time he finished a collection, he said, “the world looked entirely different. I started Collection 4 six times and scrapped it six times.”
In the middle of it all, he co-founded a company aimed at supporting young designers called Your Friends in New York and did a couture show that doubled as a Hall of Fame of Black inventions but that wasn’t exactly commercial. (Nor, some people felt, was it exactly couture; Mr. Jean-Raymond called it “a coup d’etat.”)
Then two deaths — an uncle and a good friend — in quick succession sent him into a “dark place.” By early 2022, he had left his post at Reebok, unhappy after the company was sold to new owners, and flirted with various creative directors, but not seriously.
He had also discovered the Hoffman Process, a seven-day intensive retreat billed as a way to “become conscious of and disconnected from negative patterns of thought and behaviors on an emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual level,” and talk therapy. He learned, he said, “to stop caring so much about what people thought.” He stopped worrying that people would see accessories as pandering to commerce or betraying his first principles.
“I spent so many years trying to stop the brand being classified as what it was not,” he said, referring to attempts to categorize his work as streetwear rather than, as he insisted, luxury. Now he’s less worried about external distinctions.
“I feel like a designer again,” he said. Unlike, say, a performance artist.
The accessories are made in Italy, at factories that also work with Kering, the parent company of Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta. (Francesca Bellettini, the chief executive of YSL, whom Mr. Jean-Raymond calls his “fairy godmother,” hooked him up.)
The bags come in three styles: a trapezoidal shape aerodynamically blown to one side; a hand that is reminiscent of both an opera fan and a palm traced on paper; and a combination of the two with a pair of cartoonlike hands clasp around the forehead. The last was created for one of the collections that never happened. (It was supposed to be called “Togetherness” and was about socializing post-Covid, back during the first time when “post-Covid” seemed like a possibility.)
Each style is available in different sizes, and in black or bright yellow; other colors will come later. The shoes, which are also offered in red, have a bulbous heel, as if Play-Doh had been squeezed through a sandglass. There is a high-heeled gladiator sandal version that winds up the calf and soft sock-like ankle or thigh-high boots. There are also mules with padded straps and a blocky heel carved from Jolly Rancher-like material, for good vibes. More wallets and key chains.
Everything will be sold directly on PyerMoss.com in drops, with items priced between $200 (for small leather goods) and $1,800 (for the largest bags). That’s expensive, but less than if regular retail markups were added. Besides, he said, his Sculpt sneaker is $600 and has been selling out.
The plan is to roll out more discrete product collections, which, like the bags and shoes, will exist independent of the shows. Mr. Jean-Raymond has hired Andre Walker, a onetime New York Fashion Week name who grew up around the corner from him, in Ditmas Park, as a designer. The two are working on developing brand codes for the ready-to-wear, which (when it happens) will be made using sustainable fabrics.
And another show is coming, though when and where is unclear. Although maybe even calling it a show is wrong, said Mr. Jean-Raymond, who has already written the music for it. It will be more like “an experience.”
“It’ll probably be in the next couple of weeks,” he said. But it might not be.
“I might not even tell anyone when it happens,” he said. “I want to do something special for our 10th anniversary, but maybe the special thing I can do is finally sell clothes.”