At the recent New York Fashion Week, staff at Pyer Moss’ Spring-Summer 2019 show wore t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase, “If you didn’t know about Pyer Moss before, we forgive you.” This statement, rooted in bravado, was also prophetic, as the five year-old fashion house went on to put on what was arguably the most important show of the season. Founder and designer Kerby Jean-Raymond brought NYFW crowds to Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, the previous site of one of the first African-American communities in the United States where a 40-person gospel choir sang in models who strode past 19th-century wooden framed houses, creating what Vogue reporter Chioma Nnadi called a “tableau [that] was like something out of a Kerry James Marshall painting”. In an interview with Vogue, Jean-Raymond said that he wanted to use the show to “explore what Black American leisure” looked like in the face of structural racism, where simple existence is systemically deemed threat. The result was a collection that featured beautifully structured suits, silks printed with images from visual artist Derrick Adams and vibrantly patterned athleisure from the Pyer Moss x Reeboks collaboration.
Kerby Jean-Raymond is no stranger to the fashion show as medium and embraces experimentation with social commentary and art, having featured a short film on police brutality and a Raphael Saadiq-directed gospel choir in previous Pyer Moss shows. This show was no different featuring moments like hip-hop up-and-comer Sheck Wes sauntering down the runway in a languid pale pink suit, choir robe reminiscent gowns bearing the FUBU (legendary Queens streetwear brand For Us By Us) insignia, and culminated as a model was heralded in by the gospel choir’s exuberant rendition of “Swag Surfin” by F.L.Y (Fast Life Youngstaz) wearing a crystal-embedded flapper dress depicting Derrick Adams’ image of a black father cradling his child. This show, titled American, Also, was joyous, vulnerable and tender, bringing together history and culture in order to be what Afropunk writer Emil Wilbekin called “an homage to solidarity, ownership and representation — undeniably celebrating Blackness, Black Joy and Black Liberation.”
Fashion has been redefining itself for a while now after coming under fire for its deeply problematic perpetuation of racism and body-shaming. With that has come more diverse representation on runways in body type and race, as well as designers who use their collections to take a political stance. However, because fashion caters to the elite and often remains aloof to reality, there is a hollowness to the $200 graphic t-shirts with political slogans, a manipulation of good intention into the capitalization on the pain of others. In an era where lazy, creatively deficient, cultural appropriation faux pas continue to betray the industry’s underlying systems of racism (Gucci’s pagoda hat? H&M’s monkey t-shirt fiasco?), Pyer Moss has quietly made a name for itself as what the New York Times’ Vanessa Friedman has deemed the “conscience of the fashion community.” Pyer Moss is part of a larger movement of diverse designers that is redefining fashion for themselves, designers who are drawing upon a different sort of collective imagination not previously shown at platforms such as fashion week. Kerby Jean-Raymond is spearheading a growing contingent of designers designing for cultural specificity.
One such design house that presses into this cultural specificity is avant-garde label CFGNY, founded by Daniel Chew and Tin Nguyen, who cultivate an aesthetic of thriftiness and practicality, creating clothing that, according to their website, embodies a “vague Asianness.” Similarly to Pyer Moss, the label explored the fashion show as a medium, employing cultural touchstones to further explore the commonalities of the Asian American experience. At their show in April, a young girl, clothed in a brown dress and flats, typical recital garb, opened the show by skipping to a piano where she performed Chopin, Mozart and Christmas songs throughout the show. Models accessorized with rubber house slippers and shopping bags full of groceries, wore pajama-like sets in cute cartoon print, and sheer mesh dresses with protrusions of Pokemon stuffed animals sewn into them that bore a distinctly Asian silhouette — at once familiar and experimental. The label manages to exude both a coolness that I’ve never previously associated with this visual language and a tenderness that I have. Here, CFGNY celebrates “Asianness,” putting out clothing that combines a nostalgia and sense of identity with a healthy dose of futurism.
There’s a game I like to play when I am on Canal Street, the center of New York’s Chinatown. I call it “Chinese Grandparent or Hipster?” This game is unexpectedly successful because the venn-diagram of what the average Chinatown grandparent wears and what a hipster from the Lower East Side wears overlaps a good deal more than one would initially imagine. I’m talking bucket hats, rubber slides with socks, bootleg Louis Vuitton merchandise the possibilities are truly endless. That’s only one type of hipster, you say? The Chinese Grandparent covers the full spectrum, having worn the same grammatically-incorrect sweatshirt and neon visor for years before your current iteration of hipster paid their first visit to their neighborhood thrift shop. You call it “style” and “irony,” we call it practical.
The Chinese Grandparent/Cool Hipster dichotomy has always frustrated me as an Asian American because it perpetuates this idea that coolness is directly correlated with whiteness. That what is cheap and tacky on an immigrant elder is a style statement on a skinny white skater boy. Like most first and second generation children, my childhood was characterized by an underlying sense of embarrassment that came with the desire to fit in and not knowing how. This embarrassment usually manifests in two ways: the child either wholeheartedly embraces their culture, taking up cultural instruments and hobbies, usually guided by well-meaning parents or assimilates, repressing anything that could be identified as different. Ultimately, no matter what path you take it can often feel alienating, a sort of loneliness that comes with being other. In hindsight, most of this embarrassment was internalized self-hatred, a side effect of a greater structural stigma, and I really should have embraced my Hello Kitty hair clips and sandals with socks because they were really cute and useful. But now that I’m older, wiser and more regretful of my rootlessness, I’m grateful to see fashion that reflects a wider range of realities. Because now I can say that maybe there is nothing cooler than seeing a picture of Yaeji wearing a CFGNY bodycon dress with a stuffed Charizard sewn into it.
Isabel Ling is a senior in the College of Art, Architecture and Planning. She can be reached at email@example.com. Linguistics will run on alternate Mondays this semester.