The fashion designer Kerby Jean-Raymond, known for stylishly addressing race and representation in his designs for his label Pyer Moss, considers his admiration of the artist Derrick Adams born out of a “common belief” — namely,that the trailblazers of black culture must be commemorated. Earlier in the year, Jean-Raymond, 32, launched an ongoing series of clothing collections called American, Also, through which he takes a closer look at the whitewashing of American history. The first installment, for fall 2018, was informed by traditional western wear and referenced black American cowboys, including the 19th-century deputy U.S. marshal Bass Reeves, who many argue was the inspiration for the Lone Ranger.
Jean-Raymond encountered Adams’s art during his research for the second iteration of American, Also. While reading up on “The Negro Motorist Green Book” — a guide for black travelers in Jim Crow-era America — Jean-Raymond discovered that Adams, 48, had drawn inspiration from the book for his recent exhibition “Derrick Adams: Sanctuary,” at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. Adams’s career has spanned nearly two decades and multiple mediums, including collage, painting, performance and video. But what struck Jean-Raymond most was a skill that he and Adams share: Where many people might only see black trauma, both men have a profoundability to recognize the quiet resistance and fearless determination that have defined black history. So, Jean-Raymond proposed a collaboration.
For Pyer Moss’s spring 2019 American, Also collection, Adams created “Family Portrait,” a series of ten paintings based on his old family photographs (some of which are currently on view at the Gordon Parks Foundation). Jean-Raymond then transformed the paintings into richly colored prints. On one striking sleeveless dress, he stitched a tender representation of black love: an image of the christening of Adams’s cousin, made up of hand-applied beads. And last night, two months after Jean-Raymond presented these garments at the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, the designer won the prestigious CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award.
One afternoon, in late September, Jean-Raymond visited Adams in his Brooklyn studio for a conversation that covered both fashion and art, as well as everyday activism and the need for fuller accounts of black experiences.
KERBY JEAN-RAYMOND: I think we first met at a party at Kehinde Wiley’s house. Then, when I was thinking about the collection, I came across a New York Times story about your work inspired by the “Green Book.” I was struck by the fact that your art is uplifting. When black people are depicted in the media or in art or in music, it’s always these tragic stories. What’s so refreshing about your work is that it’s the opposite of that. So naturally, I hit you up to see if you were interested in doing something with me.
DERRICK ADAMS: During the time we were talking about working together, my sister and I had been doing an ongoing exchange of family pictures. I started telling her to scan the images, which I then made into the paintings which you use in the collection. But the whole concept really came from you and I seeing each other out around New York, and seeing that we were enjoying life and having these great experiences in spaces that were primarily filled with people of color. It was not any conversation necessarily about tragedy or how white people see us.
KJR: Yeah, we don’t care.
DA: We exist in a way that I think every race exists. Not separate from trauma, but not defined by it either. In a sense, my whole practice came about because I started really thinking about what we do in our leisure time. Even political activists such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King — there are archival images of them on vacation. But people don’t know that there are pictures of Martin Luther King in a pool. Those photographs don’t exist as prominent images on Google as much as images of him being imprisoned or protesting. You can’t be in that state of existence 24/7 and be healthy.
KJR: We have to switch that narrative.
DA: The thing that is more accomplishable for us is not to necessarily change the narrative, but to add an alternative perspective.
KJR: Art and fashion are ubiquitous, universal languages, and we have to really be careful about only showing one story. It works against us. It gives people the right to feel bad about us, the right to treat us differently.