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Erykah Badu for Givenchy SS14
Erykah Badu for Givenchy SS14Photography Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott

Erykah Badu on art, activism and her NYFW debut

Ahead her styling debut at Pyer Moss AW16, we talk to the singer and designer Kerby Jean-Raymond about why fashion is an key space to engage with social issues

What happens when a 28-year-old designer responsible for one of last New York Fashion Week’s most talked about collections collaborates with one of music’s most fearless style icons around? Today we’ll find out: singer-songwriter Erykah Badu is styling Pyer Moss’ AW16 show, designer Kerby Jean-Raymond’s latest output.

Named after his late mother, the Brooklyn-born designer started Pyer Moss in 2013. In 2014 the brand entered the spotlight after images of it ‘They Have Names’ t-shirt – listing the names of 13 unarmed black men killed by police – went viral. While Jean-Raymond creates so much more than just t-shirts, his ‘They Have Names’ creation set the tone for the collections to come.

His gripping SS16 show, for instance, was themed around the Black Lives Matter movement; real video footage of police violence preceded the collection which saw shoes doused in fake blood and garments emblazoned with “I can’t breathe” – the final words of Eric Garner who was brutally choked to death by police officers in New York.

A similarly weighty issue will be explored this season, where Badu and Jean-Raymond explore the “Double Bind” – a term coined by anthropologist George Bateson that refers to the state of mental instability caused when opposing messages and demands are exacted upon an individual.

For Jean-Raymond, the catwalk is a platform for explicit engagement with pressing cultural issues, and collaborating with a socially-engaged artist like Badu further cements this radical standpoint. Sharing an “an eye for the truth in art”, the two powerhouses were brought together when a friend of Jean-Raymond, who was working with Badu, facilitated their first encounter last year. Before long,  the duo began brainstorming for the AW16 collection – one that is set to mark the start of a long-term bond.

Ahead of today’s show, Badu and Jean-Raymond expand upon this season’s theme; discuss the challenges of being a risk-taker and why fashion is an important platform to engage with social issues.

How has the concept of this season’s collection, Double Bind, affected you both personally?

Erykah Badu: There’s always so much pressure to perform when you’re an artist, when you have a platform, when you are a black woman. We go through different bouts of depression, healing, self-conflict, undoing and feeling again, over and over and over again. I don’t really have a personal backstory; my story is ongoing, I’m dealing with these feelings all the time.

Kerby Jean-Raymond: Right after the (Black Lives Matter) show I’d say about 90% of the feedback from the public was very positive. But then you have a few rogue warriors out there who send nasty images, and you read the white supremacist blogs and you see your face up on there and crazy stuff like that. I’m not comfortable with fame and I’m not comfortable with my picture being out there on social media. It got to a point where I kinda wanted to leave New York for a while, I was getting recognised and I was getting stopped on the train, it was just really uncomfortable for me. People deal with it in different ways, some people take their lives, some people can spend months being constantly depressed, and that’s what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about how monotony and…how this cycle of just doing what people think you should be doing, all those different things, can affect your mental state.

Erykah Badu: This year (Kerby’s) dealing with the sensitive subject of depression. Depression is something that affects us all, and is the root of racism or hatred or anything in the society that is toxic. And I think to show that in layers through the looks that he’s creating for this particular show…it’s a movement, you know?

“There’s always so much pressure to perform when you’re an artist, when you have a platform, when you are a black woman” – Erykah Badu

Why do you think depression and the emotional anguish caused by societal and career pressures is rarely discussed?

Kerby Jean-Raymond: I think overall, it’s the stigma, especially within certain communities. If I were to tell my uncles or my dad that I was depressed they'd be like, “It’s not that bad, cheer up, be a man about it” you know? That’s not always the answer. I think just mental health in general needs to be something that’s taken a little bit more seriously, that we as people stop thinking it’s taboo and stop calling people crazy! I think that if we don’t deal with people correctly then it becomes a bigger societal problem.

Do you think the fashion industry is doing enough to discuss political and cultural issues as a whole?

Kerby Jean-Raymond: A lot of designers I know don’t come from my background or speak the way I do or have been through the things that I’ve been through, so my experience is unique and so my output in fashion is unique, you know? I didn’t go to CSM and I’m not in Paris for most of the year…I speak from a different perspective.

What about your experience generally in the industry? Have you been typecast as a result of your first collection or just generally as a designer?

Kerby Jean-Raymond: I always felt like people were trying to put me into that box anyway, I’ve had a really big blowout with a writer in my showroom who didn’t look at the collection and called it “streetwear”.

There are very few designers that exist in this space now, the high-end menswear space. We’re stocked in some of the most expensive boutiques out there and our shows are in Paris, so to call it streetwear is to say that I don’t exist. Because I’m a little darker, or that my hair’s different, or because I speak differently then what am I, stupid? Or not good enough? That’s what I’m constantly dealing with. It’s like when Kanye did “Jesus Walks”, that’s the way I looked at it and that was my justification as to what I’m doing. I was like, well he made a gospel rap song; let me make a gospel fashion album!

“I always felt like people were trying to put me into that box, I’ve had a really big blowout with a writer in my showroom who didn’t look at the collection and called it ‘streetwear’” – Kerby Jean-Raymond

Erykah, what was your reaction to that same collection when you first saw it?

Erykah Badu: My reaction? I thought it was very brave…he’s in an industry where we are trying to really fit in; when it comes to our brand and our platform…it is a white world. So it could be very risky to speak up about black matters or anything black in an industry that is not designed for black consumers. I applauded him and wanted to know him…and ask why he would take a risk like that knowing that he could be typecast or stereotyped. It was important enough for him. And he did have to go through a plethora of things as a result of being brave in this world of certain privilege.

That’s what Black Lives Matter is really about, it’s about privilege and (not) being silent about it. He was not silent, I think being silent about something that you’re passionate about is super dangerous.

And how would you describe your experience navigating other high-fashion arenas, with Givenchy and Tom Ford? How important was it for you to take part in those projects and see yourself represented in those campaigns?

Erykah Badu: I was honoured to be a part of those campaigns. The artists who I work with are visionaries, and visionaries are known for critical mass – changing people’s minds or driving people to anger, and that anger turns into change. The people that I’ve worked with in the industry have all reached out to me, however I would have reached out to them if they hadn’t, because we see things the same way that can’t be described in words, it can only be described in images. That’s what art is about. You don’t have to like it, you don’t have to dislike it, I think the whole purpose of it, especially in fashion, is to create dialogue, to cause someone to think about it so that they will move or change or create their own piece.

You both certainly share a fearlessness and willingness to take risks with your respective art. What underpins this push the limits?

Kerby Jean Raymond: For me, life is really short! I don’t really fear much…I operate my business my way.

Erykah Badu: I think so too. And I actually don’t know the rules…I don’t know them! I’m not in the club so I don’t know if I’m taking risks or not. I think similar to Kerby, I think we should just follow our hearts, that’s where it comes from, that’s where the deep part comes from. Fearlessness is a result of being honest; being honest about who we are and what we like, aesthetically, spiritually.

“Fearlessness is a result of being honest; being honest about who we are and what we like, aesthetically, spiritually” – Erykah Badu

What do you think your future will be in fashion? What do you hope to pursue, which projects would you like to get on in the fashion industry?

Kerby Jean-Raymond: We want to make sure that Pyer Moss is a brand name that’s here to stay and not just a fad. I think we’re already past this but in the beginning I was very scared that we were going to be here for one season, two or three seasons. I was very fearful that people were going to expect (the same things) from us and that we’d have to continue doing (what people expect), but every season we’ve been growing and growing and eventually we plan on having our own retail space.

Erykah Badu: I hope to get some of the designs out of my mind and onto the runway, and to stores. Layers of things that I have inside I hope to, at some point, make some time to do. Maybe collaborate with Kerby in the very near future on a design.

Kerby Jean Raymond: Yes ma’am!