New Icons: This Jacket Is Armor

Designer Kerby Jean-Raymond and Artist Gregory Siff Discuss Pyer Moss’ Spring 16 Motorcycle Jacket and Race In America

New Icons celebrates the stories behind particularly notable pieces from this season.

Is there a signifier of rebellion more resilient than the biker jacket? It’s long since passed from gang regalia to closet staple, but the style worn by everyone from James Dean and Mad Max to the Ramones retains its aura of danger. Black leather and zippers are still shorthand for the liberty celebrated in Easy Rider and embodied by musicians whose lifestyles are the opposite of nine to five. The motorcycle jacket’s ongoing popularity reads as confirmation that, sartorially and socially, freedom remains the ultimate currency. Especially for those it’s systematically denied to.

Pyer Moss’ Spring 16 collection revisits the story of Ota Benga, a Congolese tribesman exhibited alongside monkeys at the Bronx Zoo in the early 1900s, through the lens of America’s ongoing epidemic of police brutality. At a powerful presentation last September, designer Kerby Jean-Raymond’s luxuriously constructed athletic garments and military tailoring, punctuated with dramatic slashes of red and white and the dynamic drawings of Los Angeles street artist Gregory Siff, marched down the runway following a documentary on racialized police violence that Jean-Raymond created to accompany his collection. Interviews with the families of victims like Eric Garner and Oscar Grant joined visceral footage of police brutality caught on camera. While calling into question how much progress we’ve truly made since Ota Benga was confined to a zoo, Pyer Moss’ collection raised the equally trenchant question: what does it mean to idealize an aesthetic of rebellion when law enforcement has its own idea of what guilt looks like?

The motorcycle jacket seen here is one of a limited edition of 11 handpainted jackets covered with Siff’s personalized graffiti: whirlwinds of flames, flags, skulls, and haunting phrases that the artist applied over the course of conversations with Jean-Raymond on the lasting resonance of Ota Benga’s story.

The pair joined us for a discussion on what went into the jacket and the collection’s creation:

Kerby Jean-Raymond: One day, I was on Instagram, and one of my friends, James, posted a sketch that Gregory did of him. I begged him to put me in contact with Gregory, and he did. We ended up meeting up in L.A. at the Chateau Marmont. It turned out to be two or three hours we were sitting there talking about Ota Benga, and how much the perception of black people in America hasn’t really changed from 1906 to now.

At the time we were developing the collection, that was the height of Mike Brown and the blow­ups in Ferguson, and Trayvon Martin, and Freddie Gray, all these cases of police brutality. We decided to do a bigger art piece, including a documentary we created. Gregory was a subject in the documentary but we also had Usher, Marc Ecko, we had clergymen and people from all different walks of life talking about what justice and equality mean, and the perception of black people in America, and how do we overcome the fears and challenges to create a more unified world? Art was how we started the conversation. It grew from there.

Gregory Siff: You almost weren't going to do the film—




KJR: Yeah, and then the cops pulled guns on me that night. I hit Gregory up and told him I wasn't going to do the whole Black Lives Matter concept anymore. That same night—I got my hand broken, and it was in a cast, and I had the cast done in black, of course, because I'm a fashion designer, I wear all black, I wanted a fashionable cast—the cops mistook that for a gun. They pulled six guns on me outside my building. It was like the universe stepping in. Just when I thought I was impervious to those problems, because of my position in the world, because I live a decent life... the moment I started to believe these things were not for me to fix, that's when I got a reality check: I'm no different from anybody else.

GS: Kerby, when you told me the story of Ota Benga, I listened. And then when I went home to do some research, it was like, let’s not do a caricature. This was real. This was a real event. When I saw the picture of Ota Benga and read his story, it reminded me of the passionate, and the creators, like Vincent Van Gogh—people who might be perceived differently, but they’re something special, magic. The fact that they filed his teeth down to make his appearance more of “the attraction,” to strike fear—I drew these triangles to try to take that away. That he was a man, not a beast. My portraits, I like to make them real. And I wanted to find something that would stay true to my kind of art, but also stick to the script that they wrote for this man, which drove him mad. He committed suicide, if I’m correct.

We were celebrating someone’s life, like going to a funeral. It was gutsy, man, to put the names out there in paint, but Kerby, you knew exactly how to assemble this. I just love to paint. Painting a piece of clothing is striking: it’s like a megaphone. Now we have more attention. What do you want to say?

KJR: Gregory came by my studio in New York. I’d worn a black leather jacket that day. We were having a conversation about racism and Gregory took the whole conversation that we’d had and drew it out on my jacket.

GS: “We already have a black designer” went on there.

KJR: That was the first one, and it’s my personal jacket, painted in silver. I asked if he’d want to do a limited run of these, and that’s where the 11 came from. 10 went to stores, and we made one for Carmelo Anthony.

GS: The way I make a painting is that if it doesn’t hurt when it leaves, it’s not good enough. I painted that jacket like it was my own jacket. How would I want to wear it, and how would it fit into the continuum of what Kerby was saying throughout the collection? This is armor. This is for everybody who’s going through this. These poems—I’m going to wear these poems on my sleeves, not my heart.

Interview: Natasha Young
Photography: Nik Mirus / L'ELOI

Styling: Oliver Stenberg / L'ELOI