Kerby Jean-Raymond, the founder and creative director of Pyer Moss, admits he was initially hesitant to sell his “They Have Names” T-shirt. After all, it was intended as a personal statement—a way for the 28-year-old designer to express his stance against police brutality following the tragic events in Ferguson. But despite his honorable intentions, Jean-Raymond feared selling the tee would cause a backlash as it featured the names of 13 unarmed men killed by law enforcement. So it remained unavailable to the public for nearly four months... until he had a change of heart just a few weeks ago.
“I created the design for that shirt the week before my SS15 show,” Jean-Raymond explained via email. “The silk screen had been sitting in my office for about a week, then [my team and I] finally screened 15 on American Apparel tees for us to all wear to the show. I ended up tearing those shirts up fearing the backlash.”
Unfortunately, Jean-Raymond’s fears aren’t completely unwarranted in today’s world.
After well-publicized tragedies, it isn’t uncommon for companies and individuals to create merchandise that tap into people’s emotional state. Whether attempting to raise awareness or paying tribute with shirts emblazoned with “I Can’t Breathe,” or trying to show support of an entity or cause with products like the “Breathe Easy” tee, creators always run the risk of attracting unwanted attention—especially if the designs are put up for sale. Case in point? The recent surge of "Je Suis Charlie" merchandise popping up on retail sites like Etsy and Amazon.
Just days after a group of terrorists killed 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, people began to use the Internet to sell related memorabilia. Of course, some people didn’t think twice before hitting the “purchase” button, while others saw it as a shameless cash grab that profited from the horrific tragedy—which is exactly what Jean-Raymond wanted to avoid.
However, an hour before the presentation, Jean-Raymond decided to take the leap: He screened one of the “They Have Names” tees for himself on a Pyer Moss sample shirt and rocked it at Milk Studios. Soon after his Spring/Summer 2015 show, he was bombarded with emails asking where the design could be copped. But he still had no intention of ever selling them.
“My initial hesitations stemmed from not wanting the spotlight on my company for anything else besides the collections we make,” he told us. “I wanted to help, but really had no idea how. This isn't a cut and dry movement where money, food and supplies brings quick relief. This is a complex problem that requires complex work. But, who is doing this complex work? Is it the the NAACP? Al Sharpton? No.”
Ultimately, Jean-Raymond and his team agreed that the American Civil Liberties Union was the most suitable partner for this release and decided to sell the shirts with all profits going toward the organization. As he saw it, the plan was a great way to give back to a cause that defends people “from all different backgrounds regardless of race and gender.” But more importantly, it was a plan that used the vehicle of fashion to raise awareness about a very serious issue.
“Fashion’s reach is far and wide, whether someone is actively or passively participating,” Jean-Raymond explained. “Fortunately for us, we have the opportunity to impact change due to our position in this industry and I feel strongly about using our influence to heighten awareness for this cause."
The limited edition shirts are now available at Pyer Moss’ online store for $70 each. For every design sold, including a second version featuring the names of women killed in similar circumstances, Pyer Moss will donate $32 of its own money to the ACLU. Stock is very limited and is expected to sell out within the next week.
"I didn’t create these shirts with the intent for them to be a catalyst for change," Jean-Raymond told us. "The opportunity arose for us to partner with the ACLU and my team and I felt compelled make the most of it. [...] These shirts are a form of social currency and with the help of our supporters and the ACLU, it’s our hope that they will pay great dividends."