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The roster of popular fashion designers appears more diverse than ever, but the success of Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow of Public School, Shayne Oliver of Hood By Air, and Virgil Abloh of Off-White mask startling statistics. According to The New York Times, only 2.7 percent of the 260 shows put on during New York Fashion Week were from African-American designers.
Kerby Jean-Raymond is among that select group. The 28-year-old Haitian-American from East Flatbush, Brooklyn, is the founder and creative director of the luxury sportswear brand Pyer Moss (pronounced “Pierre Moss”). Last year, the label, which he launched in 2013, put out the viral “They Have Names” T-shirt, featuring the names of black men slain by police officers emblazoned on the back.
Jean-Raymond is well on his way to joining the lofty circles of his contemporaries. He’s just going about it differently. And we’re not just talking about the New York-based brand’s social media-savvy designs, athletic fits, luxurious fabrics, and controversial T-shirts that have created buzz and won over critics in its two years of existence.
“Kerby from the get-go has always been sweet, supportive, and one of the participants in menswear that’s pushing things forward and making certain fashions in the menswear world accessible, available, and aspirational,” gushes Jenné Lombardo, co-founder of Made Fashion Week, which for several seasons has been the downtown cool answer to the more formal, stereotypically pretentious bright lights and big tents of Lincoln Center and Bryant Park. It’s also where Pyer Moss has been showing its presentations every season.
Lombardo says her eye is more for creative talent than diversity, but Made Fashion Week is a platform that has championed multiple designers of color, including Jean-Raymond, Carly Cushnie of womenswear label Cushnie et Ochs, and even Osborne and Chow. Her goal is to provide a platform to nurture young creatives and put them in a place that ensures future success. It’s about creating a solid support system and establishing a sense of longevity.
What’s setting Pyer Moss apart from its contemporaries, according to Jean-Raymond, is that the label, which just had its first runway show, is already making money.
“We’re fortunate not to be broke because I approached the business in a passionate but rational way,” he says.
For an independent fashion label like Pyer Moss to be in the black after less than two years of existence is about as rare as an empty L train. New labels get in the game every season and struggle to make a profit three, four, even five years down the road—if they even make it that far.
“There are these romantic notions,” explains Lombardo. “Designers go in thinking, ‘I’m going to be a designer, I’m going to be a star and make a name for myself,’ and it’s largely driven by ego. In fact, owning your own business is a burden. It’s an enormous amount of work; you’re always stretched wildly thin, and it takes a good amount of time to build up the momentum in the industry.”
“Most companies have five years to break even. I don’t subscribe to that bulls***. That wasn’t going to
work for me.”
Armed with a plan when he started the label, Jean-Raymond is expertly executing his vision. Not just for relevance and influence in the increasingly crowded menswear space, but for long-term business success and financial freedom.
“Our first fiscal year we were profitable. In our second fiscal year hopefully we will repeat that success,” says Jean-Raymond. “Most companies have five years to break even. I don’t subscribe to that bullshit. That wasn’t going to work for me.”
So, how did he do it? He purchased a factory.
Jean-Raymond grew up wanting to be a sneaker designer. He went to the High School of Fashion industries, and at 14 years old was already designing the debut pajama collection for venerable American womenswear designer Kay Unger. He sharpened his teeth at luxury fashion house Marchesa as a design assistant and went on to freelance gigs with brands like Theory, Kenneth Cole, and Marc Jacobs.
Jean-Raymond’s first attempt as an independent designer with a friend, who turned out to be in it for the wrong reasons, lasted about as long as his $25,000 investment. “That money went so fast,” the designer says. “That’s not what it takes to start a clothing brand.”
Jean-Raymond vowed the second time around would be different. So in late 2012, after meeting some leather tailors in Istanbul, he honed his craft for six weeks. By February 2013, he’d returned to New York and made a sample of a camouflage leather biker jacket that fortuitously ended up in the hands—and then on the back—of Rihanna. The hype train began chugging along shortly after, but Jean-Raymond knew early on what he needed to do to start off on the right track.
“When I started [Pyer Moss], the first thing I wanted to do before anything was own the factory,” says Jean-Raymond. “You go to all these factories and they set their minimums, terms, prices, labor costs, and you don’t have any control. You’re always at somebody’s mercy. Nobody can shut the door in your face if you own the door.”
After showing off his first collection at Milk Studios in February 2014 at a cost of approximately $70,000, Jean-Raymond was approached by a pair of investors. They liked what they saw and—a six-figure investment later—became his partners.
Jean-Raymond used that investment to purchase his factory.
“My partners hated the idea,” he says. “Now they can’t imagine us not having it.”
“Anytime you can cut out the middleman and go right to the source it’s advantageous,” says Lombardo. “Owning your own factory, you’re a step ahead of the game between quality control and the cost associated with it. It’s a smart business move.”
In the back of the Pyer Moss office in Herald Square is the factory, roughly the size of a large living room from your average New York apartment. It has three full-time seamstresses and two pattern-makers piecing together Pyer Moss’ staples like its signature Ryan T-shirt, an elongated viscose crewneck with a bibbed front ideal for layering under just about anything and a molded Italian zipper on the side seam that adds a luxe accent. Each shirt retails for about $150. The factory floor isn’t as handsome as the clothes it makes, but it’s efficient. So efficient, in fact, that Jean-Raymond says the label can show a collection and release it the next day.
“We have the capabilities that most other brands don’t,” he says. “It’s not that they can’t afford to do, it’s that they didn’t have the foresight to do it.”
Designing a sick collection is easy compared to the stresses of managing the factory in his office and the one around the corner where his leather pieces are constructed.
“It’s not like a person who can sew can sew anything,” says Jean-Raymond. “You have to find a person who can do T-shirts. You have to find a person who can do pants. It took a solid six months before they learned how to do our signature apron, which is the square on the back. My crew is tight.”
That crew is already about to get bigger. As the brand continues to outgrow the space of the back office factory, Jean-Raymond has visions of expansion.
Celebrities like Rihanna and Usher have praised and worn his designs (the latter was outfitted entirely by Pyer Moss on his 2014 world tour), but Jean-Raymond prides himself on being a job creator in a city—and an industry—that can be rough on the little guys.
“The way I budget is, can I pay everybody? Can they get a salary, a raise, and a bonus? Everything else is a bonus,” says Jean-Raymond.
He doesn’t calculate a salary for himself.
“I just take out what I need for my rent and to get to the office and get a couple of haircuts a month,” he says. “So far that’s been working pretty well.”
With its first runway show in the rearview mirror, Pyer Moss has over a dozen wholesale accounts—a number that’s expected to rise this year—and a healthy e-commerce business. It’s notable that Jean-Raymond stays abreast of the financial side of his label as well as the creative one. Independent fashion designers always have to wear multiple hats, but for many, the business one isn’t always a good fit.
“At the end of the day, you can’t just be a designer, you have to be a businessman,” says Lombardo. “You’ve got to be able to market yourself, and you got to be able to get on with people. Talent only gets you so far—it’s quite limiting, in fact.”
Business is good, but Jean-Raymond admits he’s worried about the brand blowing up, because “you don’t get any longevity like that.”
“To say that we don’t want that eventually is a farce,” says Jean-Raymond. “But I can wholeheartedly say we don’t want that and don’t welcome that right now.”
Less than a month removed from the runway show that was sponsored by Lexus—and required $30,000 out of Jean-Raymond’s pocket to successfully produce—he’s spending his days planning for the label’s presentation at the inaugural New York Men’s Fashion Week in July.
Based on its track record, you can expect Pyer Moss to bless the masses with another round of elevated essentials. And with accolades like making Forbes’ 30-Under-30 list under his belt, Jean-Raymond is cautiously confident that he’s poised for success.
“I don’t fear failure because I feel like I did a lot in a year that many people haven’t done.”