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A celebratory NYFW show honored the queer black woman who built the template for rock ‘n’ roll

A model in a dress with a mulitcolored print and image of a guitar
AP Photo/Kevin Hagen
Part of Pyer Moss’s ode to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, featuring work by artist Richard Phillips.
By Marc Bain
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Before there was Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Ike Turner, Bill Haley, or Little Richard, there was Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

In 1938, more than a decade before those men would popularize the sound that became rock ‘n’ roll, Tharpe—a bisexual black woman from Cotton Plant, Arkansas—was laying its foundation with full-throated gospel music sung over a rollicking electric guitar that she could riff on as well as anyone. (Watch some clips of her playing.) “Without Sister Rosetta Tharpe, rock and roll would be a different music,” the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame declared. “She is the founding mother who gave rock’s founding fathers the idea.”

AP Photo
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, rock ‘n’ roll innovator.

Tharpe’s name, however, isn’t widely remembered today, which is why fashion label Pyer Moss put her at the center of its extraordinary show yesterday for New York Fashion Week (NYFW).

It was the final piece of a trilogy that Kerby Jean-Raymond, the designer behind Pyer Moss, conceived to counter the way black Americans have been erased from certain swaths of American pop culture. One previous show, for example, centered on black cowboys, who have been largely omitted from depictions of the Old West, despite historians estimating that one in four cowboys in Texas in the era of America’s westward expansion was black.

AP Photo/Kevin Hagen
Stage ready.

“This one was called ‘Sister,’ and ‘Sister’ focuses on the contributions of black women in popular American music. The concept came from rock ‘n’ roll and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll,” Jean-Raymond said backstage after the show. “I feel like black women are often erased from things, and I wanted to do this specifically for black women.”

Models walked a rectangular runway that extended in front of a gospel choir of more than 60 singers, who performed songs from women Jean-Raymond felt followed in Tharpe’s lineage. The jewelry in the show bore their faces too—performers such as Anita Baker, Whitney Houston, Missy Elliott, Foxy Brown, Lil’ Kim, Rihanna, and Beyoncé. The show included bags, and lapels, shaped like guitars.

Fernanda Calfat/Getty Images
A bag Sister Rosetta Tharpe would approve of.

At the show’s high points there was an exciting synergy between the songs, the clothes, and the show’s location in Brooklyn’s lavish, historic Kings Theatre. In many looks, strong, structured shoulders softened into more fluid lines as they moved down the body. The colors were sharp and the fabrics shined. These were clothes that looked at home on a stage, and were meant to reflect what rock ‘n’ roll’s look might have been had the music stayed predominately black, Jean-Raymond explained. Some garments looked updated to an era where hip-hop has become more popular than rock, as in some of the pieces from Pyer Moss’s ongoing collaboration with Reebok.

It was another success for Jean-Raymond, who has had a few this past year, including being named to the board of American fashion’s governing body, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). One of four people the CFDA appointed as part of a focus on increasing diversity (paywall), he seems likely to stir things up.

Maria Valentino/Reebok

Jean-Raymond has been unapologetically outspoken on issues of racial injustice, to the point that it’s practically part of his brand. He winces a bit at the suggestion, an understandable response considering he’s done a number of collections that aren’t about race at all. On the other hand, he has repeatedly used his fashion as a platform to bring attention to subjects such as police violence and people such as Richard Phillips, an artist who was exonerated in 2018 after 45 years in prison and whose work appeared on a few pieces in the latest collection. He says he hasn’t had a meeting with the CFDA yet, but he’s already got ideas on things it could do.

“I hope they understand that the issues around diversity and inclusion in fashion start and end with economic resistance,” he says, explaining that lack of money and financial talent, such as CFOs, are some of the biggest obstacles to the businesses of young minority designers. “If they reach down and allow their endowment and their funds and their resources to work to create opportunities in that realm, then we’d have a completely different New York Fashion Week landscape…There’s a lot more talent out there. They just don’t have the money, they don’t have the voice, they don’t have the ability to pay PR, they don’t have the ability to hire staff.”

Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images
The “Drenched in the Blood of Jesus” choir at Pyer Moss.

Would these measures make American fashion stronger on the whole?

“Absolutely,” he says.

Jean-Raymond is already heading a new division at Reebok that will focus on championing young designers, artists, and others. And while he gets ready to exert his influence on the CFDA, he’s raising up some forgotten talents, like Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

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