This season at New York Fashion Week, the audience at the Pyer Moss show during was greeted by a handful of black, female store clerks mindlessly plugging away at cash registers. They each wore name tags that read, "Anonymous," and their paper receipt trails grew longer and longer as editors and celebraties like Rick Ross took their seats.
"I was washing cars at 13-years-old," said Ross when asked what his own first job was. "I made $30 and worked from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m." That day at the show though, he wore a diamond-encrused chain the size of an everything bagel. He wouldn't say how much it cost.
For Fall 2016, designer Kerby-Jean Raymond asked Erykah Badu to style his show, which tackled themes such as depression, anxiety, and fame. A model also closed the show holding a sign that read: “My demons won today I’m sorry,” which was a reference to MarShawn McCarrel, a Black Lives Matter activist who recently committed suicide. The season before, Raymond had shown blood-splattered shoes that read “I can’t breathe” — the last words of Eric Garner. And, now for Spring 2017, Raymond continued to build on all of these issues, but added capitalism and corporate greed into the mix as well by reworking Wall Street business attire and showing shirts with Bernie Madoff's face on them.
To start the show, storyteller Cyrus Aaron took to the runway with a spoken word performance. "You can't get investments with that Black Lives Matter message," he said in reference to Raymond's previous work. "You thought you was gonna get away with it. But the black dollar never qualifies. The black coin doesn't quantify, yet you still want to make money in spite."
A key leader of the Black Lives Matter movement, activist DeRay Mckesson was also in the audience on Sunday. "I thought that it was incredibly powerful," he said backstage after the show. "Kerby has used his art to demonstrate a clear commitment to the issues of today and to pushing us to reflect critically on the world," Mckesson continued. "And to also imagine different ways of doing that, and I think this show is an example. He's really a model for people who have platforms like this to do some of the heavy lifting. It is clear that the fashion industry and artists in general need to think about how to use their platforms in a larger social context. It's a responsibility that artists have. I hope this is only the beginning for the fashion industry to understand their role differently."
That same evening, Opening Ceremony designers Carol Lim and Humberto Leon attempted to do some of this political "heavy lifting" themselves with what they called a "Pageant of the People," where celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg, Natasha Lyonne, and Rashida Jones were asked beauty pageant-esque questions with a social bent, offering their two cents about issues ranging from climate change to feminism. Lim and Humberto were charged by the upcoming election, and attendees of the show were able to register to vote on site.
With the election looming this November, the September fashion runways are a very literal platform for designers to get a positive political message across. And although it's been seven years since Madoff was convicted, Aarons put it best when he said: "History always repeats, so here we go again. Mo' money, mo' problems."