Fashion designers are most inevitably, wonderful storytellers, and Jonathan Riss is certainly one of the most intriguing storytellers one could encounter, as anecdotes from his childhood and recollections of captivating voyages were peppered throughout our recent conversation with him.
“When you look back on things, they all start to make sense together.” Riss tells us in his charming French accent. “I remember there was one time, where we had to attend a children’s costume party in Greece, and all the little boys wanted to be in these gladiator costumes with the swords and to look really cool, maybe like Brad Pitt in Troy. When my mother finally showed me my costume, I was so disappointed I cried. It was a Greek toga, a long flowing white dress; I felt I looked like a girl in it! She said to me, ‘Jonathan, you are not dressing up as a gladiator because we are not going there to fight. This is how the Greek dressed when they went to parties at night, so this is what you will be wearing.’ It is funny now that I think of it retrospectively, that this was such a typical way of Belgian thinking. The emphasis of individualistic angles and ways that you could look at things, and how it makes all the difference.”
From day one, everything was related artistically in Jonathan Riss’s life; his mother was a designer, an artist in her own right; the house they lived in Brussels was a building built during colonial times, where it was used to store imported bananas from Africa, and painted frescos depicting banana plantations decorated the exterior. Growing up close to his mother (Belgian designer Johanne Riss), Riss describes her as being always “super-super edgy”, and her influence on him extends from the way he tought and felt about design, to almost everything else. “She should have worried about being a successful designer, but she really created designs in a whole different mindset. I used to be always so proud of my mother!” Riss declares, his sense of familial pride still strong.
Living beside the Brussels Fine Art Museum didn’t hurt either, as both parents were constantly out of Belgium and would forget the house keys for him— his afternoons were spent wandering through the museum while waiting for the keys. That was where his eyes really started to open to the arts. He eventually went away with a self-fashioned museum art education, where the evolution and movements within art really stood out to him. Initially, Riss wanted to be an architect, but on he thinks that in the end architecture and fashion are just so closely related to each other. It is all about design and building something, and especially the idea of living in the designs that make fashion and architecture correspond one another.
“That was how avant-garde and interesting it all was for me growing up. Going through all these experiences and feelings, you start to see the good side and bad side of things, and you form an opinion and your own ways of doing things.” For Riss, what’s most important is the different perspectives that that you can see things in, and understand the ways you can create art and design.
At the age of 14, he decided that he wasn’t cut out for school and requested that his father send him to work at a factory in China. He was fascinated about travelling at that point. As legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland once proclaimed, “The eye has to travel”. And, yes, so did Jonathan Riss travel. He soon found himself working at a fabric mill in Ukraine that manufactured garments for the Soviet army. His adventurous streak then led him to Mumbai, where he discovered his love for embroidery. Riss then crossed to Kashmir to learn more about cashmere, before setting out for Angola in southwest Africa to seek out the diamond trade, and then began designing his own jewelry. His travels eventually grounded him in China, where he stays for several months a year now.
On his affections for the country of the Forbidden City, he confesses that it wasn’t love at first sight. “When I began my own label Jay Ahr, I worked with a girl from Beijing. I’d never been to China before, so I told her I wanted to go with her one time.” He went in 2003. “The first time in Beijing, it was a disaster. I hated it,” he says, “but there was something telling me that I couldn’t hate this place. So I tried to learn more and more, and it took me three years before I started to like it.” It is in Beijing that Riss continues his fascination with craftsmanship and embroidery, establishing an atelier in Beijing for his embroidery design and artwork through a partnership with the Beijing institute of Fashion Technology. From his first stop in Beijing and ten years on, texture and embroidery remain at the core of the Jay Ahr brand.
When asked about the ideas of mixing western and eastern culture, Riss muses that while maybe there might have been a time before when things in the East and West were very different, there really isn’t that much difference to him now. “Everything is already so mixed now, and that only entices you to want to know more about it all! Even if everything starts to look the same, once you start to examine things more closely, you will find that there is personality in the aspects, and that is the beauty of it. What we need now is not so much the mix of culture, but the actual understanding of things.”
Riss is definitely being the forerunner in embarking on a never-ending quest to take in all that he can of the world surrounding him. Details and texture is everything to him. The world is never flat—it’s all in the structures and details, the architectural touch. It is what defines everything. Through his stunning embroidery and amazing technological designs, Riss has created his own visual language, inspired by forms and colors he encounters throughout his travels, presenting aspects of a worldly panorama. The magic of fashion for Riss lies in its power to inspire and move beyond the geographical and transcending temporal borders.
In spite of seemingly playing the part of a restless nomad and moving between numerous projects and ideas, Riss nonetheless knowingly acknowledges the commercial side of fashion. Having been involved with the different sides of the fashion industry and with past experience in production and manufacturing, he states that “The reality of fashion upfront is that fashion is a pure business. You dress people. But once you get past that first layer of fashion as product, when you start to get into the efforts and process, the ideas of the incredible people working in fashion, that is where it becomes completely related to art, because art is all about expressing emotions. It is not just about the dress you wear; it is about the life you lead and the emotions and feelings you express through your dress.” In this sense, the fashion designs of Jonathan Riss transcend fashion. For him, it is an awareness of people, of people’s personalities, of sentiments and visions, and bringing it all together to celebrate as much of life as possible.
It is this highly considered, forward-looking enterprise that Jonathan Riss leads at Jay Ahr. “Fashion is going so fast, but it just goes along with the pace of the world. The world is now evolving at such a fast pace. This huge mix of everything together and of all the different skills of people, this is the reality that we are living in today. Ultimately in the end, it is about what we can share, discuss, and think about, the emotions we can give and feel. The idea of doing so many different things is only my long-time strategy to get to that one point, I am essentially trying to achieve the same thing with all my different endeavors.” This is most epitomized at his 2013 exhibition at the Beijing Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), which showcased his innovative embroidery art, clothing and accessories, blurring boundaries between art and modern design exploration, reflecting on Riss’s unique sense of aesthetic and the celebration of craftsmanship.
As Riss smoothly transits from role as designer to adventurer, innovator, and even curator, he still holds fast to his unwavering resolve to create and realize his personal vision of beauty. And one wonders can anyone ever be doing too much, or get lost in having too many ideas? Is there a limit to what we can feel and experience? Can the whole world ever be enough? Riss continues to challenge and expand the ways we can think about and create fashion. There are no barriers, no boundaries, and freedom in every sense within the ventures and designs that the visionnaire extraordinaire Jonathan Riss creates.
Styling Connie Berg Pudder Agency
Hair Kiri Yoshiki using Oribe,
Makeup Aki Maekubo,
Model Vasilisa Pavlova @ Supreme Management,
Creative direction &production artistic cube inc.
Casting Jorge Morales