“I do believe that in every single piece that you make there has to be narrative, it’s important that there is a story. Everything has a sense,” says Jonathan Riss from his Paris perch along the main strip of Rue de Rivoli above the boutique of Jay Ahr, a brand known for its energetic eveningwear for women.

The depth of character and craftsmanship skill found in Jonathan Riss, however, goes beyond a fun frock. “Evolution” is a series of 14 embroidery works that unite multicultural embroidery techniques, such as threading, beading as well as combined methods from China, India, Africa and Latin America as well as materials such as semi-precious stones, crystals, marble, wood, metal, pearls, turquoise, mandrille shells, and sequins. In a sense, the embroideries transcribe the evolution of this timeless art.

The distinctively scientific aesthetic is based upon black and white photographs by Patrick Gries, published in the book Evolution (Editions Xavier Barral) that was produced in collaboration with the Natural History Museum in Paris. The skeletal forms are a link to our ancient ancestors, vertebrates that have since evolved into tens of thousands of species. At the same time that Riss discovered these photographs while browsing through books at Deyrolle, Paris’s legendary store of taxidermy curiosities, Riss also made contact with a company working with 3-D technology (with whom he is working on a project to scan stones in 3-D to allow greater planning in large-scale work). Consequent conversations with Gries and reflections on dimension, inspired Riss reconstitute the skeletons in three dimensions with the ancient human craft of embroidery: a silver and crystal python skeleton, a thermodynamic portrait of a whale, a sea spider in vibrant coral.

“I want to show the evolution of embroidery related to this concept of the evolution of the human species,” explains Jonathan Riss. “Basically it’s a story from the beginning of embroidery until a new type of embroidery, which is what I’m doing right now. We are talking about technique but also talking about culture.”

Riss would not be so bold as to claim he were opening a new chapter for embroidery unless he had reason, and he does.

One of Paris’s greatest and most celebrated artisans in recent times, François Lesage, who died December 1, 2011, caught glimpse of his work in its beginning stages. As Riss recounts, “Two years ago I started to do my first artwork on embroidery. By chance, when I was receiving the piece from my framer, M. Lesage passed in front of the store at that time. He said, ‘Can you tell me which guy did this?’ – I said, ‘It’s me.’ – I didn’t know what he looked like at the time. He said, ‘Oh, it’s fantastic.’ – And I said, ‘Thank you, and who are you?’ and he said ‘I’m François Lesage’. But then he said of my work, ‘c’est l’avenir de la broderie.’ For me, it was incredible that he said this. I don’t really like the translation ‘future’ for the word ‘avenir’ because it means something more. When I look at whatever I am doing today in embroidery, there is his face behind every single piece.”

The professional trajectory of Jonathan Riss is as interwoven and non-traditional as his embroideries. Born in Paris but raised in Brussel, he moved to Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, at the age of 18 working as art director of a fabric manufacturer for the Soviet army. Two years later he moved to India where he opened an embroidery studio, later opening a jewelry studio in Antwerp (he won the Diamond International Award for De Beers) traveling to Angola, among other places, in search of uncut diamonds, later finding himself designing windows for Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys in New York. He launched Jay Ahr in Paris in 2003, and while principally focused on custom-made clothes for women – he starts with fabrics, not sketches when he designs – he continues embroidery work not only on Jay Ahr dresses but also on accessories, in collaborations with the likes of Tod’s and Fendi. “But it was always for something useful. I wanted to do something different.”

Today, the embroidery work – unique pieces that can take over a year to make – is done by hand in a small village, north of Beijing, China, where Riss travels every three months spending two weeks and keeping in constant contact with the community of embroiderers.

“I met the mayor of Beijing eight years ago and I told him, ‘whatever you find that is super tradition in China, let me know, I want to do something with it.’ In the West they think about Made in China as plastic, but China is a treasure of the arts. He called me four years later, and said, ‘Jonathan I found something interesting if you come to China, I can show it to you…’ and that’s how the story came about. I arrived there, and it’s not a factory, its a village where the men work in the fields and the women work in embroidery and they have a tradition of embroidery for hundreds of years…there’s the grandmother who taught the granddaughter, it’s fantastic. Still, the people working there are artists. The guy who is working there now helping me manage this, he is an artist, a painter, and he understands the drawings and the materials really well. So we broke the rules completely.”

His new story is based on animal skins or “armor” as Riss calls it. Based on many of the skins found in his design studio, the intricate patterning of a giraffe, snow leopard, crocodile, zebra, and cheetah convey an equally captivating sense of natural history and organic texture.

“Life has to be like this, around a story. Bring the history to the technology and put everything together. Whatever you do, it is related. But you want to go forward; you never want to go back. You bring in nostalgia to then go somewhere forward.”


Evolution by Patrick Gries and Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu
BUY ONLINE: http://www.amazon.fr/Evolution-Jean-Baptiste-Panafieu/dp/2915173281