A conversation with Gaia Repossi

 

Interview  Paul Kominek

Photography  Inez & Vinoodh

 

From an early age, Gaia Repossi was not someone who would let others lay out a path for her. Despite being encouraged to pursue a career at Repossi, the jewellery house that her great-grandfather Costantino founded in Turin in 1925, she rejected the idea and instead chose to become a visual artist. After studying painting at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris and occasionally contributing imagery suggestions to the brand, it was the following study of archeology, which sparked a more in-depth and intellectual interest in the concept of adornment in her. And so, as the only daughter of Alberto Repossi, who was heading the company before her, at the age of 21 she finally took over the reign at the house. Her first collection turned out to be a huge success that overnight catapulted her and her company out of the somewhat dusty jewellery world onto the fashion scene. Many inspired collections that picked up on her anthropology and archeology background and her knowledge in contemporary art followed and cemented the brands status as a must-have for the modern woman and man. Realising key projects, like the contemporary re-modelling of the brands flagship store in Paris by architect Rem Koolhaas or pulling in a minority interest purchase by LVMH in recent years underline why she is now credited as single handedly revolutionising the entire industry. TTA Editor Paul Kominek met with Gaia Repossi in Paris to chat about eye-opening journeys to Japan & India, how she taught herself efficiency and potential future verdicts on today’s remains.

 

I love coming to this place.

Me too, I was excited when you suggested it. When I get a real craving for Japan, Paris
is really the closest thing in Europe, with all the nice Japanese restaurants.

How long are you in town for?

Until Sunday. We actually got asked to host a party at the Silencio club on very short notice, so I’ll be here the whole week.

That is David Lynch’s club right? Oh I love him, I’m obsessed with Twin Peaks.

Oh, me too! I am always happy when there’s a chance to talk about it.

I just find it really brilliant. I love the sense of humour, the aesthetic, all those characters that sort of reflect certain figures from the Nineties. Whatever he does, it is genius. He is an artist making films.

Do you go to a lot of the shows during fashion week?

Yeah, I mean a lot of designers became friends, so I go. I went to Dior this time, but that’s more historically because of Raf, I always went when he was there and now continue to go.

But you’re not going to look at jewellery design in particular.

A little bit, but I look more at the casting. To see what is the mood of the girl of the now, you know.

Casting for the shows has become so much more diverse in recent years.

Yeah I like to see where things are going. I am interested in the more avantgarde designers, like in London Molly Goddard, or in Paris I always like to look at Marine Serre, for example.

I was also asking because I’m interested in how much you follow trends in jewellery design. It feels like at the moment everything is very playful and almost fantasy-like.

For me it is all anchored in the reality. So it is very important to see what is going on in the context. On the streets, in fashion, in art, the undertones. I think the mood in jewellery design at the moment is to be a bit laid-back and casual. But for me it is more then that. I see myself almost more as an ethnologist. What are the historical aspects? Adornment has been a actual language and jewellery had become more of a social identity factor. I can afford this and that. But I’m more interested in the design. It is an aesthetic proposal with a very sincere point of view.

But your designs also reflect a very contemporary mindset.

Yes, at the same time it is all very realistic. Women nowadays aren’t objects and jewellery plays a different role for them. But I am just sincerely interested in design in a very honest way.

In terms of design inspirations. Are there any cultures or locations that have been a go-to place in recent years?

Well since my relationship with my partner for about 8 years I’ve been going a lot to the States. And for some reason I’ve been educated to this aesthetic of all the artists from the 50s for example and it is really blending in to my work. I’m also working with a foundation for a New York project, that will be released next Spring. I’m not saying I became americanised but definitely the aesthetic, the simplicity, there is a certain school in design that I’m start- ing to be influenced by. But also certain places, the deserts around Joshua Tree, for example. This mixed with my French-Italian background, I don’t know if it is an inspiration per se but it definitely has an impact on me.

How about Japan. I feel like you must have a strong connection to Japanese crafts and artists and the attention to detail.

I do, yes. A few years a go I was invited to the studio of the artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. Have you ever been ?

No. In Tokyo?

No, at his studio in New York. I was actually supposed to meet him in Tokyo, where he did a tea house. But I ended up meeting him in New York. He is doing all kinds of architectural projects now. The studio is really amazing, very photogenic, all the team is Japanese. He introduced me to everyone and then we went to his office. He kind of questioned me a bit, asking “how did you get my contact”. And I was all like “ahm, through a Japanese person?” He wanted to know if I was going to do all my stores with Rem Koolhaas (laughs). He was telling me that he wouldn’t call himself an architect but is definitely interested in such projects. And then he said “now I’m going to show you my guest house.” He took me upstairs on top of the studio, where he has this little tea house, that he designed himself. There is this old little lady that serves you a Mat- cha, with a slice of sugar in a flower shape. They kind of urge you to eat it, but it is basically pure sugar and I was a bit, mmhh. It was quite intense.

Sounds very Japanese.

Yeah it was really interesting but also quite a strange situation. I was also saying, oh
I really loved the glass house you did for the Venice Biennale and he said “they are actually gonna remove it, would you like it for your Garden?” (both laugh) I mean, if I could I would have bought it, for one of our stores maybe, but I wouldn’t even have the space for it. Very special, tough Japanese person, but also sweet.

Did you also have other encounters with Japan through your design?

Yes for sure, I’ve been going many times for work. It is a very defined minimal aesthetic. And in terms of jewellery, it was somewhat of a teaching lesson in the sense of making smaller objects. It was an enormous challenge for me at first because I always liked more voluminous things that in Japan were not so well received by our clients.

Was that more of a cultural thing?

It was the culture towards jewellery in particular. The focus is on very small perfectly designed objects. And for a while I wasn’t sure I would be able to match the taste but then a few years later I started this collection (shows a ring on her finger) which was very minimal and it actually came about after a trip to Japan, so in the end it all worked out.

What I find really interesting when think- ing of dimensions, is how the size of peoples hands of different cultures, or the symmetry of faces probably must influence your designs.

I actually come from an Indian school background through my dad. I was going to India quite often when I was younger, seeing all kinds of different tribes and it was basically my first encounter with adornment. But in daily life, not as part of a gala gown. This was a real life experience, so India was essentially my first kind of education in that direction. In India it is really about stacking things up in a very aesthetic way, whereas in Japan it is the opposite, much more minimal.

How old were you when you went to India for the first time ?

16 or 17, I think. And it was the first time jewellery really appealed to me, because that gala gown thing, that isn’t me. (laughs)

Was it a holiday trip with your father?

He introduced me to stones and then I got really excited and wanted to see the whole country. No-one could stop me so I traveled around a lot.

But at that time you didn’t have any ambitions to follow in your fathers footsteps.

No, not at all. I wanted to be an artist. And I felt the work of my father was too much of an applied art. At the time I found all those values too superficial and not intellectual enough. So I totally rejected the profession. But as his only daughter it was not easy to escape. His work was really his life 24/7, so the jewellery and the drawings and the stones surrounded me all the time. He never separated it from the rest of his life. So I was schooled at it, even though I was rejecting it.

So how did you end up getting involved ?

In the beginning I came in to have some input for the image of the brand. Some jewellers are very obsessed with the object but to me the image is equally important. The whole communication, how to present the pieces is very essential to me.

I remember when we first met you mentioned that Juergen Teller had just photographed your last campaign and was proposing a picture that was a close up of a woman but that hardly showed the product.

Well, my industry is very focused on pack shots, so that’s a very horrible background to come from. A lot of photographers, especially fashion photographers, they are attracted by the silhouette. And it is important because you define the woman of the brand through it. But Juergen I believe was the first one who came in and right away went all close-up and showing the girl with all the veins. At first it felt a bit awkward, no re-touch, but then I thought why not. It was the first time for us to really get more up and close. Before it was all presented from a distance, which is the more traditional jewellery point of view in photography.

You were still studying at the time you started to design your first collection right?

I had just finished part of fine arts and to be able to work I went to the Sorbonne and I chose archeology. Fine arts too, but the main master was archeology. And this opened a whole new world to me. I started to study artefacts and jewellery which is a massive part of archeology because it survives the times. So I ended up study- ing jewellery of several civilisations and ethnicities, studying anthropology, tribal amazonian jewellery. It was amazing and totally unexpected.

So the connection to your work was more of a coincidental thing.

Yes completely, but it happened to be the perfect education for me. And even now that I’m working on this collaboration with a foundation in New York, it continues to shine through. When I met with them to discuss the project, I arrived with this big dossier of research. And they were very surprised almost touched because they didn’t expect that someone from a jewellery house would take the time to dissect all those different possibilities.

Is this your general approach to go so deep into research for collections ?

Oh yeah. I need to really dissect it and see all of the different layers and make it personal so it means something to me. And then when you’ve done that and created a pillar then you can go on and work with it for 5 years, make endless variations, but I must associate it with myself first.

Are there any particular aspects of that ground work that spark your imagination the most ?

Sometimes it is an accident, sometimes it can be a request. My father used to work for the Middle Eastern Market for years, it is a key market for jewellery because they really consume it in a natural way. It is the last region in the world where adornment is worn in sort of an instinctive way, whereas in the occidental world you don’t really need jewellery anymore. It has become more of an accessory that you have to fall for, like a purse. But in the Middle East it is still much more embedded in the culture. And for me it was very hard
to make something opulent but modern in reply to that need. So sometimes it is imposed, because it is your own company and you need to adapt, but it can feel a bit violent to yourself.

What about the craft on a production level. Things are essentially still being made like they always used to right ?

Some things are, but we do also combine it with more modern technologies, like 3D developers and other input from different fields. At some point we had someone from Rem Koolhaas team, we try to get different points of views, also from very new and advanced developers and designer. But es- pecially for the high-end things, I still love going to the ateliers and meet with the old monsieurs who will discuss the technique with me or the ateliers that collect the cra- ziest stones. Those are very old school type of ateliers that are still alive but now mostly only exists in Paris, which is very sad.

That means that not many elements are still made in Italy ?

Italy has lost a lot in jewellery unfortunately. And it is basically because the state doesn’t subvention the profession. So all the ateliers rely on clients, all the big jewellers, they rely on the demand. And they ask for cheap and fast massive productions. So it is suffering and a lot of techniques have been lost. And then there’s also the aspect of aging. We work with an atelier in Italy, where people are starting to get old, whereas in Paris, there’s young people in the ateliers. It is niche ateliers, but they are subventioned by the state. In France, to preserve the métier, each atelier has the obligation to educate 6 young people, otherwise they will not be subventioned. So that’s smart.

Fewer trips to Italy for you then.

Yeah it’s a bit sad. I remember my grandfather was part of a movement of avantgarde jewellers in Torino in the Fifties. All of the young jewellers were publishing this newspaper at the time. And so back then the ateliers were still very involved in providing and preserving techniques. But now because the state is not supporting it, that has stopped. When you go to Florence now, all the palaces are private, it’s the same thing.

I wanted to ask you about the location that you picked for the photo shoot with Inez & Vinoodh. What is your connection with it ?

Well Eddie Stern, who runs the Brooklyn Yoga club amongst several other places, he has been my teacher for about the past 10 years. So as much as I could be in New York, I was living there part time also, I went and am still going regularly. Yoga has been a big part of my life since I was 15.

How did you get started with it ?

Well at the time it wasn’t really such a global thing. I first got in touch with it through books and then started to seriously practice it with a teacher in Paris when I was around 21. At some point, when I was going on a work trip to New York my teacher was saying, when you’re there you should really go to Eddie’s studio. And that was it, that is how we met (laughs). He’s been a big part of my life for many years now, as a balance. I don’t know if I can call myself a buddhist, but I meditate, I don’t eat meat or animal products. The practice is something very meditational, you’re extremely focused and it gives you a mental clarity and level of focus and vision at the same time that also I find when I work. It’s something very important to me, a part of my life not many people know about. And being a jeweller and with my family background some people maybe imagine me on a yacht (both laugh), I don’t know, but it’s not really what I’m about. To me it is about being in touch with yourself, it is not really so much about a religion, but maybe some form of spirituality.

When you travel, maybe more for leisure then for work. What do you take with you?

I always carry a lot of books with me. Half of them very French intellectual reading, philosophy, those kinds of things and half is always related to Buddhism and Yoga. Depending where I go I do also pack a yoga mat and then I have these little practise booklets to try different techniques. So right now I’m working on opening my spine. And then I have lots of essential oils. My boyfriend hates them, he doesn’t understand why I have to have all these sprays. But they all have a purpose (laughs). And I used to travel a lot with my water colours, a bit less now, I like doing abstract landscape paintings. And that’s about it, military shorts, sandals. . . (both laugh)

What journeys have been particularly memorable for you?

Oh, we are going to all kinds of places. Once we camped near the Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson, at the Grand Salt Lake. It was in the middle of the Winter and it was snowing, so that was really special.
But I also just like to disconnect. There is a canyon outside of LA, where we would drive. I don’t even know the name, but I kept saying, we need to live here, cause there is nothing there, just desert. And it also feels like India in some ways, the rocks are gigantic, there’s probably coyotes and snakes, but anyway I loved it.

Do you prefer to make design sketches when you are in your office or rather in more temporary habitations ?

It used to be more outside but now I really like my work environment. Drawing on my desk, where I have all my references ready. I have piles of divided printed references waiting, so now my travelings and my time outside of work are more spent to find new references and file them. And at work I sort them and start sketching. Outside of the office I only sketch when I’m late with the delivery of a project, sometimes in a rush on a plane. When I get started I don’t really have patience so I draw them really fast and I need to have at least a hundred versions. But that is also changing. I don’t know if it is coming from working with Rem Koolhaas, but I did learn to become more efficient. Coming from an Italian family you have a tendency to overdo, over propose and you waste a lot of energy. And now I’m doing it more the Dutch way, less hours but much more efficient.

What helped you to become more efficient?

The Yoga and meditation definitely helps a lot. Taking away a lot of the fatigue and unnecessary stress and also the hysteria that exists in fashion and the industry sometimes. What is the point in getting hysterical about it all, I don’t get it. But also working with the team of Rem Koolhaas had a big impact. We basically worked on the project for our Vendome store for 2 years and seeing how they work, very sharp, very nordic, that was quite astonishing.

They are probably even more used to work with very strict deadlines in this field.

Yes, but not only in regards to architecture but also design proposals, there was a very sharp input. When we met and Rem first saw the rings he said “This is architecture!”, in a miniature way. But there were also other parallels. They do work with a similar system of sizes and in general the approach to design, they were very scientific about everything. It linked immediately with my way of working.

Something I was always curious about is how important custom made jewellery is for a house like Repossi.

Quite important. You would be surprised what a big part of my work it actually is as it can be quite time consuming. It is also challenging sometimes because, on the one hand, you need to meet the people’s taste but it also still needs to be part of the couture collection in some way. So we usually adapt according to the ideas or the needs and the personality of the person too. I have quite a few a year, normally around 20 bespoke projects, which is a lot. And it takes quite some time to go through different design iterations and meetings.

But you probably don’t start from scratch with these designs.

It depends. It can be a variation of something already existing, which is my speciality, I love doing these, it comes very easy. And some people want something very specific. That can be a challenge because tastes might be very different and then it is a process of guiding them to something that is beautiful but still fits the style of the house. Not so many jewellers are doing this anymore, on such a bespoke level, especially where you meet the person that has the same name as the brand (laughs).

But from an economic perspective, these bespoke items probably don’t represent such a high percentage of sales.

Well, it can go high pretty fast with these projects. Because those clients are usually also interested in bigger stones, time is very valuable and you meet quite a few times until it is all done. Obviously it is not the key element of the jewellery market because it is a dying service. But you’d be surprised. Part of it is also just the opportunity to meet the designer in person, to have this intimate moment of creating your own jewellery, having a very personal exchange. With some of the clients I became very attached actually. But on a business level I’m really the worst at this. Because I really like to take my time and sometimes it can take very long. At the moment I’m working with this client who is this very sweet Russian lady. I became very attached to her own aesthetic, the way she dresses, but it has been going on for a year now. So from a business perspective it might be a disaster but for me it is fun.

Coming back to the topic of archeology. I do sometimes wonder how in a few hundred or thousand years, people will look upon our remains, or artefacts from our time. What do you hope people will see when they find pieces you’ve created ?

Well, first of all I hope they will like them (laughs). No, but my hope is that in some way the pieces will show what is relevant now. That it is a representative of its time. What’s very important to me is, whenever we make a new collection to feel the re- sponsibility for what we put on the market. Because indirectly with jewellery you are creating a language. It has this historic purpose as a collective memory. The way we dress in general, it is a very important identity factor. So I feel very responsible about that.

And still, clothing will fade away, same as books or other mediums of storage, so jewellery as a way of preserving culture becomes very important.

But also, it is the most feminine object you can create in a world that is shifting, where women are equal to men. So one important aspect is also to have the ambition not to be marked as something ultra glamorous but rather unisex. I am very interested in having the imagery of the house feel more neutral. It is a woman that is not too feminine, but who has a rather neutral and modern point of view. The jewellery should exist in a sort of unisex world, even though it might still be the most feminine and glamorous object in the world.

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