F or Jonathan Riss, "narrative is everything". Renowned for his powers of transformation in the world of luxury handbags, the founder of fashion brand, Jay Ahr, finds his work as much about storytelling as it is design. Having originated Jay Ahr as a luxury womenswear brand, Riss turned to his long-time passion of embroidery to re-work vintage Louis Vuitton Keepall bags to global acclaim.
The Hong Kong based designer's latest project, A Collection of Vintage Hermès Icons Transformed, has seen Riss source and transform 1,000 vintage Hermès pieces spanning over 70 years. Using the iconic Kelly, Birkin and Constance models as his canvas, each transformation is one of a kind and uniquely inspired by the bag's provenance – its individual precious history literally woven into a visual representation on the bag's surface.
Sotheby's is delighted to showcase a selection of bags from the project at Sotheby's Monaco, a new gallery space that brings together exceptional works of art, design and luxury in a curated lifestyle setting. Here Riss tells us more about his meticulous sourcing and design process for each bag, and how handbags are only the beginning...
You started your career as a fashion designer. What prompted you to begin re-working vintage bags?
I found embroidery as a hobby a very long time ago, when I was 20 years old and living in India. It’s a very old craft and it’s interesting to see that each country has a different way to do it. It started by doing just material transformation. Then I did 1,000 Louis Vuitton Keepalls, the travel bags. I am very inspired by provenance. For example, a bag manufactured in December 1991 and found in Moscow – we put the Soviet Union flag on it as December 1991 was the month and year of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
What is the starting point for each piece?
Sometimes I find bags from someone, some place or time really connected to a story. Sometimes I have a story and I’m looking for the exact bag! We have at least 63 bags in a series called Decades inspired by the Japanese artist On Kawara. Every day he painted, he painted the date of that day. We started with the black Hermès Kelly because you can find them from so many years. Each bag is a black Kelly 28 Sellier from 1969 to 2020. 1980, for example, was an homage to Pacman, the year it was released. 1981 was a homage to Keith Haring, the year he began to paint on a different medium to canvas. 1985 was an homage to the Live Aid concert. 1976, an homage to Apple. 1971 is an homage to Nike but an example where we didn’t find the bag yet. We have done all the work, all the trials of the embroidery but we don’t have the bag because it’s impossible to find a Kelly 28 from 1971. 1977 was an homage to Star Wars and what is interesting is that has ended up in the perfect home, an actual Star Wars museum!
Why is Hermès such a perfect canvas for you?
It is such an iconic piece because it’s full of history. It’s years of inventory. You can find those bags all over the world and you can imagine the journey of each bag. There is one piece in the Sotheby’s exhibition that is from Denmark and I reinterpreted a pattern that Verner Panton designed in the 70s. There are pieces from the UK with tartan designs, and bags from Japan with Takeami inspired work, which is Japanese basket weaving. It’s not embroidery but instead of weaving with bamboo, we do it in leather. It’s super beautiful.
Do you require the bags to be in pristine condition to work on them?
No. The older the bag is, the older the story is. I’m a huge fan of Box Calf leather. The Kelly Box is my favourite bag. I love the Box – the super soft leather, there is zero grain but in time, the leather dries and ages. As an object, for me, it is just a magic piece.
What kinds of materials and processes do you use in the crafting of your designs?
It’s a very very long process – on average, it’s six months. And there are approximately 20 people touching the bag to make things happen. We buy the bag, we dismantle it, we treat it to get it into the perfect shape it can be. There are tons of trials for each embroidery. We cannot have one mistake. We create machines so the embroidery has the same tension on each thread so it has a longer life. Embroidery is super fragile but we can make it so it is more robust but still so delicate. Sometimes it is almost transparent.
Why have you decided to exhibit with Sotheby’s?
It was a huge investment to start the project and step by step, we got more pieces (many of them I have bought from Sotheby’s!) and as you can imagine, there are some pieces that I don’t want to sell: I want to keep them. Sometimes we were showing pieces and I said a bag was five times the price because I didn’t want to sell it! And you see that if people really want that piece, they will offer a price I cannot refuse – because after all, I am running a business too.
Sotheby’s is an auction house and you start to understand it’s the same philosophy. I’m happy when a bag goes for a crazy price. So far, we have one that went for €350,000. Money-wise, yes, it’s nice but what is beautiful is to know someone is ready to spend this amount of money for something that for me, is worth so much more! It’s a different type of value. The pleasure I can have knowing that someone wanted to invest that amount to have that particular piece.
What other plans are on the horizon?
A project I’m doing right now that I love is the horse riding saddle collection. When I transform a piece, I need to practice with it. So how does a horse saddle work? What is the difference between a saddle for dressage to polo to showjumping or racing? There are so many different disciplines around the world – in Kazakhstan, in Mongolia, in Peru. That’s going to be out in late 2023, early 2024.
I also have this Rolls Royce collection. I’m so excited. When you dismantle an Hermes Kelly bag, it is 16 pieces. When you dismantle a Rolls Royce, it is 70,000 pieces and we manipulate every single piece. It’s a headache, but in a good way! I was never a particularly big fan of cars; I am a big fan of beautiful objects. To tell you the truth, when I thought about having to open the bonnet of a car because of a problem – something I’ve never really done before – I was afraid it would explode. I’m getting to understand those 70,000 pieces. What’s interesting is how we reinterpret. I’m really in the process right now.
And then to finish, the last project is a collection of houses. Magic! There are so many things and everything is the same philosophy but it has to be a limited number. And then one day, everything together will make even more sense.