With a new atelier in Beijing, the fashion house Jay Ahr champions Chinese crafts through Western design.
The label’s Belgian-born designer, Jonathan Riss, is known for his beautiful forms and intricate details.
Having completed his first ready-to-wear presentation during Paris Fashion Week last month, Riss is publicising his collaboration with Chinese artisans and embroiderers in his Beijing atelier, which opened a few months ago, after a long fascination with the country.
"When I began Jay Ahr, I worked with a girl from Beijing,” Riss says from his luxurious Paris flagship store on Rue du Juillet. “I’d never been to China before, so I told her I wanted to go with her one time.”
He went in 2003, “and I fell in love with China – the people and their traditions”, he says. “My travels to this beautiful country took me to the northern region, where I discovered a village of people who did this incredible embroidery – very traditional Chinese thread embroidery.”
Having excelled in jewellery design, Riss saw this craft as a natural progression. His intensive research into embroidery arts allowed him not only to translate them into designs for Jay Ahr, but also to secure a project with Italian leather goods company Tod’s, embellishing the special and limited edition couture Dbags.
Riss has since visited often and integrated himself in the local culture and arts scene. He met staff from Tsinghua University and the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology, nicknamed BeiFu, with whom he has set up a pioneering collaboration.
Eager to share his knowledge of embroidery arts with students, Riss established a design lab in December – a 1,200 square metre atelier provided by the fashion institute. Chinese embroiderers will work in the studio so that the students can observe, interact with and learn from them.
Riss wants to change China’s reputation for producing shoddy mass-market goods and give legitimacy to Chinese craftsmanship through its embroidery. More importantly, he wants to share it with the next generation of designers.
Riss’ curiosity in other cultures started early. At 18, he wanted to become an architect and contemplated moving to New York. Instead, he ended up travelling to educate himself.
He soon found himself working at a fabric mill in Ukraine that manufactured garments for the Soviet army.
“I used to make thread from cotton, and from the thread tomake fabrics,” he says. “I mostly designed and manufactured fabric for home decoration.”
His adventurous streak then led him to Mumbai, where he discovered his love for embroidery and for diamonds. Riss crossed to Kashmir to learn more about another precious fabric, cashmere. Then he set out for Angola in southwest Africa to seek out the diamond trade, and then began designing his own jewellery.
In 2004, Riss won the prestigious De Beers Diamond International Award for design.
With hands-on experience and a more solid foothold in the industry, he founded his fashion label Jay Ahr (his initials spelled phonetically) in Paris in 2005. Riss opened a boutique on New York’s Madison Avenue in 2008.
Riss now counts Luisa Via Roma, Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and Net-a- Porter as clients. In Hong Kong, you can find his designs at Joyce.
“I want to go further into developing the story of the art of embroidery,” says Riss. “So in the last three years, I’ve begun working on designing and producing artwork with these special techniques.”
He calls his collection Animal Armours. These shapes are embroidered and carefully embellished with crystals, beads, stones and materials that he deems interesting. He hopes to showcase his Animal Armours repertoire by next year. email@example.com 
Ingrid Chua-Go is a fashion and accessories blogger. Find her at thebaghagdiaries.com