Belgium-born, Hong Kong-based designer Jonathan Riss founded his brand Jay Ahr (phonetic spelling of his initials) soon after his sartorial career took off designing military uniforms. These beginnings are what came to lay the groundwork for his signature style and the unique flare found in his understated emblazoned designs. Overlaying textured fabrics, playing with flouncy elements and incorporating eclectic embroideries are at the core of Riss’s designs.
Riss is recently most known for reworking auction-grade vintage designer bags, most notably his latest collaboration with Hermes. The designer has come to prominence with his skilful embroideries where he incorporates perceptive illustrations, typographies and cultured themes. Each bag is truly one-of-a-kind as only one of each is available worldwide, carrying an authentic worn-in aesthetic, vintage appeal and story of its own to tell. The Jay Ahr bags are deconstructed by Riss before being sent off to his team of expert embroiderers in India, Japan, Peru and China who sew the leather back together using original fine yarn.
Riss has catalogued each of the bags models, sizes and their location and date’s provenance, with most hailing from New York, Tokyo and Milan. Riss also reinterprets famous artworks such as his stunning rendition of ukiyo-e painter and printmaker of the Edo period Katsushika Hokusai’s works paired with a visual take on the poetic words of Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki (Ue o Muite Arukou)”. Another stunning piece is his spin on Guns N’ Roses’s “November Rain”, with the lyrics cascading down a navy Kelly in barcode-like configuration, drawing on the theme of identity in a world of increasing homogeneity. Among the various other designs on the bags of character and flare include a gorgeous meticulously hand-embroidered bandana print on a Navy Kelly from Rio de Janeiro, 1997.
Jay Ahr is renowned for recreating vivid visual cultural themes using innovative embroidery techniques transforming each vintage piece into a contemporary object of art
Another creative artistic fusion is the ‘Strange Fruit’ Kelly bag, an ode to Billie Holiday’s song, inspired by the African Waterfall print which renders a pattern reminiscent of both vinyl records and a water ripple effect. The bag’s surface is screened with tie-dye illustrations overlaid against the lyrics to Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ song.
His previous limited-edition collaboration with Louis Vuitton on their Keepall bags last summer were also a huge hit with fashion fanatics. Riss employed the use of flag motifs and designs inspired by Bowie and gothic elements. In an interview with South China Morning Post, Riss explained “This is a purely personal project born out of the wish to bring together all the embroidery techniques that I have developed in the last 20 years. I started learning the art at 19 years old in a factory in Mumbai, so I wanted to bring together all the talented artisans who turn my visualisations into reality. It was so important to use a timeless travel item like the Keepall as the base for the embroidery – this item is as relevant in our lives today as it will be in 20 years’ time.” May of the embroidered designs are taken from Jay Ahr’s archives, though they are specifically chosen to match each bag “As I collect these bags from around the world, I imagine that each one is testament to the history and cultural heritage from the region where it was found. I’ve kept a record of each bag’s production date and provenance, which further inspires the embroidery artwork applied onto them”.
Speaking on the significance of these project and luxury bag customisations generally, Riss shares “Throughout this process I have seen how beautiful it is to embellish an existing and historic object,” Riss says. “It is firstly sustainable, and secondly it is about improvement rather than ego. The reinvention of those pre-owned and sometimes quite worn pieces into a unique contemporary object was very interesting to me. I am sure my customers will feel the same way as I do.”
Shop the exclusive limited-edition Jay Ahr X Hermes collection here!