Opulence—the mere word itself tongues its own enviable madness. But can the attraction to it be tamed between one’s fingers? Or even ever fully understood? Of her family’s namesake jewelry line, Gaia Repossi ponders this complicated idealogy through public and private studies of art, cultural anthropology, and the human condition. Appointed creative director of the house of precious stones at the young age of 21, Repossi has, in the almost decade since, rethought the approach and the intent of jewelry, presenting artistic treasures that call into question more than carat weight. The artist Francesco Vezzoli too pursues this reckoning. Rather than metalwork, he uses a mix of methods—flamboyant videography, character performance, and archaeological sculpture—to immortalize a kindred seduction of ideation, as seen in his solo exhibitions at the likes of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, MoMA PS1, and Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and collaborations with Prada, David Hallberg, and Lady Gaga. On the eve of the re-opening of Repossi’s Parisian flagship—a Rem Koolhaas-designed boutique at 6 Place Vendôme—the two consider their ancient interests in a modern place.
Francesco Vezzoli—I am intrigued about how others relate to your work. There is indeed great enthusiasm, because making contemporary jewelry is very difficult. In the history of aesthetics, the culture of the dress has never been taboo over the years, but after a certain historical moment, the culture of the jewel has taken on a significance that was not [before] considered “politically correct.” You decided to pick up this challenge, and have brought back dignity to the object jewel: You made it modern again, wearable, and politically acceptable. Was it a tough challenge?
Gaia Repossi—Yes, because, at first, I had no interest in jewelry. Originally, I felt a kind of rejection, because it did not have enough intellectual foundation for a woman who wants to express herself. I wanted to be a femme savante. Today, women can have the same responsibilities as men. They can aim for the same careers. I asked, “Who are these women and what do they need to feel smart, relevant, or accepted? Moreover, what do they want to reflect?” Today’s women responded extremely positively, identifying themselves to this new chapter I started perhaps more than the market itself entirely understood. Rem previously said on this subject of the industry, “Gaia had no choice but to change it, not necessarily because she wanted to, but because she realized she had to.”
Francesco—That’s a very beautiful sentence. Rem reads the historical and aesthetic aspect of your persona. But, you didn’t have an alternative, because you came from tradition and you had to confront it. I like to say in Italy that we have family histories instead of “brands.”
Gaia—I have enormous respect for cultural heritage, patrimony, and the importance of craft. But in the past, I was not so receptive to this world. It wasn’t modern enough, and it had changed in a direction that I didn’t like. Perhaps, also it was because it was my father’s, and I did not want to be his “clone.” [Laughing.] When you grow up in the world of jewelry, you either fall in love with it or you don’t. Putting myself in the position of a “stranger” allowed me to discover a side more interesting, because I started to question the foundations of the old world. I studied fine arts, and when you’re training to become an artist, you’re told to make a tabula rasa (“blank slate”): you always have to aim for higher. I try to apply that vision to what I do now, asking myself, “What is the role of jewelry nowadays?” Later, studying archaeology, I discovered all the craftsmanship that is transmitted over time: from tribe to tribe, civilizations, in anthropology, and the influences in between worlds. I started to realize what an interesting narrative our histories have. Now, we live in an age that is a bit austere, where we strongly lack identity. There is an authenticity that isn’t any longer connected to jewelry. I wanted to have a very direct language with a radical point of view. A bit like you.
Francesco—You confront yourself with a huge problem. For example, contemporary art in 1960s Italy was characterized by three great figures: the Marquis [Annibale] Berlingieri in Rome, the Count [Giuseppe] Panza di Biumo, and the Baron [Giorgio] Franchetti Jr.—the triad of the aristocracy of collecting. In this historical moment, art was collected by people of a higher socio–economic and cultural level to stand out. Nowadays, it is very difficult to identify the high rank. This need for uniqueness and distinction has decreased a bit. Even in a globalized art world, everything is a fair of similar works that are produced in quantities that, I suspect, are even greater than in luxury jewelry. Obviously, for me as an artist and for you as a creative, this poses a very big challenge. I produce only one–offs and struggle a lot, because the market does not distinguish them.
Gaia—You have a very trying position in your work: You reject standardization and you praise the woman, but the vision of the woman you have is more romantic, more accessorized [than mine]. I’m interested in almost the opposite, rejecting this opulence and proposing a radical, new statement inspired by usages we’ve lost. But, because I’m questioning how to bring my profession to a higher level, it also makes me think: “What is modern opulence? Is opulence gone forever because it doesn’t connect with a contemporary elegance?” There is a high demand for opulent items. How can I respond to that without compromising my aesthetics? It’s something I am investigating right now and that I find myself at war with. [Laughing.] Maybe you are the key to this research. I still believe that you should produce one-offs, otherwise what is the point of what we do?
There is a high demand for opulent items. How can I respond to that without compromising my aesthetics?
Francesco—I am very interested in understanding the evolution of taste, because it reconnects to that imagery of the divismo (“stardom”) that I have studied. The world and the market have expanded, but that does not necessarily correspond to a rate of sophistication. The challenge is to redefine exclusivity without losing creative rigor. You first have redefined the identity of [your family] brand, and your flagship store [reopens] with a gesture that, to me, is almost a work of conceptual art: bringing Rem to Place Vendôme. I think it is clear that the Marquis Berlingieri, the Count Panza, and the Baron Franchetti no longer exist. They were great aristocrats who, in order to distinguish themselves from the traditional aristocracy whose palaces had Caravaggio paintings inside, said [instead], “I want a [Cy] Twombly!” They already had the best of the past but they also wanted the best of the future. In this liquid, globalized, confused, and hysterical society no one has a Caravaggio anymore.
Gaia—In the eyes of many people, [art] objects have become an investment. Your work takes value, hence it attracts even more. It’s almost a stock market. My work does not make value through time. I have to consider impulsive desires with a certain eye for investment, quality, and handwork but with new codes that break the previous. A lot of my clients want what they don’t have. They follow the opinion leaders, so they take off what is old right away. The evolution of taste today seems to seek for this identity with a lot of thirst. Your work is perceived as an analysis of today’s society. I saw your performance when you dressed as a Marlene Dietrich and brought her back to life—it was incredible.
Francesco—Most other jewelry brands sell more of a lifestyle. So, let’s say that compared to those other houses, you are like [Azzedine] Alaïa. You produce a precise, unique, and thoughtful work.
Gaia—In a certain way, it’s easier. I function with systems, kind of like architects. With infinite solutions from references, I find a repetition that has a precise order. My work is not art, it’s a craft. A product in my profession has to be perfect, but it has less freedom. There’s the business side; market objectives. What’s interesting is that our worlds are linking: we have clients in common with important galleries, and this makes you think about who is today’s customer. I’m not a businesswoman. I hate that. I only have the intuition of what a woman wants.
Francesco—I think you already reached that objective. But I find that the issue of opulence is the new challenge: the jewel for the girl who wants something different, the jewel that communicates both your roots and the things that you studied. I feel the theme of archaeology. Your jewelry has something ancestral to it.
Gaia—I started as a pure fan of the ancient world. It began when I started to travel and see the remains of civilizations that no longer existed and the strong identities that we have lost. This for me is an endless narrative; it’s a world of infinite possibilities that you can rethink. It became an evident link to my work, just like you and your muses.
Francesco—We are in New York, where there’s just been the Met Ball. It’s a grand parade, a social ritual that surely reflects our era in all its aspects. Are there personalities you absolutely consider your muses?
Gaia—One of them was at your table: a young actress we jeweled, Mia Goth. To me, she is an anti-actress. I do not like too glamorous women…divas. Divas are too related to the jewelry world. I try to juxtapose opposites for interesting results rather than perpetuating this frozen image of Grace Kelly on a red carpet. I like a strange association. A woman with a masculine identity that wears the most glamorous thing there can be: a jewel. That’s where the contrast becomes interesting.
Francesco—Paradoxically, you want to create a contrast, but in reality you want to create classicality.
Gaia—Yes, modernity comes from new associations, don’t you think? We are in an era where gender does not exist anymore. For me, an interesting woman is not necessarily masculine, but one that doesn’t need all this. She becomes a bit of a hybrid in her role, and ultimately even more feminine thanks to this ambiguity. That’s what woman fought for—to have a voice. We should maintain this desire. You maintain your divas alive because there are none left.
Francesco—In this I read the roots of classic intelligence in the sense that you see an androgynous figure—sophisticated, almost distant, lunar, alienated, etc.—and choose to immortalize her.
Gaia—Although Italian, I was raised sort of French. I grew up with this woman in mind that was tough, tortured, and does not accept certain things. She’s not necessarily a feminist, although much has been derived from that. I still love to wear no jewelry at all sometimes.
Francesco—You’re the worst testimonial.
Gaia—I find naked skin even more beautiful. It’s important to dare this freedom, especially in the profession I’m in. I do not put on anything. The bare skin is the tabula rasa. I was [recently] asked to find our new égéries (“muses”) among today’s actresses, so I started looking at film stills because I like tormented characters. Isabelle Huppert is the most an actress can be to me for what she represents in her madness, in her intelligence, and as a tortured character. She says that jewelry suffocates her. I love that. I met Tilda Swinton, a woman of true kindness, incredible authenticity, and of a very singular beauty. The first fitting was informal, around a breakfast, and when we tried the jewels on her—she being tall and very lean—they looked as if they were made for her.
Francesco—On Tilda, opulence probably takes on another meaning.
Gaia—Some years ago I also met Cindy [Sherman] through the art world. I see her as the woman with no obstacles of any kind. Like you, she digs in this world of sparkles and nurtures herself. When I invited her to the Met with me last year, she became one of her photographed [subjects] for the night. These are the characters that fascinate me. I’m intrigued from the moment they are anti–glamor, especially in their filmography, where they adopt these twisted personalities, which in the end, is actually maybe theirs.
Francesco—So, I will wait for you at the threshold of this challenge. I will wait at the threshold of the Place Vendôme.
Gaia—[The threshold] of opulence. And disruption.
Francesco—I will wait at the threshold of opulence. I’ll be by your side.