Repossi’s Tribute to Robert Mapplethorpe
About a decade ago, Gaia Repossi, the creative director of her family’s namesake fine jewelry label, purchased a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph of a palm tree swaying in the wind, its sharp black fronds caught against a blank sky. She felt the cool, elegant image shared the same aesthetic with her own minimalist-leaning work, and found herself turning to Mapplethorpe’s pictures — particularly to his self-portraits and his architectural still lifes of flora — more and more. “It’s not cute. It’s very sharp, very serious,” the designer, 33, says of the artist’s body of work. Then, in 2016, came the opportunity to collaborate with his estate. The result — a 24-piece tribute collection comprising necklaces, pendants, bracelets and rings — will launch later this year, three decades after the photographer’s death in 1989.
The design process began when the Paris-based Repossi delved into Mapplethorpe’s archives at both the Getty in Los Angeles and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation in New York and uncovered a side of the artist she hadn’t previously known. In his early 20s, while living in the Chelsea Hotel, Mapplethorpe supported himself by selling talismanic jewelry he made from scavenged ephemera — dice, nails, feathers, coins, empty crab claws swiped from restaurants. Enchanted, Repossi, who holds a master’s degree in archaeology, sifted through the copious remnants of his jewelry (around 25 pieces, along with hundreds of additional fragments, remain), as well as Polaroids of a young Mapplethorpe and his friends modeling his wares, making sketches as she went.
Some of Mapplethorpe’s creations, like a chain made from horseshoe nails, aligned with Repossi’s penchant for abstract, recurring shapes. To recreate it, she cast nails in white and dark gray gold, looping them into stacked, graceful rings, some with pavé diamonds. A chain-link and cord necklace threaded with red and black ribbon, meanwhile, was rendered as a multilayered choker featuring dark red gold as well as steel, a new material for the brand. Other finds — namely necklaces strung with crab claws, shells, animal figurines and skulls — were a welcome challenge. Repossi ended up commissioning a maître d’art to carve molds of some of these figurative elements in wax, which were then cast into steel pendants and, in some cases, coated in bright colors like magenta and bottle green.
Like Mapplethorpe, Repossi is eager to upend convention — for one piece, she raided the jewelry house’s collection of vintage pearls, purchased in previous decades by her father, and paired them with beads of black gold, quartz and steel — and she isn’t shy about enlisting friends. To shoot the digital and social media campaign for the collection, she hired Juergen Teller to take 1970s-style Polaroids of Mapplethorpe’s circle (Cindy Sherman, the model and artist David Croland) and fans (Virgil Abloh, the curator Flavin Judd) wearing pieces from the collection, which, in addition to an ongoing exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York and a recent biopic by Ondi Timoner, is the latest evidence of a Mapplethorpe renaissance.