“Transparency does seem to be one of Virgil’s design concepts. I actually think it’s from Mies van der Rohe,” says Michael Darling, who curated “Figures of Speech”—an exhibit about fashion designer Virgil Abloh at the Museum of Contemporary Art through September 22. Abloh—a Rockford, Illinois native who began his career while doing work for Kanye West—is one of the most influential forces in fashion. His background in architecture informed a lot of his decisions, as Darling explains: “He used to go to school at IIT [Illinois Institute of Technology], go into Crown Hall every day—a building whose structure is exposed; it’s glass and steel and nothing else. I think he’s attracted to reducing an object, a garment, a shoe to its core essence, and oftentimes making it transparent is the way to do that.” Chicago-based jewelry designer Giselle Gatsby uses a similar principle in her work. She creates maximum impact with minimal architectural designs, made with materials that are not shy about revealing whatever is underneath them.
What is your pre-jewelry design background?
I am a designer, but my practice is always evolving. My favorite conversations are about shapes, spaces, art and flowers, but in practice I am a photographer, a designer, an art director. I don’t see myself fractured between pre- and post-jewelry, but rather, I see the design process as a fluent learning experience. I like to maintain a duality in my work that I call humble decadence, and can basically explain that best by telling you to visualize a man in a tuxedo drinking a 40.
My early education from grade three to twelve, I spent at Cranbrook Kingswood, surrounded by its beauty, the architectural splendor, the landscaping, the art that is its campus—it’s a place I still cherish. I’m thankful I was able to grow in such an inspiring space designed by Eliel Saarinen, a place that reminded me that spaces and their details are an important element of design.
Cranbrook was the birthplace of Midcentury Modern—the idea that an object, a chair, a table, could both be visually appealing and comfortable to use daily. I feel I share this duality in my work, which can be a sculptural piece of jewelry, elegant and simple, humble and decadent.
My formal education is spread across several institutions, College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Columbia College in Chicago, Studio Marangoni in Firenze, UCLA, FIT in New York. My desire for traveling and living in new environments was more important than where I was attending, because the more I could experience, the more I could grow.
What made you want to make jewelry?
Tracing your life backwards gives you a clear picture of the events that shaped who you’ve become, but there is not really a way to see or record this process in the present. So it’s easy to see now what events and people lead me to design, but was a lot more difficult to pinpoint these decisions as they happened.
My mother is a designer—of homes, of objects, of spaces, of food, though nothing specific like a collection—and her entire life she designed exactly what she wanted and nothing more. She comes from a large family of nine, four sisters and four brothers. For Christmas one year, she designed these elegant gold rings for her mother and sisters. I’ve worn hers for the last seven years, and it inspired me to create jewelry—not large, not a collection and not with an intention to sell, but just to create.
How did you start?
My grandmother carries and dresses herself simply and elegantly. She was an activist, a professor, a business owner and mother to nine children. She had a uniform, and I was turned on to the idea of having a uniform from observing her. I imagined spending less energy and brain time on what I was wearing to make space for deeper thoughts and conversations. I started wearing all black to communicate clearly without distraction. An all-black wardrobe isolates your face and your hands, and when speaking, people pay attention to you and not what’s on your body.
This concept and idea of how I wanted to carry myself transferred over into making pieces that were as clean and simple as my black wardrobe, that wouldn’t interfere but enhance.
How has your work evolved over the years?
I am still learning, but it only gets hotter from here.
When and why did you begin working with lucite? What makes lucite special to you?
The simplicity of lucite allows for it to be worn with any outfit during any occasion. I make pieces that don’t just look beautiful on your body; they look beautiful alone on a table or even on a pedestal, too. Lucite is like an empty white gallery that’s waiting to be adorned with an artist’s work.
Besides the lucite pieces, what other items do you carry in your line?
Women’s, men’s, objects, furniture, game boards… Everything and nothing.
What do you strive for with your designs?
Minimal is the ultimate ornament, and that nothing is everything.
Could you tell us about the magazine you create and publish, Glamour Girl?
Glamour Girl is an international portal of raw realities, unedited content, and imperfect beauty portrayed through the eyes and lives of authentic women leading their respective industries. Each issue takes a look behind the curtain of featured artists, raising the bar beyond gender roles within modern society, and, in turn, dismantling fetishized facades and falsified standards of beauty. It is a biannual publication and you can purchase it on our website.
Why did you create it?
I enrolled in a documentary film class at Columbia College with professor Paul D’Amato and at the end of the course we were to put together a book from our chosen theme and images we would collect each week. I welcomed the audience to the beautiful, albeit brief, taken moments in my life. Enter for a minute and enjoy, and take from them whatever you wish. I offer them to you; at no cost. I fell in love with the intimate, tangible nature of a book—its physicality and the ability to digest images and written word more casually and at your own pace. The ability to engage and touch something creates a connection far superior than something on a screen.
What was your collaboration with Virgil Abloh like?
Working with anyone you admire is intimidating. Your hope is that you will be compatible, that you will speak the same language, that you’ll understand one another. Working with Virgil was organic, and messy, filled with run-on sentences, pictures of pictures, long emails and a great learning experience to trust yourself and speak your mind. My mother always told me the squeaky wheel gets the oil, and that no one can read your mind, so if you want something, say so.
What do you think your work has in common with his?
I think we are both weirdos, creating things and redesigning how we see the world.
More info at gisellegatsby.com. Her pieces can be purchased at bygiselle.com and at Tusk in Logan Square.
Glamour Girl is available at: Congruent Space, 1216 West Grand; Kokorokoko, 1323 North Milwaukee; Rider for Life, 1115 West Lake; Tusk, 3205 West Armitage; and Quimby’s, 1854 West North.
Editorial photographed at “Figures of Speech,” Virgil Abloh’s exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art on display until September 22. More information at mcachicago.org.
Art direction: Giselle Gatsby and Isa Giallorenzo
Styling: Laura Gordon
Photography: Alexa Viscius
Hair and makeup: Leanna Ernest (Distinct. Artists)
Models: Maddie Yerkes (MP Management) and Essence Taylor (The Rock Agency)
Styling assistant: Grace Kerpan
Photography assistant: Francesca Guinta
Videographer: Jacquelyn Trezzo (video at newcity.com)
Special thanks to:
Katy O’Malley from the MCA
Jessie Sardina from MP Management
Cathy Reilly from The Distinct Artist Agency
Journalist Isa Giallorenzo was born in São Paulo, Brazil and has elected Chicago as her beloved home since 2009. She runs the street-style blog Chicago Looks and wants to see this town become one of the fashion capitals of the world.