In Greek mythology yarns often have a strongly symbolic meaning: the three Fates spun, established the length and finally cut the wool yarn standing for the life of men; Theseus entered the Labyrinth where the Minotaur lived, taking a ball of yarn to mark his route; Arachne, a skilled weaver of cloth, challenged Athena to a weaving contest.
His passion for Greek myths brought French knitwear designer Xavier Brisoux to rediscover and reinvent the ancient myth of Achilles. By dipping him in the Styx, his mother Thetis made Achilles invulnerable, but the Trojan war hero ended up being fatally wounded in the spot where she held him from.
Moving from this story Brisoux has developed a larger project called "Achille's Echo" consisting in pieces of knitted armours. One of them will be unveiled tomorrow at the Cité Dentelle Mode Museum of Calais, France.
Dubbed "Ache Healing", a linguistic pun moving from the name of the Greek hero, the design consists in a body armour, a helmet and a pair of gauntlets.
Employing a naturally soft but highly resistant cotton yarn, the French designer created a tightly knit protective shell characterised by a three-dimensional ribbed motif that echoes the lamellar construction of samurai armours, but also hints at an architectural reinterpretation of Madame Grès' pleated designs.
The shapes of the breastplate, cuirass and helmet find instead similarities with the armours donned by the Greek warriors silhouetted on Athenian black-figure vessels.
While each stitch is perfectly executed, careful observers will discover a hole on the back of the design and a knitted texture in a shiny lurex yarn around the shoulder area. These details are the keys to unlock the piece: the former is a physical and metaphorical imperfect invulnerability point hinting at human fragility; the latter represents an embodiment of our weaknesses, conceived as the real treasures in our lives.
The piece is therefore set to inspire people to embrace the dualities in our collective lives: to show our strengths we must indeed accept our weaknesses and wear them proudly like badges of honour.
Through the piece Brisoux also invites visitors to ponder about the many dichotomies hidden in this design: the soft material employed for this piece contrasts with the solid and impenetrable knitted construction; the futuristic shape of some details that call to mind iconic gynoids à la Maria in Fritz Lang's Metropolis and super-hero costumes from famous manga series and comics is juxtaposed to the ancient myth, while women's fragility and sensitivity reveal their strength and power.
"Ache Healing" arrives at Cité Dentelle Mode Museum of Calais with its contradictions, dichotomies, dilemmas and messages and accompanied by a sculpture - "Heel Ache". A collaboration with Isabelle Soum, the sculpture is conceived as an anachronistic relic of a distant future that archaeologists may discover: the knitted piece trapped inside it is inspired by organic elements and geological strata, but calls to mind in its snake-like formation the myth of Erichthonius. The early ruler of Athens was born when a scrap of wool impregnated with Hephaestus' semen seeped into the crevices of the earth; as a baby, Erichthonius was guarded by two snakes.
For "Achille's Echo", Brisoux turned into a modern Hephaestus: like the blacksmith crafted the magnificent armours and weapons of the gods imbued with powers, Brisoux slowly yet relentlessly forges things of beauty and empowerment using not metal but fine yarns, combining in his unique creations traditional hand-made and technologically advanced machine-made processes.
Could you please introduce us to the event at the Cité Dentelle Mode Museum that will feature your works?
Xavier Brisoux: Ten years ago, I took part in a newly launched competition called "Vitrine pour un designer". This was just after I graduated from Central Saint Martins, and just before I decided to launch my own line. At the time, I developed a very personal project to submit to the contest, it was entitled "Paradise LoVst". It was a conceptual collection based on the idea that a paradise only defines itself as such because of the very fact that it is lost. I designed sweaters with parts that would unravel, and therefore change the garment forever, the wearer being unable to recover the former state. This involved the creation of the unknitting technique, which meant a lot for me as it made a new sense of design. My project won the competition. "Vitrine pour un designer" is celebrating this year its 10th anniversary at the Cité Internationale de la Dentelle et de la Mode with a retrospective of the Laureates work, while showing their current designs. It is in this frame that I am presenting this new piece.
Can you take us through the themes and inspirations for the project "Achille's Echo"?
Xavier Brisoux: This new project completes the one I presented in the first edition of "Vitrine pour un designer", showing how I'm pushing the technique to invent a new way of designing, and create new aesthetics. For this collection, the inspiration comes from the ancient Greek myth of Achilles, the Trojan hero who had a hidden vulnerability located in his heel and was killed in battle when an arrow pierced his heel. From there, I decided to create knitted body armours showing fragility. I was interested in the fact that we often think we are invincible and immortal when we are in fact only imperfect humans. We try to hide our weakness, like we try to hide treasures, without realising that they can become our strength, what makes us truly special. I try to symbolise our weaknesses by an opening somewhere on the garment, showing that the armour is not completely protective. Looking back, I realise I have also been inspired by a series of other things going from Madame Grès pleating to early African sculptures, from samurai attire and Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula armour to medullas, organic fractals, and so on. In fact this project is also about endorsing the full scope of inspirations. I try to visit as many exhibitions and document myself as much as time allows me to, so of course I am influenced by what I see. What matters is how to reinvent what you are surrounded by and how you "digest" the society we live in. I think that is the main role of a true designer.
You seem to have poured in this design your fascination with Greek mythology in particular: have you been reading about it?
Xavier Brisoux: Greek mythology is in my veins and has been for as long as I can remember. I was just a child when I started being fascinated by these myths that would bring a candid explanation to the real world: how the winter existed, for instance, because Demeter, goddess of harvests was sad that her daughter Persephone was leaving to spend half the year with her husband Hades. I remember I had a green book featuring these myths and I kept reading it over and over. But I have also been reading American comic books all my life. I am a big fan of the anime Saint Seiya. Besides, I have very recently immersed myself into Norse mythology. I am quite new to this, but all these inspirations reflect in my work. These stories are always inspiring for me because they project a fantasy world where everything is possible. And, for me, when it comes to designing, sky is the limit. I refuse to hear someone telling me that something is not possible. In knitwear everything and anything is possible, as in these tales.
Ancient myths still resonate in our times: in your opinion, in which way does Achilles' story have a connection with our lives?
Xavier Brisoux: It is a story about trying to become something you are not. Trying to achieve the unachievable and the unreachable. We live in a society where you must overachieve to feel you exist and to prove yourself. When it comes to that, as Achilles' myth reminds us all, our pride often anticipates our fall. It is also about social media, and how you always have to look perfect, live an ideal life, spend perfect holidays, have the best food. Not everything is grand, and that is the beauty of life. I guess I cannot understand what people are seeking when they want to appear invincible and perfect. Perfection does not exist and if it did it would be boring.
Do you feel that creating an armour can have a different meaning in our times? For example, do you feel there is a political or social lesson hidden away in this piece?
Xavier Brisoux: This body armour is a complex sort of protection, it lies between a cold shield and a warm cocoon. More than political, I would say it represents the state of the world. You see, as ordinary people we all experience the world and it shows in how we dress as none of us lives in a bubble. Think about war camouflage prints: they are back into fashion and, in a way, they indicate the extreme violence we have been witnessing on many levels - violence towards civilians; social violence, gender, race and sex related violence. Everything seems on the verge of breaking. I suppose I unconsciously mirrored this in my design.
Can you tell us more about the technique you developed for the pieces part of "Achille's Echo"?
Xavier Brisoux: I have developed a very simple yet complex technique in which I mix two ways of knitting. There is some partial knitting involved, where some stitches are knitted while some others are on hold. Although it looks like a rib, it is actually more of a complex jersey. This new way of working involves trial and error: the pieces are very much sculpted as I knit. When I start a design, I do not move from a sketch. I have an idea of the silhouette, the lines, the structure of the garment, but it usually transforms into something else. It is a very organic way of working, where I have to accept mistakes, I have to accept the time it takes, and sometimes the failure of a piece I have been developing for 40 to 80 hours. And I might knit a piece, leave it on the side not really knowing what to do with it, come back to it months later and starting a different silhouette than what I had thought initially. It is all new to me, there is a more nonchalant way of working, as I do not start with a precise, set-in-stone design in mind. It is however more ambivalent not knowing what will be the outcome. But it teaches me how to let go of over-control to focus on the perfection of the technique and of the result. In terms of materials, I started off using cashmere to knit the pieces, but the fibre was too delicate for this technique, the weight and the pulling due to partial knitting would make the yarn break. I then tried merino wool and it still did not work, so I went for this soft yet strong pima cotton. The body of the silhouette presented in Calais weights almost 3 Kg on its own. I am currently experimenting with different types of yarn. I have recently found an exquisite cotton that has a finishing that makes it almost as soft as cashmere.
Which is the most challenging aspect of this technique?
Xavier Brisoux: The most difficult aspect was actually establishing the technique itself, and accepting that things would require constant patience and a high level of dedication to make things as perfect as possible. Now that this is set, the excitement of designing takes over the time consuming monomaniac process - I sometimes feel like in a trance while creating the pieces!
This new technique seems to take knitwear to a new level: in your opinion, can knitwear be Haute Couture?
Xavier Brisoux: There does not exist an actual word for what I am trying to do: Haute Maille (High Knitwear, in French) does not sound very poetic, but that is what I intend to do. I would love knitting to be recognised as a métier d'art, an art profession in the most noble sense. I want to have these pieces made for people who are willing to wait a year for the knit to be delivered. I want to bring back expectation, something that we have lost in fashion as we are overfed by catwalk shows and fashion weeks every other day. Monsieur Azzedine Alaïa has always been out of this seasonal rhythm that does not make any sense anymore. Creation takes time, we should all allow inspiration to come and be satisfied with what we buy instead of overbuying bad quality and poorly designed collections. Monsieur Alaïa is for me proof that knitwear can and shall be Haute Couture. His exhibition at Rome's Villa Borghese among the statues representing Latin and Greek heroes was just astonishing. Another example of a Haute Couture approach in knitwear is Sandra Backlund - every piece she makes is unique. Haute Couture is a label: maybe it is about time that an organisation established such a definition for knitwear too.
Can knitwear be conceptual as well?
Xavier Brisoux: Both my "Paradise LoVst" and "Achille's Echo" project prove so, I hope! Just as woven garments can be made for exceptional occasions, so can knits: I would love for the pieces from "Achille's Echo" to go to performers, modern dancers, conceptual artists. But, ultimately, I hope they shows that knitwear can be another possible medium to create art, without sounding pretentious.
Which contrasts and dichotomies do you prefer to explore in your work?
Xavier Brisoux: First of all, paradoxes and contradictions should be seen as interesting features rather than inconsistencies. I claim the right to change my mind. That proves that we evolve, and without evolution, a society dies. Having said that, in this particular project, the work embraces dualities such as the softness of knitwear colliding with the strength of a body armour, the apparent invincibility hiding fragility, a futuristic look contrasting with the great myths and historical references, the challenge of technology through hand-craft, the alien feeling contrasted by the organic shapes.
Your armour is displayed at the Cité Internationale de la Dentelle et de la Mode of Calais together with a sculpture in acrylic made with Isabelle Soum, is this the first time you work with another artist?
Xavier Brisoux: The collaboration with Isabelle Soum just seemed natural when I met her. At the very beginning of this project, even as a preface, I had decided that my collections would always be about working with someone else. The work of someone else can only make collections stronger. I even thought of giving my collection to artists and ask them to do whatever they wanted with it. I had made a list of people I wanted to collaborate with. But things got delayed and never really happened until I met Isabelle. She has understood the mood behind the work straight away and has enriched it with her personal touch. She is a very sensitive person, and we decided upon creating abstract knit and resin sculptures.
The sculpture seems to be linked again with Ancient Greece and with art, while at the same time the knitted piece trapped in the acrylic looks like something alien: what were the inspirations for this piece?
Xavier Brisoux: I imagined this piece in collaboration with Isabelle as the fantasy of an archaeologist of the future - not from the future, of the future. Someone that would dig fossils encrusted in the future. Another example of the dichotomy I am exploring here with a sense of time overlapping, a sort of un-linear reading.
If you could compare yourself to a character out of myths and legends who would you compare yourself to?
Xavier Brisoux: When I am in the process of knitting, I have a lot of time to think, and I imagine myself as the Hephaestus of knitwear! Forging delicate and inoffensive weapons and armours for modern gods, amazons and warriors. Hephaestus was born deformed and his unpleasant appearance meant he was cast out of heaven by his parents when they noticed he was imperfect. But he became the workman of the immortals and threw himself into his work with all his passion. He was fond of Athena, the goddess of battles and wars, and I guess he wanted to please her. The exceptional quality and strength of his work would contrast with his seen-as-imperfect appearance. This project also came out of the frustration I had with the fashion cycle. Creating for the sake of it every season did not make sense any more. So I decided to hide away and let the work speak for itself.
Who would you like to wear this piece? Which singer and celebrity do you think embodies the virtues of your armor?
Xavier Brisoux: I am really not interested in getting promoted by celebrities. It is a world I live far away from. Fashion is worn by famous people, but for me that is no justification of any talent. Having said that, there is one person that totally corresponds to this project, and it is the singer Björk. She has it all, the constant reinvention, the strong and very thought-through work, a sense of independence, poetry and fantasised worlds. I respect her so much, and I am very fond of her music. Her album "Medulla" is perfect for me to knit!
"Ache Healing" and "Heel Ache", part of the "Achille's Echo" project by Xavier Brisoux, will be on display in the "Vitrine pour un designer" installation at the Cité Dentelle Mode Museum of Calais, France, from 5th March 2017 to 11th March 2018.
Image credits for this post
All images in this post courtesy of Xavier Brisoux, Mathieu Drouet and Isabelle Soum
Images 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 16, 17, 20 and 21: "Ache Healing" by Xavier Brisoux; Knitted body armour (breastplate and shoulder piece), helmet and gauntlets, 2017. Photographs © Isabelle Soum
6, 7, 18 and 19: "Heel Ache" by Xavier Brisoux and Isabelle Soum; Knitted yarn piece immersed in acrylic, 2017. Photographs © Isabelle Soum
8: "Paradise LoVst" by Xavier Brisoux. Photograph © Sebastien Demilly
10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15: Designs from the "Achille's Echo" project by Xavier Brisoux. Photographs © Mathieu Drouet