by Gigi Aea
In the spring of 1996, Gigi Aea designed and produced his first hand-painted jacket that was featured in the Metropolitan Museum Fashion Gala, and is still housed in its permanent collection. But the Gigi Aea story begins far away, in a land that juxtaposes European and Asian influences – Georgia, an ancient land formed in 13th century BC.
Gigi was born into a family of three generations of artists. His great-grandfather Alexander Ronishvili was the first pioneer of photography in Georgia and one of the great benefactors of his time, opening multiple schools, hospitals and universities. He photographed everyone from kings to paupers. The astonishing and distinctive life that he led ended dramatically, murdered at the age of 50, poisoned by his rival who also burned down his studio, destroying much of Ronishvilli’s work. The remaining works are housed in the Georgian National Museum and the family collection.
Gigi’s grandfather Giorgi “Gogi” Ronishvili was Gigi’s first and most important teacher and his guide into the world of art. An accomplished cubist painter and creative director of the Georgian children’s magazine “Dila”, he taught Gigi the essentials of drawing and color relationships, while also encouraging experimentation and the development of a unique style. Gigi’s memories of his grandfather are that he was very gentle but very resolute.
European art training starts at the earliest age. Being an artist was never a conscious decision for Gigi, it was more like an end result to the life he led. Having no choice in the matter was like having to breathe to stay alive. There was art created everywhere he looked. Monica, Gigi’s grandmother, was a ballerina and a dance teacher at the Theatrical University. She often danced in the house. Her every act was a performance, her every step a dance. Gogi and Gigi often painted together in the loft studio and Gigi observed and learned every one of his grandfather’s masterful strokes of the brush whether in the colorful city rooftops or intricate cubist paintings unique to his style that appeared as if looking through the angled prism of glass.
In his grandfather’s studio Gigi learned valuable lessons in the way that perspective is built, from masters like Vermeer, and the way it is destroyed, from masters like Matisse. He studied the color palettes of the Impressionists and the colorless Zenga paintings of Japanese masters that influenced the Abstract Expressionists so much. But through all his study and all his work he approached each painting with the fresh, wondrous eyes of a marveled child experiencing the world for the first time, perhaps because becoming a painter was never a decision or a choice, but rather a condition of floating full of sensations and imagery.
In 2014 Gigi’s homage to his grandfather was to organize and co-curate a posthumous show of most of his work at the Georgian National Museum of Art. It was an extremely successful, well-attended and televised event.
Gigi’s father, Nodar Gaprindashvilli was a well-respected portrait painter and a theater stage designer for a number of premier theaters in the Soviet Union. In his father’s studio Gigi learned the harshness of the life of an artist and prepared for the Academy of Arts exams. Gigi was expected to dutifully accept his student responsibilities as an apprentice in his father’s studio. His tasks ranged from cleaning the floors to repairing the skylight and cooking for his father and his friends.
In his grandfather’s studio he was a protégé. In his father’s studio he was a servant. Both lessons have served him well.
Gigi was deeply influenced by American culture from his introduction to the Blues and Rock’n’Roll to Abstract Expressionism, and always dreamed of coming to New York, to experience the hub of raw creative energy.
After attending and graduating art schools in Tbilisi, Georgia and Bremen, Germany, Gigi embarked on his long-awaited journey to New York City with $500 in his pocket and his portfolio of paintings. The paintings, unfortunately, were stolen in the Berlin airport right before his flight. He arrived in New York without any English language skills, job prospects, or work visa. His $500 dollars were stolen from him by a street hustler in an apartment deal that didn’t exist.
Broke and hungry, Gigi relied on the kindness of his childhood friend from Georgia, Agassi, who lent him some money to get a basement apartment in the furthest corner of “bumfuck” Queens. Agassi had emigrated 5 years before and was employed as a fashion designer for Mary McFadden Haute Couture. Gigi’s apartment consisted of a mattress and an ugly metal filing closet. Depressed by the hideous environment, Gigi painted the filing cabinet to look like a grained walnut wood closet. His landlord made it his habit to invasively check on what Gigi was up to every day. When he saw the cabinet that Gigi had painted, he liked it so much that he confiscated it right away and took it out of the apartment. Gigi had to carry it out.
Now Gigi only had a mattress. Still without work, Gigi often went hungry for days, relying sometimes on a local pizzeria to give him scraps of unfinished crusts and an occasional lunch from his friend. He needed to find a job, any job. At the end of his options, he applied for work at Moishe’s Movers in Brooklyn, where he was an outcast and only given an opportunity to work on occasion if nobody else showed up. He had two such opportunities. And the last was pivotal.
Down to his last quarter, Gigi called Moishe’s to inquire if there was work the next day and was told to come in at 7am. He was happy to hear this news. However, not having eaten for three days, he doubted his ability to move furniture for eight hours. Gigi then went into a local Korean grocery store and stole a loaf of bread and a small ham with the full intention of repaying the store owner when he got paid. But he was caught in the act and put in the walk-in meat freezer with a 6’5” security guard. Gigi pleaded, in his broken English, with the store owner not to call police, but to no avail. The store owner went to call the police and Gigi thought that would be the end of his American adventure and he’d be deported. Twenty minutes went by and nothing happened. He was still in the meat locker, but the guard had since left. Gigi was in the locker for another twenty minutes. Unable to stand the cold and humiliation any longer he busted out and walked calmly down the aisle past the guard and the store owner onto the street, where to his surprise and delight, there was no police waiting for him. Gigi remembers that in that instant he was overfilled with a love for New York and understood that everyone there, to some degree or another, has been in the same predicament. The generosity of the Korean store owner was but a proof of this.
Now free, he no longer felt hungry but ready to face the next challenge.
The next day he got up early and went to work using his last subway token. It was a long ride from the end of Queens to the end of Brooklyn. He arrived there with full confidence and strength to work and make money, but alas, he was told that he was not needed after all.
Completely destitute and despondent he called his friend Agassi to help him get back home to Queens, to the basement apartment with the tyrannical landlord. What Gigi didn’t know was that fate had something else in mind for him.
All throughout his stay in Queens he kept working on a textile design for the new Mary McFadden collection inspired by Japan. This effort was a test run that Agassi suggested he should try. Gigi was always fascinated and influenced by Asian art, Japanese art in particular. He used Ogata Korin’s screen, The Great Waves of Matsushima, as his inspiration for the jacket he was creating. Without any prior knowledge of the particulars of textile design and Haute Couture, he simply painted as he would paint any original painting, but with restrictions on the dimensions, material’s borders, design arrangement, and location, since the most challenging and fascinating thing about textile design is its transformation of two-dimensional art into three-dimensional applied art. Every one of the waves, drops and color juxtapositions mattered in the final concept of the piece, the way it would sit on the model and appear on the runway.
Gigi was working with borrowed art materials and painting on MaryMcFadden’s luxurious silk organza, with borrowed money and on borrowed time. He gave his hand-painted textile for Mary’s review to Agassi shortly before his work day at Moishe’s in Brooklyn.
On that day while he was stranded and close to tears somewhere in Brooklyn, somewhere in Manhattan Mary wanted him as her next textile designer for the Haute Couture house. Upon returning home to Queens he found out that he was hired for the exclusive position. The next night he made his great escape from the clutches of his oppressive landlord, fitting everything he had in an old lady’s grocery cart and wheeled it down to the Jamaica Van Wyck subway station where he got on the train that took him to Manhattan’s Upper West Side where he spent most of his New York years.
Gigi continued to create for Mary McFadden, finally designing the “Desert Jacket” which was her all-time best seller and featured in the Saks Fifth Avenue book “Obras de Moda.” On the side, Gigi designed for Oscar de la Renta and Donna Karan in New York until his move to London where he worked on a collection with Alexander McQueen.
Today Gigi Aea is running his own Haute Couture textile design company where he takes great care and pride to create hand-painted designs which are printed in Como, Italy. His textiles are used for both interior décor and fashion and are known for their dramatic design and color juxtapositions. The designs are larger than what is commonly done, which creates the sense of being enveloped by the textile and by the world that particular design depicts.
Gigi Aea is represented by the design house of Studio Sofield in N.Y.C. and Leslie Curtis in Camden, Maine.