It turns out that Mikaïca [mee ka ee ka] is a shop-owner in the street next to mine. She sells used clothing in her dépôt-vente or consignment store. But her shop windows also feature her own expertly knitted creations : hats, scarves, and mitaines, or fingerless gloves, for winter, and sexy swimsuits and knitted Mondrian dresses in summer. How did an Olympic runner end up a creator of knitted clothing ? And what is a Mondrian dress ?
- Chicken and sausage gumbo
The Mondrian dress was designed by Yves Saint Laurent in 1965 : it was a sartorial interpretation of Piet Mondrian’s 1935 painting Composition C (No III). According to Elle magazine, the dress is one of Yves Saint Laurent’s “cult” pieces, along with the women’s smoking (tuxedo) and the saharienne, or sahara jacket. But Saint Laurent wasn’t the only artist to have been inspired by Mondrian’s painting : Lola Prusac, who worked for Hermès, designed a line of color-block handbags in the 1930s.
A master of public relations ?
Even today, Mondrian’s style is everywhere : on shoes, cars, and a White Stripes album cover that was directly inspired by the principles of the de Stijl movement, of which Mondrian was a member. A book by Caitlin Freeman, Modern Art Desserts, shows a perfect Mondrian cake on its cover. And recently, thanks to a David Lebovitz Facebook post, I saw another contemporary interpretation of the style : how Mondrian would plate a Thanksgiving meal. Timely art !
So was Mondrian a master of PR, or a painter ? We’re all familiar with his iconic color-block works, but all I really knew about the guy is that he was from the Netherlands. So who was Piet Mondrian ?
After a little research, I found out that Mondrian fist dabbled in representational styles in his home country, painting - not surprisingly - windmills and landscapes. But he broke out of the mold when he moved to Paris around 1912 (Paris just has that effect on people…) and began painting styles that were influenced by Cubism - his Nature morte au pot de gingembre is a good example.
Cubism was the gateway for Mondrian’s abstract work, which eventually led to his adoption of the de Stijl movement’s precepts : use of pure colors (as opposed to realist color) and non-colors (black, white, and gray), and shapes limited to squares and rectangles.
If you look at a few key paintings, you can clearly see the evolution of Mondrian’s work : from Avond (Evening) ; Red Tree, still slightly realist, to Gray Tree, more abstract. Composition 1917 starts to look more like the style for which Mondrian became most well-known : neo-plasticism.
Neo-plasticism went beyond abstractionism - right into space ! Mondrian was searching for a universal visual language that could express the pure essence of nature and objects. So for him, a minimal vertical shape could represent a real object like a tree or a bell tower. If all this sounds a little esoteric, it’s because it was ! Mondrian’s search for a new visual vocabulary was based on his spiritual beliefs and the “cosmic harmony” of theosophy, and especially anthroposophy, a movement founded by Rudolf Steiner.
If you’ve ever heard of Waldorf Schools or biodynamic wine, you’re already familiar with Rudolf Steiner’s ideas, whose agricultural principles included planting according to the moon’s phases. Students in my wine science class had to answer a quiz question recently about the 3 types of non-conventional farming. One student wrote : “Sustainable, organic, and mystical farming.” That last answer was meant to be bio-dynamic, but I gave the poor guy half credit, since he was half right !
Biodynamic wines have really taken off here in recent years : they’re part of a category of wines we call vin nature in French. Some people swear by these wines for their extremely low sulfites, the preservative that gives you a headache if you happen to drink too much wine the night before. But a hangover is a hangover - the best remedy is not to drink too much. Great advice ! I should take it myself, since I tend to drink certain biodynamic wines without much moderation. The best ones I know come from the Mosse vineyards in the Loire Valley.
But let’s get back to Paris ! By way of Douala, the coastal city in Cameroon, West Africa, where Olympic runner Mikaïca was born. As a girl, Mikaïca said all she knew was her own street and neighborhood, and so she discovered other areas by running to get there. By the time Mikaïca started running professionally, she was already 18, which is pretty darn late for a sportsperson to begin her career ! She knew nothing of competition, but when she got to university, she knew she wanted to study sports science and train to become a physical education teacher.
When she was 27, Mikaïca was invited by the French Institut National du Sport to come train and to develop women’s sports in Paris. Eight hours of training every day and some fast footwork led Mikaïca to the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta in 1996, and Sydney in 2000. After also participating in World Championships in Stuttgart, Gottberg, and Athens, Mikaïca was nearing burn-out : she told me that in the professional sports world, you “talk sports, eat sports, and sleep sports !”
From running to knitting
So Mikaïca changed careers. Her first love was knitting, which she learned as a child from the nuns in her village. She didn’t have the money to buy knitting needles, so she took a couple of spokes from a broken-down bicycle and then bought inexpensive multi-colored threads from the local market from which to fashion her hats and handbags.
One day, she came across a magazine and saw a photo of a shawl, so she knitted one for herself. The next thing she knew, every lady in church wanted the same one, and voilà – she was in business. Now, years later, Mikaïca still works out (but “only” 3 hours a day) and runs a boutique, instead of running laps around her native village. She creates scarves, hats, hoods, those mitaines, and even replicas of the famous Mondrian dress, which she sells on her web site, Mikaïca Créations.
Photo credits : Mondrian dress, courtesy of Mikaïca Créations ; photos in recipe below courtesy of © Matteo Pellegrinuzzi/The Blue Dog