When Louis Vuitton announced last week that “Series 3″ of the brand’s digital and physical promotion would be held in London during fashion week, I thought back to the event hosted in Paris during haute couture.
We have not yet seen what will appear on display and on screen next month, nor how it will compare with “Series 1” and “2”, which were rolled out first in Asia. But it all adds up to a fresh way of looking at heritage — with respect but also with a contemporary outlook.
Judith Clark, the curator behind the new LV exhibition in the historic home of the Vuitton family at Asnières-sur-Seine in the outskirts of Paris, has some interesting thoughts about breathing new life into the creative past. “It’s about letting an exhibition be restless,” she said, adding a moment later, “and it is not an exhibition, but a ‘Galerie’.”
When I went to see this heritage collection, it was a sunny day, with rain lurking in gathering clouds, and the brightest flowers were not in the garden beds, but in the windowpanes of Louis Vuitton’s Art Nouveau home. It is here that workshops still create the 300 made-to-order trunks each year, and it tells us a lot about the family that has influenced the style of holiday travel.
Standing in this countrified part of the French city, looking at the photographs and sculptures of the moustachioed men who founded a luxury-goods dynasty, I felt part of their world: Louis, who left the family farm in the Jura Mountains, made it to Paris in his teens and found a job as a “trunk packer” to Empress Eugénie. Soon he created his first trunk, founded the Louis Vuitton company in 1854, invented the LV monogram with touches of Japonisme in its flowers, and passed down the family tree his talent to capture a world on the move.
Since the maison — nothing so pushy as a “brand” — was merged into the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) in 1987, its name has been synonymous with luxury. But as I walked into the newly installed private museum, I realised that I was going to meet the First Family of Travel on a grand scale.
The display started with a “Twisted Box” bag in Monogram canvas, leather, wood and brass but with a sculptural tilt. This was designed by Frank Gehry, the architect behind the Fondation Louis Vuitton, the art museum installed in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.
I soon found myself in an era of hat bags and travelling desk tops, of the contents of a dressing table compressed into a red suede box, and a bureau of letters from various members of the Vuitton family, often to famous clients. In the centre was a typewritten letter from current Vuitton designer Nicolas Ghesquière for his first collection in March 2014.
Even before I met with curator Judith Clark, I realised that this new Louis Vuitton permanent gallery was no historical museum. Each set of objects was displayed on poplar wood, used on the frames for all the LV trunks, and placed on platforms with wheels, as though they might quickly move on, change position or find another spot to contemplate their history.
“This show is about containers and also about the void,” said Judith Clark. “There is a positive imprint when we look in the archive, but a lot of the objects that were contained are no longer there. In a way I wanted the whole exhibition to feel unfinished, so the suggestion is of wheels moving bits and pieces around as a kind of puzzle.”
The most significant puzzle is Pateki, a game of wooden cubes created by Gaston-Louis Vuitton in the 1930s, which Clark has taken as a symbolic reference to trunk building and an inspiration for the exhibition’s stenography.
It must have been challenging for the curator to manage the 165,000 documents; 110,000 client records; and 23,000 documents gathered by inveterate collector Gaston-Louis. His passion for archiving included hotel stickers, letters, sketchbooks and invoices and they have provided a detailed history. But displayed with dramatic flair, the objects themselves tell a colourful story.
I began imagining what was once inside this empty luggage, from a grey canvas backpack made in the early days of tourism to a hefty trunk. This imposing piece of “travel furniture” was customised with the name “Paul Poiret” — the 19th-century designer of exotica. Another find was a bustle-shaped bag, known in vulgar parlance as a “bum bag”, made by Vivienne Westwood in 1996. This bag was part of Clark’s research into “the unmentionable”. Where, in those noble trunks, did the maids slip in underwear? There seemed to be no answer to that question and the curator called it “the intimacy of the trunk”.
The face-off between ancient and modern is nothing new in current museum displays. But the effect of the exhibition was as if Clark had distilled the mass of objects and written information connected to Vuitton by reducing it like a fine French sauce.
Then there were the clothes, introduced to the Vuitton repertoire long after the “wig box” of 1964 — a travel object that surprised me. Throughout the exhibition, milliner Stephen Jones had added whimsical hats. But the links to high fashion came with designer Marc Jacobs in 1997. He instigated a series of collaborations with artists, which included the nurses’ costumes inspired by the paintings of Richard Prince, the bold “graffiti” bags by Stephen Sprouse in 2001, the colourful monogram by Takashi Murakami in 2003 and Yayoi Kusama’s signature dots in 2012.
On the gallery’s upper floor, under an arching barn roof made to resemble Vuitton’s adjacent ateliers, fashion pieces are inserted with artistic flourish. I particularly appreciated the whimsical patterns by Julie Verhoeven, which are worked seamlessly into the display.
But even more impressive than designers taking LV into fashion, is how the Vuitton family adapted the contents of their boutiques to address changing times over the years. From the box-like trunks heaved into horse-drawn carriages to the flat-bottom canvas models for ocean liners, the trunks were then moulded into shape for the back of the new-fangled automobile — hence the word “trunk”, the American word for “car boot”.
Clark immersed herself for a year in the archives, including the written material that gave her so much information about the client base and its development. The curator was fascinated, too, by the early advertisements and the complex staging planned for the Paris Expos. She even had a drawing of a Vuitton stand from the 1925 Expo transformed by 3D computer.
This ability to change with the times is the essence of the Vuitton story and I remain convinced that these fragments of history on wheels are destined to travel away from Asnières, to make their own journeys around the world — and back again.
As things are now, the gallery may one day be open to the public on certain days, but this decision has not yet been announced. Meanwhile, the “Series 3” LV exhibition opens in London in September, following the “Series 1” show for A/W 2014 in Shanghai and the “Series 2” for S/S 2015, which travelled from Los Angeles to Beijing, Rome and Seoul. The London event will be a digitally savvy promotional tool that shares the Vuitton experience and the creative steps behind the show across the world via interactive social media.