When the Supreme x Louis Vuitton collaboration was revealed, many jaws hit the floor for a whole host of reasons. For Supreme collectors, this was another lot of items to add to the list of must-haves. For Louis Vuitton devotees, this was yet more proof of the brand’s ability to innovate and stay current. For Louis Vuitton purists, it was a step too far. And for many – myself included – the whole thing brought on a big WTF episode. These two brands were very strange bedfellows and the only thing they seemed to have in common was the fact that they realised that their collaboration would command big bucks. It was also a prime example of the appropriation and ‘mainstreaming ‘ of alternative cultures (but more about that another time).
Before Supreme and before Jeff Koons, Louis Vuitton was all about cachet. And seeing as the “Volez, Voguez, Voyagez – Louis Vuitton” retrospective is currently on in New York – its last stop after Seoul and Tokyo – it was too great an opportunity to pass up whilst I was in town. It took 2 years to curate the retrospective which spreads over 2 storeys and 16 rooms in the Stock Exchange. Throughout the exhibition, you discover a lot about how the brand started and evolved but you also find out about Louis Vuitton the man, his son George Vuitton and his grandson Gaston-Louis. And it’s the human aspect which really makes the exhibition captivating.
The exhibition covers different forms of travel such as automobile, train travel and boats. As travel evolved so did the luggage Louis Vuitton created for its customers which shows that adaptation and change have always been part of its DNA. As well as the wide array of trunks, bags and cases that one would expect to see, there are also documents which give visitors an insight into the Vuittons’ lives and the close relationship they entertained with their clients (each client’s orders and pieces were meticulously recorded). At times, they even travelled with their clients so as to be able to craft the luggage best suited to their needs.
Yet more evidence of the brand’s adaptability comes in the form of one-off pieces made on request (such as an exquisite tea set) and commissioned pieces like the bright personalised multicoloured trunk made for artist Cindy Sherman. The portable makeup studio was inspired by her pet parrot. Film aficionados will recognise the animal embossed trunks which featured in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited. Other standout pieces include a trunk made for the Romanovs, 20 sets made for the Woolworth family (which reportedly took 60 crocodiles to make), a trunk/ secretaire made for Walt Disney’s Fantasia composer Leopold Stokowski. The Louis Vuitton x Damien Hirst Butterfly trunk is also a treat.
And of course, the numerous collaborations , from Stephen Sprouse to THAT Supreme collection featuring a skateboard in an LV trunk which has problably been Instagrammed more times than that board has been ridden. The Jeff Koons collaboration which raised quite a few disapproving eyebrows with the words “cheap”, “tacky” and “nasty” being bandied about, also features. Funnily enough, on the day we checked out the exhibition one visitor was carrying a Mona Lisa print and attracted more than a little horrified side-eye.
And that’s what you take away from this retrospective. Even though you might not like all Vuitton, there is no denying its iconic place in Fashion and its ability for renewal and reinvention. And that is exactly why 163 years on, it’s still here at the top of the luxury food chain. Because Louis Vuitton is more than just the LV monogram, it’s an art de vivre.
*Volez, Voguez, Voyagez is on at the American Stock Exchange Building (NY) until January 7th, 2018 at 86 Trinity Place