A Louis Vuitton trunk at the airport speaks volumes about its owner. For one thing, they’re probably not bothered about excess baggage charges (no fear of Ryanair restrictions here). For another, they probably won’t buy three copies of The Daily Telegraph in WHSmith just to get the free giant bottles of Buxton water for the flight and the onward journey. And they won’t have a dilemma about whether it’s ok to nick the blankets from the plane on long haul flights or not, because they don’t fly economy.
For over 100 years the LV monogram has stood as a symbol of luxury, privilege and power; Vuitton is seen as the man who invented ‘the art of travel’. Currently led by artistic director Nicholas Ghesquière (formerly of Balenciaga), Louis Vuitton is one of the most recognisable luxury brands in the world. Now a new exhibition in the Strand, London, lets us mere mortals step inside its world, from the historic luggage to the latest fashion campaign shot by Bruce Weber and Juergen Teller. It’s time for an upgrade to first class with Series 3…
Brand Origins: ‘Securely packs the most fragile objects’
Born in 1821, Louis Vuitton came from humble beginnings in the Jura region of France, but took on the journey of his life aged 13, when he walked 292 miles to Paris, alone and in poverty, for a fresh start. There he trained as a box-maker under Monsieur Marechal, working his way up from an apprentice to become the personal box-maker and packer of Eugenie de Montijo, the Empress of France (a.k.a. Mrs. Napoleon Bonaparte) in 1853. A year later he opened his own workshop in Paris.
Vuitton’s luggage empire gradually grew, adapting to the needs of travellers, with stackable flat rectangular boxes for train journeys and trianon canvas trunks instead of leather to give a waterproof and sturdy finish. He died in 1892, but it wasn’t until four years later that the distinctive LV canvas monogram print was introduced, by his son Georges, to make the brand stand out against its imitators. However, none of this basic information is covered in the exhibition (I just like doing research). It’s a shame, as the context adds so much to what’s on show.
“At one time, there were more than 200 trunk makers in Paris alone, and only Vuitton has never gone out of business. Two others have been resurrected since then, and so three exist today, but we were the only one that evolved, and changed, and stayed relevant.” Louis Vuitton CEO Michael Burke, speaking to Vogue
Always in Fashion
Visitors are thrown into the modern LV scene immediately at Series 3, with curved LCD displays of models discussing the catwalk and the clothing. A huge case is suspended in the centre of one room, sliced in half to carry a screen showing Ghesquière’s main influences. Ghesquière uses archived designs to inform his new collections – for example, a photographer’s trunk belonging to philanthropist Albert Kahn inspired Ghesquière’s Petite Malle (little trunk) box clutch bag for Autumn/Winter 2014, which include ‘xxx’ engraving. Kahn wanted his luggage to be recognisable when he claimed it at the end of a trip, so he added an ‘xxx’ in calligraphy.
The Petite Malle was declared ‘fashion’s new “It” bag’ by leading website Fashionista in March 2014. However, pronunciation is key when dropping the name into conversation – Fashionista points out that the similar-sounding petit mal actually means ‘minor seizure’ in French…
The emphasis on breaking down the processes behind the designs leads to the artisans themselves. One room has a laser-driven display, taking the basic flat components of a shoe or bag and showing how the laser-cut sections form the finished 3D shape. Another room, labelled ‘Artists’ Hands’, consists of tables covered in video screens, each carrying a close cropped bird’s-eye-view video of staff at work in real time, cutting patterns, sewing or sealing fixtures for the Petite Malle or the Dora bag.
Meeting the makers in person is a highlight. Two ladies sit diligently assembling LV box bags, complete with a puzzling assortment of fixtures and fittings. Willowy suited assistants offer to translate your questions to the ladies, giving you a chance to access their skills. I learn it takes only 3-6 months to complete their specialist training, and the woman I speak to has spent five years working for the company. It’s refreshing to actually see the everyday people behind the designer, because these products don’t make themselves. Again, carefully placed cameras project the assembly process, allowing anyone at the back of a crowd to see what’s going on.
The Accessories Gallery pits antique trunks and hat boxes against contemporary pieces held by sculptural 3D casts of model Marte Mei van Haster. A very sturdy cutlery trunk, designed to survive the weird and wonderful conditions explorers might have to cope with, is in good condition. It dates from 1895 and was one of eight pieces bought to keep an explorer’s kit (and plenty of home comforts) intact, by hermetically sealing the goods inside.
Also on display is a low monogrammed canvas trunk belonging to Miss France 1927, and a bespoke trunk designed to fit on half-track cars for journeys across 1920s Africa. These are contrasted with modern belts and bags based on miniature locks and cases.
A PR Masterclass
Aside from linking Ghesquière’s work to the brand’s roots, the whole exhibition is essentially a giant PR exercise, and it’s a roaring success. Free entry equals inclusivity, and the no-holds-barred photo opportunities mean everyone is snapping away on their phones and cameras, then using the hashtag #LVSeries3 to share their favourites. If you went into a designer store and started posing next to the merchandise like a fangirl, you’d annoy the security guards pretty quickly, but anything goes here. You can even reach out to touch some pieces in the final room, including a skirt suit in classic Damier checkerboard.
However, the constant selfie taking does make it hard to actually absorb the exhibition, and I get the feeling many visitors aren’t that interested in how a bag is put together. What they do love is pretending to be on the catwalk next to life-size video screens of top models like Freja Beha Ericsen and Julia Nobis. Those on the guided tour dutifully take a few basic snaps of each item covered, but look relieved when their guide sets them free to wander back to their favourite pieces for a group shot with their friends.
At the end of the exhibition there’s an exclusive cafe where you can sip a soft drink (£5), a coffee (£3), a healthy smoothie (£6) or a glass of champagne (£10-14), but even the cafe tables are topped with mirrors – presumably in case you want to check your reflection before taking a cafe-based selfie. Before you leave the building, assistants hand you two stickers of your choice and an exhibition poster, all promoting the Autumn/Winter 2015 collection. I plump for a space-age trunk, the Boîte Promenade GM Malettage, based on a 50s make-up box, and a classic red handbag, the Twist MM. Whilst most of us won’t be able to afford the real thing any time soon, I have spotted the odd Louboutin-clad visitor who may be looking to expand her designer collection.
The final piece of the PR strategy is a flyer handed out at the exit, with a list of LV’s London stockists should you have money to burn. If there are any attempted bank robberies or fraud schemes in the coming weeks, I’d hazard a guess that a Vuitton fan may be behind them.
Visiting Notes: The Louis Vuitton Series 3 exhibition runs at 180 Strand, London WC2, until 18th October 2015, every day between 10:00-20:00. Entry is free, but you’re advised to book a timed slot via Eventbrite – either choose a general entrance ticket or a guided tour. The nearest Tube stations are Temple or Holborn.
An upcoming alternative is the Chanel Mademoiselle Privé exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery, Duke of York’s HQ, King’s Road, London SW3 4RY, from 13th October-1st November 2015, 10:00-18:00 daily and until 22:00 on Wednesdays – free entry.