The recent opening of Louis Vuitton’s store on Via Montenapoleone, in Milan, presented an opportunity for showcasing a ‘residential’ style with the detailed characteristics of a luxurious home, and more importantly, paid tribute to the savoir-faire of its ready-to-wear collections as well as the creativity of Louis Vuitton’s Artistic Director since 1997, the inimitable Marc Jacobs, through an exhibition curated by well-known stylist and creative consultant, Katie Grand. Louis Vuitton: The Art of Fashion, at La Triennale di Milano, the iconic Italian design museum, threw into new focus, the world of Louis Vuitton’s ready-to-wear collections, their timelessness and superb craftsmanship.
Grand’s meticulous edit of key pieces from various seasons, put together with her unfailing eye (she has worked closely with Jacobs since 2003 on the styling of fashion shows) has thrown into relief their enduring modernity, since Marc Jacobs presented his first ready-to-wear collection for women, in 1997. Some of that freshness that stays today comes from the intercommunication between fashion and art that Grand’s exhibition effectively underlines. Jacobs also manages to create modern silhouettes and pieces while remaining true to the House’s heritage, even as he draws inspiration from almost every part of the world.
In 1996, Louis Vuitton celebrated the centenary of the Monogram by inviting seven fashion designers (Azzedine Alaia, Helmut Lang, Sybilla, Manolo Blahnik, Isaac Mizrahi, Romeo Gigli and Vivienne Westwood) to reinterpret the Monogram canvas. This was the House’s first step towards fashion. “The results showed us how inspiring the brand’s heritage could be for designers and we also realised that with the right artistic direction, this experiment was worth continuing. It was a risk for Louis Vuitton. The House was doing very well, but every great story requires some risk. Louis Vuitton has always pushed the limits. This is when we realised that moving into ready-to-wear was our next challenge,” says Yves Carcelle, chairman and CEO of Louis Vuitton.
For The Art of Fashion, Louis Vuitton opened the doors of its historic archive to Grand who had access to dresses, bags and accessories of the collections from the first 1998-1999 Fall/Winter season up to the most recent 2011-2012 Fall/Winter season. “The Louis Vuitton archive is phenomenal; it holds pretty much everything they’ve ever done, as well as pieces that never made it through the final edit to the presentation. We thought it would be fun to mix all these amazing pieces and present them on the mannequins,” says Grand. This resulted in 30 symbolic outfits from ‘coiffeuse’ dresses to coats and large skirts. Iconic pieces from over the years were rediscovered. The cashmere mesh jumper from 2000 Fall/Winter was combined with a tulle skirt from 2004 Fall/Winter and the gloves of 2001 Spring/Summer made in collaboration with Stephen Sprouse. The ‘coiffeuse’ dress in silk satin and the Speedy Multicolor created in collaboration with Takashi Murakami from 2003 Spring/Summer were displayed with the cuffs of the last 2011/2012 Spring/Summer collection. These were presented on especially-conceived mannequins, 24 of which carried reproductions of Louis Vuitton’s famous Speedy bags instead of heads. Six other mannequins were made of wood and covered with Louis Vuitton graffiti designed by Stephen Sprouse in orange and pink fluo colours.
Artists form an integral part of Jacobs’ creative vision for Louis Vuitton and give the ready-to-wear collections their particular point of view, as this exhibition reveals. This trend began early on, when Jacobs, installed as Louis Vuitton Artistic Director and looking for a permanent home in Paris, visited an apartment whose tenant was Anglo-French actress and singer, Charlotte Gainsbourg. Jacobs noticed a trunk in the corner of the bedroom which was painted black and where the paint had rubbed off, he could decipher the Louis Vuitton Monogram canvas. It had belonged to Gainsbourg’s late father, songwriter-actor-director, Serge who had applied the paint. Jaccobs found this ‘cool, punky and very anarchic’. It reminded him of one of his favourite works of art, Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q where the artist had painted a moustache on the Mona Lisa. The idea of taking something iconic and defacing it to create something new, appealed to him. Artists Stephen Sprouse, Julie Verhoeven, Takashi Murakami and Richard Prince have all added their vision to Louis Vuitton collections and in turn these collections have paid homage to these artists.
So, what do Louis Vuitton’s iconic luggage and handbags have in common with the ‘little boxy jacket’, the Monogram trench coat, the tweeds and tartans, the fantasy princess gowns and scientifically created travel wear? That they are all entrenched and have their beginnings in tradition. That they charm by a degree of fashion irrelevance and surprise with their intricate finishing touches. That they bring superlative craftsmanship to the table. “You can take any Louis Vuitton dress, it will be as beautiful inside as it is outside. This is, of course, the test traditionally used to gauge whether a garment warrants the status of couture,” says Pietro Beccari, executive vice president of Louis Vuitton. “Louis Vuitton clothing is equally beautiful inside and out. In 2006, the gowns were even sent down the runway inside out,” recalls Françoise Poirier, head seamstress for Louis Vuitton ready-to-wear. What more may a girl ask for?
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