Louis Vuitton Marc Jacobs: A retrospective exhibition about the business of fashion

I have had my mind set on visiting the Louis Vuitton – Marc Jacobs exhibition, currently showing at Paris’ Les Arts Décoratifs – Mode et textile, since it opened its doors in March earlier this year. So when this past weekend a friend suggested that we take a city break in Paris, I could only oblige!

Vuitton, being one of the few luxury maisons that celebrates its heritage by completely integrating it into its communications strategy, was always going to provide a content rich retrospective. I can tell you now, it most certainly does not disappoint!

Curated by Pamela Golbin, whose other works within the fashion sphere have included exhibitions on Vionnet, Lacroix, Valentino, YSL and Balenciaga, this retrospective display is an insightful look into the impact of Louis Vuitton’s and Marc Jacobs’ work on Vuitton as a company and a global brand since its inception in 1854.

Walking into the exhibition, even though my expectations were high given the calibre of the subject matter, in all honesty I was not expecting anything out of the ordinary in terms of a standard retrospective exhibition. It was based on this assumption that I was (pleasantly!) surprised to discover that Pamela Golbin had taken a more analytical approach to this work than your usual ‘take a walk down memory lane’ retrospective. Given my need for cold hard facts and my love to cross-section anything and everything (it’s the accountant in me), I was all too happy to begin pilfering through all that this exhibition promises to teach.

The exhibition was divided into two spaces: one displaying Louis’ era (1854 – 1892) and the upstairs floor displaying Marc’s time as the company’s Creative Director (1997 – present).

On the Louis floor, I was automatically transported into the 1800’s as you were greeted by a charming antique animation playing what seems to be fashion illustrations from the 19th century. This set the tone for the first part of the exhibition as Louis’ story, understandably, is told with a backdrop that is the fashion industry in the late 19th century. What sets this apart from what you would normally see in a retrospective exhibition, for example a standard collage of a designer’s portfolio to date, is how the curator was able to lace Louis’ entrepreneurial spirit and development of his business into the story.

This is a crucial part of the fashion industry that most people forget. At the heart of it all, it must still come down to commercial success.

No profit means no business.

We have witnessed this in more familiar years, especially since 2007’s global financial crisis, with the downturn of well known labels such as Christian Lacroix and more recently Betsey Johnson.

If like me, you are a sucker for information who doesn’t really give a hoot that curiosity killed the cat, then you may already know that it was Louis Vuitton himself who produced the world’s first flat-topped trunk. So those vintage trunks that antique and fashion enthusiasts would scour hundreds of public auctions for? It was actually the invention of none other than the father of one of the most profitable luxury businesses that exist today.

Impressive? Well to my surprise, this was only one of the many acts of innovation which Monsieur Vuitton orchestrated during his time at the helm of his namesake company.

Through this exhibition, I learned Louis had exercised an entrepreneurial spirit that even in today’s business environment would stand on its own merits. For example, the Damier canvas print, which is now very much a part of the brand’s identity, was not just a stroke of luck or an exercise in artistic creativity. In fact, it was a deliberate act of strategic branding to differentiate the Vuitton trunks from the rest of the market, who at the time had already begun to counterfeit the company’s original plain striped trunk covers.

It was also around this era in the late 1800’s that Parisian haute couture began to make its mark internationally. Louis the networker saw this as an invaluable opportunity to grow his business and did so by befriending Charles Frederick Worth, who is widely acknowledged as the Father of Haute Couture. The fashion during these years became very complicated with layers upon layers of attire from undergarments, petticoats and corsets. With a close partnership blooming alongside Worth, Louis’ business gained direct access to the exponentially growing demand for trunks to transport these fashions – which, not so coincidentally, Louis Vuitton Malletier specialised in! In today’s business world, this would be a perfect example of synergy.

Stepping up onto the second floor of the exhibition, you know immediately you are now stepping into Marc’s territory. The second part of the exhibition greets you with a stylised display featuring at least one hundred tv screens. All of these screens display a myriad of scenes which Marc have used as parts of his inspiration boards over the past 15 years that he has spent as Vuitton’s Creative Director. When you take that into account and think back to all the Vuitton seasons produced since 1997 – RTW, Haute Couture, Mens and Womens, understandably it was a case of visual overload, and then some!

In 1997, a young American designer was appointed as Creative Director of a 143 year old French heritage fashion maison. It was an inspired and radical move as within the ten years following his appointment, Marc had quadrupled the company’s profits and promoted the Fashion and Leather Goods sector to become the shining star of LVMH’s (Vuitton’s parent company) portfolio.

Marc’s section of the exhibition was designed so that the viewers were not deprived of the incredible creative contribution that this man has brought to the Vuitton maison; but also so that they could understand the commercial impact that Marc has bought to this luxury powerhouse as it entered the 21st century.

Similar to Louis Vuitton himself, Marc was not afraid to trust his instincts. We all remember when Marc turned the holy LV Monogram into graffiti print; or when he painted cherries and sakura blossoms over it; or the time when Marc sent Kate Moss down a Parisian runway in a fetish-inspired fur vest, cigarette in hand. This impeccable ability to marry both the company’s commercial needs and a fashion house’s requirement for creative evolution came at a crucial time for Vuitton as it was during this period that the concept of globalisation within the business world became an increasingly relevant issue.

The turn into the 21st century gave birth to mainstream internet, which any business textbook will tell you meant greater ease to access international markets. The best example of this was the emergence of blogs and the ability to communicate with likeminded people across the world! For businesses however, this became a double-edged sword.

I could speak for hours on this subject but simply speaking, globalisation opened up new luxury markets to be explored and nurtured (read: additional revenue streams = more money = business growth). At the same time however, it also brought about a plethora of new commercial problems for businesses, enough to fill Carrie Bradshaw’s shoe wardrobe.

Luckily for Louis Vuitton, their bright new recruit understood the perfect balance of commercial acumen and creative genius required for maison Vuitton to remain a relevant company and a viable business.

A perfect example of this was the adorable 2002 collaboration with Takashi Murakami, which to this date has become a lasting relationship with the Japanese artist. From the surface, it is a seemingly appropriate creative partnership resulting in a fresh take of the classic Vuitton products. All innocent, right? Right.

Then again, maybe not.

Globalisation not only introduced new markets, but new cultures – such as the bright Japanese pop culture. For example, it was also around this time that Gwen Stefani introduced her Harajuku Girls entourage to the world. Add to this the fact that Japan is one of the biggest luxury markets in the world, it was the perfect konichiwa into the Japanese luxury market. I have a sneaky suspicion Mr. Jacobs was very much aware of this and I, for one, applaud this absolute stroke of strategic genius.

Next year will mark Marc’s 15 year anniversary at the creative helm of Louis Vuitton. One can only wonder what brilliance will continue to come out of this fashion house, both in terms of commercial and creative success.

The first section of this exhibition was a charming experience, almost humbling, as the viewer is brought down from the skyscraper heights of Louis Vuitton as a shiny, international luxury name to focus on Louis Vuitton, the company and business.

The second part of the exhibition gave an insight into how one inspiring individual was able to complement such an established fashion house and help manoeuvre it into a brand new globalised business environment. In doing so, he raised its commercial and creative relevance to a new level of international appeal without compromising the brand’s carefully cultivated heritage.

Despite all the priceless vintage trunks, the Genesis stories of Louis Vuitton and the development of his company, the 19th century Parisian haute couture, the displays detailing the process of producing a handbag from prototype to final product and the up-close-and-personal displays of some of Marc Jacob’s finest pieces, I have to admit my favourite moment of the whole exhibition was seeing two little French girls hand in hand with their mothers, marvelling at a wall of Louis Vuitton bags past and present.

It was an enlightening moment of observing the work that has been put into shaping this seemingly indestructible fashion maison actually come to life. Through all aspects of the Vuitton culture, the company’s heritage is celebrated – and commercially, it has proven to be a growing success year after year. So we can only ask, what will Louis Vuitton continue to offer to the ever evolving and fickle fashion market? How will it continue to grow with the next generation, such as those little girls so in awe of the shiny bags behind the glass display? I can hardly wait to see.

Louis Vuitton – Marc Jacobs is currently on display at the Les Arts Décoratifs – Mode et textile until September 16, 2012. (107 rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris.)

Photos we sneakily snapped from our gallery visit:

By Heidy Suwidji – a financial accounting analyst and all-round fashionholic, you can catch her keeping one keen eye on the latest fashionably corporate news, and the other on her favourite online shopping sites. Follow her on Twitter at @lolaswij.

1 Comment

  • Amida says:

    Branding. Those companies have built a slow rupttaeion for being the best. They have marketed themselves to the elite. Since we idolize celebrities and icons, we buy into it. The sad part is that celebrities usally don’t even purchase the handbags, accessories etc and they are the ones who can actually afford high priced ticket items. Louis Vuitton items are handmade which make them more costly. They also never go on sale, again marketing them as the leader of the elite. If you have money, a sale is irrelevant.

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