When Louis Vuitton Flaunts

 The first two of the Louis Vuitton consumer exhibitions, simply known as ‘Series’, overlooked our little red dot. Now, Series 3: Past, Present, Future is here, and it’ll ensnare you into the brand’s world of heady luxury. If you’re hooked on the drug of their hype, this one’s for youLV Series 3 Pic 1

Louis Vuitton Series 3 exhibition for autumn/winter 2015 is the epitome of consumer goods posit as art. There’s a good chance you won’t sense it, caught, as you may, in a very persuasive narrative of the brand’s genesis, and what is deemed “iconic”: primarily the trunk, a sizeable suitcase secured by latches. These days, if any of us were to travel with such a capacious case/coffer, we’ll likely be mistaken for moving treasure, or loot! The trunk, however, remains a mascot of sort for the company, and it is this rectangular box of incredible girth and depth that welcomes you to the world of Louis Vuitton.

Everything about the exhibition, described by LV as a “sensorial journey”, is sleek. Even the short ride through the booking for (free) tickets (presumably for crowd control) is smooth and easy-to-navigate. You can do it via the LV website or event booking portal eventbrite.sg, where you’ll be offered e-tickets for either ‘entrance only’ or ‘guided tour’. When you arrive at the exhibition—in an obscure corner of The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands called Crystal Pavilion South, you’ll be greeted by someone at the entrance way, who will show you to the counter where you register. Here, the staff will whip out an iPad and input your name, which appears on the screen instantaneously. Once you’re confirmed, you’ll be given brochures and told to enjoy the exhibition. From here, you’ll be directed into the exhibition proper. What’s amazing is that although we opted for ‘entrance only’ access, we were greeted at every entrance to every gallery (and even at lift and stair landings) and given personal explanation to every exhibit.

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What happened to Series 1 and 2, you may wonder. They went to cities northwards of us. Series 1 for autumn/winter 2014 wooed the urbanites of Shanghai and Tokyo in September last year, while Series 2 for spring/summer 2015 enthralled fans in Los Angeles, Beijing, Seoul, and Rome early this year. Series 3 debuted in London in September, and it now makes a sojourn here. We did not attend the London exhibition, but going by press accounts of it, Singapore’s version, in comparison, seems smaller. London’s Series 3 spanned 13 rooms, ours takes up no more than 9 (including a café). Have they down-scaled it for Southeast Asia’s only stop? No one at the exhibition could say.

Make no mistake, regardless of size, this is a grand exhibition, but, to be sure, it is not in the same breadth and depth as, say, those staged by The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, or anything curated by Harold Koda or Akiko Fukai (of The Kyoto Costume Institute). In fact, Series 3 is not curated by a non-LV/LVMH professional. This is an inside job, which prompts one to ask: is this just a fancy way to sell a brand? That question is pertinent when you consider what Swedish ethnologist Orvar Löfgren called the “catwalk economy”—when runway antics influenced the corporate world. While some may consider Series 3 to be crossing the line of conceit, there’s no negating that Louis Vuitton is large enough, old enough, and far-sighted enough to write its own story and tell all of us about it. And relate it does, catwalk experience et al, with aplomb and visual splendour too.

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The first room, ‘Abstract Title’, where the exhibition begins, is dominated by an LED LV logo the size of giant lotus leaves. According to WWD, creative director Nicholas Ghesquière found it in the archives, and was instantly drawn to it. The beaming attendant was eager to tell us that this was originally the seal of the man himself, Louis Vuitton, and it’s now updated to appeal to a modern audience. All the same, it was just an LV logo to us. Sensing that we were not impressed by the nugget of information, he showed us to the next room.

From a dark space barely lit by an LV logo in red, you’re suddenly in ‘Master Mind’, a room that is walled on all four sides by video screens. The images move quickly and somewhat blindingly, showing models strutting (as if moving along the perimeter of the room), or flashing with collages of LV product images. In the middle, a gigantic white trunk takes its pride of place, the cover suspended above it to reveal what seems like a holographic image of an LV bag levitated. If you look ‘inside’ the trunk, another video screen reveals what are supposed to be Mr Ghesquière’s inspirations. The trunk is so huge that it is doubtful Monsieur Vuitton ever made anything this large for the travelling needs of his customers. If you’re all alone in the room, the solitary trunk is more funereal than surreal.

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Exhibition designer, Es Devlin, the OBE-awarded British stage designer who conceptualised the London 2012 Olympic closing ceremony, and who has been behind Mr Ghesquière’s last three runway shows, clearly relished marrying the old and the familiar to the futuristic. Series 3 has been described as an “immersive” experience. While it’s true that you’re almost completely surrounded by images and objects, and in juxtapositions not quite expected, it’s also true that you’re not quite wrapped up in the lore that is Louis Vuitton. The exhibition is designed to awe, but all the visuals are just that, and you’re only a watching bystander.

The most compelling room to us is ‘Artists Hands’, one floor up. Surrounded, again, by moving video graphics on the walls, five tables are placed in a straight line, one in front of the other. On each table are videos of different artisans at work. The visitor is encouraged to sit at the table (you will be told that that’s the best way to experience the room). Seated, and looking down, you will have the perspective of the artist at work—you become that person, and his hands seem like an extension of your own. It is an effective way to remind consumers that much of Louis Vuitton’s leather goods are made by real hands, not robotic ones.

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Once you’re aroused by the artisanal aspect of the brand, it’s time to move to something that will release dopamine and serotonin: the fashion show. Designer fashion is so synonymous with catwalk presentations that it is inevitable that one will be seen here. In this room, it’s called ‘Infinite Show’. As a staffer explained (after asking if we’ve ever been to “a real fashion show”), “this is designed to give you the feeling that you’re watching a real LV show.” We’re not sure if the realness is discernible. Sure, the double-sided vertical video screens are tall enough to project the models with their real-life height, but this is not a 3-D experience—you do not sense the models walking in front of you.

The room is oddly cold, as in a foyer of a civic building, and after a while, the video screens become repetitive in their flashing, static isolation. It is dark, too, which contradicts the actual presentation in the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris—all bathed in light. The attendant asked us to sit down on the stepped platforms to watch the show. It felt anomalous to be seated, almost to floor level, amid what is essentially a video installation. Did we relive the excitement and wonder that is a Louis Vuitton fashion show? Did we feel like we’re under the oft-cited geodesic dome, built for LV’s catwalk performances? Frankly, no and no. If Tony Stark needed a virtual fashion event in his Mansion to amuse Pepper Potts, this could be it.

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While we’re told that Series 3 showcases Mr Ghesquière’s “creative process and influences” (the entire series, probably), it is also likely that a good part of it is to move merchandise. If not so, why would the next room, ‘Accessories Gallery’, be placed in the path to fashion enlightenment? We thought we had stumbled into a visual merchandising class, or an outsized window display. The most desired LV accessories—displayed on mannequins, all in the likeness of Dutch model Marte Mei van Haaster (Mr Ghesquière’s “muse”, we were informed)—stood out in the whiteness of the room. What’s amazing is, no one stopped us from touching the objects, or taking photographs of them.

In fact, the exhibition is designed to be shared, and photography—which is likely to be selfies for most attendees—is actually encouraged. One of the guides had asked us if we would like to be photographed. This is clearly unlike what goes on in a classic, high-brow exhibition space. Some giggly visitors had themselves shot, draped over a seated Marte Mei van Haaster mannequin, hands all over her school-uniform white body. So in-line with the zeitgeist is the exhibition that it has, unsurprisingly, a hashtag: #lvseries3, which, at the time of this writing, scored 23,415 IG posts (Mediacorp artiste Rebecca Lim’s post alone garnered 8,838 likes). Across all rooms, the guides—not quite docents—are young, chirpy, and eager to expound the values and meaning of Louis Vuitton in fashion as well as popular culture, never mind if they sounded like students who have memorised text to impress their lecturer.

If this is not to enhance brand equity, then LV is in a very generous mood: eager to spend on a temporary exhibition that is designed so that visitors will “be able to feel it”, as CEO Michael Burke was quoted to have said. This is perhaps what chief executive Bernard Arnault meant when he told the media—in 2013 following the announcement that LVMH intended to slow down worldwide expansion—that the company planned to offer customers a more personal relationship.

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The most engaging room to us is the ‘Walk In Wardrobe’. You don’t really saunter into a wardrobe as much as confront a see-through closet. Here, the clothes—pieces from the autumn/winter 2015 collection (some already seen in the store in the same building)—are hung behind clear glass boxes (or trunks, to continue with the LV visual motif) that are juxtaposed to form a large cupboard that Jamie Chua would no doubt approve. We spent the most time here, examining the fascinating details that Mr Ghesquière has incorporated into his designs: many depend less on design acumen than technology and machinery available to the house.

Since this is really about the artisans and their skills, the exhibition wouldn’t be complete without a couple of them engaged in a serious, full-on demonstration, or tell ‘A Tale Of Craftsmanship’. At the reception, we were told not to miss this part of the exhibition, and to ask questions if we had any. We did: we wanted to know what will happen to the bags they were making. We asked if they would be sent to the store to be sold. One of the craftswomen, a forty-something, bespectacled blonde, said in a mixture of English and French, “Non, ce ne sont pas parfaits (No, these are not perfect).” She picked up a piece of canvas on which she was working on and showed us the imperfection: it was warped. She then took a rivet and asked us to have a look at it. We were free to examine anything on the worktop, she said.

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This is the last room of the exhibition, and it is a fitting reminder that at the heart of Louis Vuitton, lies the craftsmanship. But this isn’t the end of the journey. Further ahead, you’ll come to a café. Food to put a period to your visit: Louis Vuitton wants Singaporeans to remember this exhibition! Even if you plan to depart famished and parched, you will not leave empty-handed. Behind the café is a wall of stickers. You’re free to take them: a wall-full to choose from. Is there a restricted number, we wondered. Someone in front of us scored a handful. Question answered. Before we could decide which one we wanted, a gentle voice belonging to an extremely young-looking boy asked if we would like stickers of our initials. He showed us the other side of the wall. There were more! We picked out the letters S, O, T, and D—in the same font as the LV custom monogram service for, say, the Speedy bag. A member of the staff handed the stickers to us, together with a rolled-up poster of the event, and said, “Hope you’ve enjoyed the exhibition.”

Truth be told, we weren’t sure. Perhaps we had expected more, but more is a little too much when Series 3 spanned only the entire season of autumn/winter 2015. While it largely stays true to “celebrating the past, projecting the future”, as Mr Ghesquière told Vogue UK, the exhibition (in retrospect, installation is more apt) would have been more substantial, hence satisfying, if it is not confined to the breadth of one season. Mr Ghesquière has designed for Louis Vuitton since 2013. Sure, it’s not long enough for a retrospective, but it is of adequate length to reveal the minutiae of his craft, no doubt honed at the house of Balenciaga. Yet, Series 3 mostly skims, rather than swoops into the heart of where and how he began. Perhaps the best way to gain more from the exhibition is to view all three of the Series. No serious Harry Potter fan delves into the adventures of the boy wizard from book three—The Prisoner of Azkaban.

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The fashion exhibition as a strategic focus for luxury brands to play up their valuable heritage and boundless creativity has proven to be effective and is likely to continue. In Singapore these past two months, Louis Vuitton Series 3 is not the only exhibition offering free access to creative sanctums. Happening concurrently, and nearby too, is Hermès Leather Forever at the Artscience Museum. The maker of the Birkin bag had previously staged the Gift of Time at the disused Tanjong Pagar Railway Station in 2012. Last year, also at the Artscience Museum, there was Chanel’s The Little Black Jacket, a photographic display of the house’s most iconic item of clothing: less about the garment than the celebrities that endorse it.

The single-brand self-promotion-as-exhibition, although a fairly recent craze, takes its cue from as far back as 1983, from the debut of Diana Vreeland as curator, who orchestrated the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At that time, the exhibition was criticised for glorifying a living designer. In addition, it was thought to benefit the commercial interest of the house, which was becoming a shadow of its success in the Seventies. Ms Vreeland was known to favour and adore and wear the work of YSL, compounding the disdain. The perceived ties to business rather than creativity, too, irked locals when Cartier staged in Beijing’s Palace Museum (home of national treasures, not showcase for commercial merchandise, went the collective grouse) in 2009 Cartier Treasures: King of Jewelers, Jewelers to Kings. This was somewhat ironic considering that the Chinese then were en route to becoming the world’s largest consumers of luxury goods.

LV Series 3 publicity poster

One rather odd omission in Series 3 is the model Fernanda Ly and her unmistakable pink hair. Ms Ly, an Australian-Chinese, co-fronts the exhibition’s communication materials. Her face, with kohled eyes looking pensively at you, is splashed across the Bayfront MRT station leading into The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, as well as at vantage points in the mall. After opening the Louis Vuitton spring/summer 2016 show in March, Ms Lye’s cognoscibility is considerably increased. In a city where her Asian beauty could mean something to many people, her lack of presence in Series 3 is puzzling. Perhaps it is an oversight on the part of the marketing arm of Louis Vuitton, perhaps not. A token representation is sometimes inclusive enough.

Louis Vuitton Series 3 is on at the Crystal Pavilion South, The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands till 23 December. Photos: Jim Sim. Poster: Louis Vuitton