The Venue, Too, Makes It New

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At one time, it was impressive to see a steam locomotive chugging into a fashion presentation. Marc Jacob’s Louis Vuitton autumn/winter 2012 collection was such a show. It’s not surprising that you thought that would be hard to top. Since the ’80s, fashion shows have oftentimes been spectacles, but in the ’00s, they look more like movie sets designed by Hollywood studios. If a train through a station-as-runway wasn’t enough, Karl Lagerfeld opened a Chanel supermarket back in the autumn/winter 2014 and, for last year’s showing of spring/summer 2016, an airport, served only by one carrier: Chanel Airlines, of course.

However spectacular, a fashion venue is traditionally a confined space, even if it’s the palatial Grand Palais in Paris. For even more stunning setting, designers of cash-rich labels are looking beyond the interior of buildings and setting their shows against actual buildings. This month alone, two shows for the cruise 2017 season attempted to outdo each other in the staging stakes with catwalks set in the outdoors of South America, but both are as different as land and sea. Twenty-first century French fashion imperialism saw Chanel in Cuba and Louis Vuitton in Brazil.

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Chanel’s flirting with Cuban exotica may be intoxicating for some, but it is Louis Vuitton’s salute of modernist architecture in Rio de Janeiro that made the Vuitton show striking. Staged at the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, which is situated on a cliff side in the sun-soaked city of Niterói (reputed to be Brazil’s richest city) with the Atlantic Ocean as backdrop, the presentation is a continual expression of designer Nicholas Ghesquière’s love for show-stopping architecture. Last season, it was the equally space-agey former Palm Springs house of Bob Hope designed by American architect John Lautner that set the scene. This time, the flying saucer-like building by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer dwarfed the models and the LV logos, but in the shadow of the towering, it was Louis Vuitton that stood taller.

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Is this luxury brands’ way of saving themselves from waning elitism by showing in faraway locales that many of us would not see ourselves going to in our lifetime? While air travel has brought the world closer, it is long-haul, continent-spanning travels, not regional escapades reachable by low-cost carriers that are are seen as jet-setting. Distant lands with unfamiliar cultures and unexplored attractions—not over-visited Hong Kong—are where the customers of the cruise collections likely seek pleasure. Watching the Louis Vuitton show on YouTube is like watching an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, minus the unrushed, cartoon-like voice of Robin Leach. With drone-aided cameras swooping up and down showing models, building and sea—all distant and unattainable, you begin to wish and dream “champagne wishes and caviar dreams.”

Luxury fashion needs this sense of beyond your reach. For a long time, it has been too accessible, too targeted at the middle-class, and too emphatic on the entry-level. Luxury needs to get back its aspirational value, its only-in-my-dreams appeal. The cruise show, once a poor cousin of prêt-a-porter, has risen in importance and its staging in uncommon locations not only put the clothes in context, they put the awe back in increasingly ho-hum luxury branding.

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It is believed that Karl Lagerfeld was the first to romance far-flung lands when he staged the Fendi autumn/winter show 2007 at the Great Wall of China. Not only did the event boost intercontinental first-class air ticket sales, it improved, more importantly, the brand’s luxury standing. At that time, it was reported that the Italian house paid USD10 million to produce the show, no doubt much to the delight of China’s inland revenue department. Since then, Mr Lagerfeld has presented the Chanel pre-collections in Salzburg, Edinburgh, Shanghai and many more places—yes, they include Singapore in 2013—and each has been headline-grabbing. Cuba, for many, was the icing on the cake.

Chanel in Cuba did, however, spark a cultural backlash for the house. Global capitalism now pouring into socialist Cuba, detractors felt, ignore the country’s widespread poverty to create an artificial glamour that locals can’t consume. French fashion in a socialist nation, in fact, has an antecedent: Dior in Moscow. Back in 1959, Christian Dior, under the stewardship of Yves Saint Laurent, showed in what was then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or USSR. While the new Russian regime at that time welcome Western fashion designers, in particular la mode française, it did so while the country was not in an era of business oligarchs.

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Mr Ghesquière was probably aware of Brazil’s current problems when he chose Rio for LV’s cruise collection. It is difficult to resist the allure of the Americas now that the southern neighbours of the US are drawing world attention, but since Cuba was taken, Brazil made sense as the Summer Olympics Games is heading that way. Mr Ghesquière has always had a love for spaces that are not conducive to standard catwalk shows since he has, from the start at LV, eschewed traditional linear presentations for something more sprawling. Additionally, the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum allowed the show to spread skywards, through the building’s spiralling ramp. As seen in his designs, Mr Ghesquière is adept at spatial manipulation.

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As for the collection, the clothes are looking more in sync with the designer’s own aesthetic. The sportswear details applied in unexpected ways, the abstract cutouts on unlikely places, the leaner silhouette, the modern art references (this time, Brazil’s Helio Oiticica and Aldemir Martins), all point to the Nicholas Ghesquière we love and remember. As he confidently remakes LV’s fashion division started by Marc Jacobs, Mr Ghesquière is creating new codes that are intriguing and, at the same time, unashamedly wearable and seductively fresh. The present cruise line may have nothing intrinsically Brazilian, but, showing in an iconic site is, as he told the media, “a sensorial experience”.

These days, the venue makes the collection new as it makes the news, too.