Trunk Show: When Louis Vuitton Flaunts, Again

In 2015, Louis Vuitton showed us what they were made of through the exhibition Series 3: Past, Present, Future at Marina Bay Sands. They are back with another free exhibition; this time, with just 200 trunks

Two major-events are marked on Louis Vuitton’s global marketing calendar this month: the pop-up highlighting Virgil Abloh’s last men’s pre-fall collection in Soho, New York and the travelling show 200 Trunks, 200 Visionaries: The Exhibition, now on at Marina Bay Sands. One is to honour the brand’s most adored menswear designer and, concurrently, sell more merchandise; the other to commemorate the founder of the maison’s 200th birthday and peddle memorabilia in the form of books and notebooks. Fans of Mr Abloh would be disappointed that their hero is not getting freestanding retail salute here, but those who love free exhibitions would be delighted to visit this pop-culture homage to what is essentially an unaffordable piece of luggage, used only by those who traveled a certain way, (mostly) back in the day.

In keeping with the theme, the exhibition is housed in a purpose-built, literal pop-up in the shape of a ‘trunk’ that, in other settings, would be considered a veritable shoebox. It sits on the Event Plaza of the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, outside the Collyer Quay/Downtown Core-facing entrance of the luxury mall, as the bigger neighbour of the dome that is the Apple Store. The blockishness stands as an effective counterpoint to the mall’s curvilinear façade that forms the backdrop, but is in line with LV’s own hard-edge Island Maison, a pebble’s throw away. Our island is the exhibition’s first international stop after debuting in Asnieres, France, at the Vuitton family home last December. When we arrived at the exhibition site last Friday, just before sundown, a disheartening queue was seen outside. Many people not in line were milling around the building, enthusiastically taking selfies/wefies as if they had just met a Kaws installation.

The second exhibit at the entranceway where a compulsory briefing is conducted

The first room, apparently also known as the “briefing room”

Although we had scored a ticket online, as well as a time slot, we decided to give the exhibition a miss. Sure, all of us were now told that social distancing “is no longer required in mask-on situations”, but we weren’t exactly drawn to a scene with a throng that appeared unconcerned by a still-raging pandemic. A blond, United College type—with the top edge of his mask sitting above his lower lip—was shouting to his friends standing near the water’s edge: “come on, it’s free!” We were told by one of the young crowd controllers that those without tickets were allowed to view the exhibition too, which, we assumed, boosted the sizeable crowd. The guy assured us that we would be given priority to enter, but we decided to come back.

And return we did. This Monday afternoon. But you would not have guessed that it was the start of the week. While the turn out was discernibly smaller than three days earlier, it was by no means insignificant. Again, we made sure to secure our e-tickets (sent to us via email), but, again, it was not absolutely necessary. When we arrived, there was a short queue at the entrance, including another adjacent line for those who just walked up to the site. In front of us was a trio of aunties, seemingly enjoying an excursion that could have been organised by their neighbourhood community club. They were visually at odds with the twentysomethings, either totting an LV bag or shod in LV sneakers.

The Warehouse (top and bottom): trunks stacked up

The waiting was surprisingly quite short. We asked one of the staffers how long we would need to finish the exhibition, and she told us that it would not take longer than 30 minutes. When we got in, we were told that we had to be “briefed”. Standing in front of two trunks—one like a dismantled coffin (by Italian architect Gsetano Pesce), the other opened to reveal a pop-out bricked birthday cake by Lego—and the adolescent chap conducting the briefing, we were reminded “not to mask off” and “not to touch the exhibits”. And then we were shown a door to his left, held ajar by another young fellow. Inside, the first room, it was dark, with a lightbox of a trunk sitting in the middle. The roughly ten people in here were all scrambling to take selfies, even when the lights were low. On all four walls, multiple texts were projected on them, among the words, three appearing together were extremely familiar: “past, present, future”.

In 2015, Louis Vuitton held their first large-scale exhibition here, also at MBS. It was called Series 3: Past, Present, Future. And part of that exhibition was also a room in which a trunk was placed in the centre. Only now, this trunk was not split lengthwise, and its content not made known. Series 3 was broader in scope as it showed significantly more of what the maison was skilled at, including actual pieces of RTW for close inspection. This time, the focus is on one item—the trunk, a piece of luggage that may be synonymous with LV, but not with modern travel. That one-item theme, in fact, recalled Chanel’s The Little Black Jacket in 2013, held in same area, down at the Art Science Museum. Although Chanel’s was really a photo exhibition of the works of Karl Lagerfeld (collectively, a massive advertising work), the idea was somewhat similar—how many ways can you reimagine one classic fashion item?

The Dreamscape (top and bottom): the weird and downright macabre are here

This exhibition is clearly designed with mass appeal in mind, just as much of LV’s merchandise is. While the contributors (not everyone is an artist or a designer) were, according to LV, “offered the trunk in its purest state, stripped of all trimmings, as a metaphorical blank canvas or vessel”, not all participants returned them in a recognisable state. Some are not even reimagined as a trunk, such as Anglo-Brazilian interior/furniture designer Hamrei’s two side tables. Or French costume designer Charlie Le Mindu’s “yoyo” made with human hair! But it was when we came face to face with Nigo’s take, wrapped in just olive-coloured canvas (“inspired by furoshiki, the Japanese art of cloth wrapping”, the Kenzo designer said), with the LV logo on one side, that we thought of the Mickey Mouse exhibition, Mickey ‘Go Local’, at Raffles City in 2018: Anything goes.

Throughout the exhibition, the moniker ‘Louis’ appears repeatedly. It is possible that many visitors are aware that LV is the initials of a real person, but are we so familiar with the eponymous founder of the label that we would refer to him on first-name basis? In fact, the exhibition is dubbed “Louis 200”, as if the man’s name has the same ring as Rihanna. Ironically, there is almost nothing to help us better acquaint ourselves with the Frenchman, who left behind only one portrait and “whose story we know only from folklore”, as LV lets on in the preface of the exhibition’s accompanying book Louis 200. This was about an inanimate object, rather than a person who once lived.

The exhibition is zoned into five ‘rooms’. At the first, we were told by a staffer that this was the “briefing room” even when the briefing was conducted at the foyer prior to entering this space. When we were shown the next room, The Warehouse, we asked one of the guides the reason behind the name, and she told us enthusiastically: “The visionaries create the trunks from scratch here.” Why not ‘The Workshop’ then? The largest number of trunks appears to be housed in this tight confine, stacked as they would be in a warehouse. Or, could this be a tomb since some of the boxes look like ossuaries? The more atmospheric space is The Dreamscape, a darker area where the exhibits are more whimsical, such as balloon artist Robert Moy’s trunk made of small “latex balloons covered in 14 coats of resin” or dead serious, such as creative director Ben Ditto’s plastic-wrapped trunk with the label ‘Infectious Waste’, going back to the cholera epidemic of the 19th century to say something of the COVID pandemic of present.

But the most popular—and the brightest—room has to be the one singular space dedicated to the biggest boy band of today: Bangtan Sonyeondan, better known as BTS, whose members often wear LV, such as at the recent Grammys. As we approached that room, we saw visitors waiting outside and wondered why. It soon became clear: It was packed. Within the space, much smaller than Jamie Chua’s walk-in wardrobe, excited female fans were scribbling on the window-facing white wall, decorated with the cartoon avatars of the band members, flanked by two with facsimiles of the drawings and scribbles that appear on their trunk, which is placed in a portrait orientation, like a headstone.

The commemorative book available at the exhibition

The last room, the only other dedicated to one contributor, houses British DJ and music impresario Benji B’s (hence, the Benji B Room) trunk, in which he had a jukebox squeezed into it. A guy stands next to it to introduce the work, including “all the songs (the DJ) has used in the Louis Vuitton shows”. This is the only “interactive” exhibit in the whole event: You can choose a track to play. We, however, did not. The giggling girls from the previous room, opening the door repeatedly to get in, got to us. Outside, we were back to where we began, less than 15 minutes ago. People were crowding around a desk, on which books related to LV and the brand’s guide to cities were up for grab. It looked more like feeding than buying time. We asked a sales assistant if there were any LV merchandise and was told to go to the store. As we turned towards the door, she said chirpily, pointing to a waist-high container with rolled-up paper in it, “Take a poster. It’s free.”

Outside, back to the heat, the three aunties who were in the queue with us earlier were organising themselves to have photographs of two of them taken by the third. They unrolled the free posters, each holding one, and posed. A security staffer suggested that they take off their mask, to which they acted immediately. Their smiles were all Liu Ling Ling-wide and the photographer was delighted. At the holding area, where queues formed, the crowd did not appear larger than what we saw earlier. While waiting to enter, we asked the crowd controller: how many visitors are permitted inside each time? “Two hundred or 240, if you include the staff),” she informed us. As we now searched the entrance to re-enter MBS, we spotted a uniform-clad Louis 200 crew approaching people walking past the al fresco bar Le Noir. She asked them, with the spirit of a flag day kid, “Want to go to the Louis Vuitton exhibition?“ In olden days, we remember, that would be considered touting.

200 Trunks, 200 Visionaries: the Exhibition runs till 27 April 2022 before travelling to Beijing next. Reserve your tickets here. Photos: Chin Both Kay

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