French dressing: This season's flirtatious Gallic sensibility
Vive la coquette! At Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs' ultra-flirtatious silhouette and exotic details make for a French fashion moment, says Susannah Frankel
Monday 18 May 2009
We thought a lot about exoticism and really rich, sumptuous summery colours," states Marc Jacobs of his current collection for Louis Vuitton. "Crimsons, clarets, plums, saffrons, curries – hot spicy desert colours."
This is a viewpoint that permeates other designers' offerings as well as Jacobs' own just now. Whether holidaying overseas is on the agenda or not, travel in the spring/summer season is never far from most of our minds. A bronze leather miniskirt on the promenade at Padstow, then? And why not? Fused with this – and in the seamless way in which only this particular fashion talent knows how – is a quintessential and highly flirtatious Gallic sensibility that, it is worth pointing out, will continue to inform designer fashion next season too. In this, as in many things, Jacobs is well ahead of his time.
"We also wanted to do something very sexy, very sophisticated, with a certain attitude that refers to French fashion in times gone by but worn in a very contemporary way," he confirms. With an Edith Piaf soundtrack and models made over as super-charged coquettes there was no mistaking the mood. "I love the idea of this theatricality and these kinds of caricatures that used to be so readily identified in Paris – the Left Bank lady, the 16th arrondissement lady, and so on."
"Remember, Paris is a city where even the meter readers wear high heels," Jacobs told the New York Times fashion critic, Cathy Horyn backstage after the show last October, driving any highly manicured message home.
Jacobs cites as inspiration for this particular mindset his long time colleague Camille Miceli – and it is by no means the first time he has name-checked her as something of a muse. "She always makes me laugh because she comes to work, winter or summer, in a see-through top or skirt and then a blazer or a dress. She's a contemporary girl and her way of dressing influenced the collection as did the exotic cultures that have always been part of the landscape of Paris, be they African or Japanese." Or, in this case, both – and more.
"We didn't do any formal research," the designer continues with this in mind, "I thought of all the clichés that have permeated French culture for so many years. Paris has always welcomed foreign influences, whether it's a review with Josephine Baker, or Grace Jones in the Seventies. I'm fascinated by that and it's what I love about Paris. I guess I see things through the eyes of an American and these exaggerations of cultural and ethnic references come easily to me."
Here's Sarah Mower reviewing the collection on the influential American Vogue website, style.com. "Sexy, saucy, and full-on Parisian, somewhere out of the forties and swizzled up with a dash of glitter and Josephine Baker African razzmatazz – Louis Vuitton came like a cathartic, mood-enhancing cocktail at the end of a long, grinding season."
Although Jacobs is not a designer to ever suggest any political message – instead, the impression is that he finds such analysis distinctly tiresome – there is an apparent make do and mend Great Depression/inter-war sensibility at play here that is impossible to ignore. Of course, Louis Vuitton being Louis Vuitton any homespun qualities are not of the kind you or I, say, might ever actually achieve – this collection is haute with a capital "h' and with prices to match – but a slightly mis-matched colour palette, unexpected trims and the piling on of accessories, oversized costume jewellery, highly embellished footwear and more does have its place. Pendants in particular are guaranteed – just like the apparently eternally covetable Louis Vuitton accessories – to become amongst the most sought after statement pieces of the season. "We invented our own sort of ethnic," Jacobs explains. "We just took very simple geometric shapes and combined them with feathers, resin and wood. By putting certain colours together with certain shapes, you create a perception of something exotic or ethnic." Shoes and bags also reflect an eclectic and proudly maximal aesthetic over and above anything more restrained in nature. "We used lots of passementerie and tassels, resin, wood, beads... We created new fabrics out of lurex and chenille. Instead of ladylike handbags we took shapes like satchels and pouches and hobo bags in order to create a casual feel."
For the monied and/or fashion obsessed woman in the British capital, these as well as more classic Louis Vuitton styles, will be available at the label's new London store in the Westfield Centre, the official opening of which takes place later this week. Located on the ground floor the store will not sell clothing – Louis Vuitton devotees will still have to travel to Knightsbridge or Bond Street for that – but does house sunglasses and leather goods including the classics – Damier and monogrammed canvasses – and every model from the Speedy, Noe, Papillon, Bucket and Lockit to more recent designs including Etoile, Galliera and the rather brilliantly named Neverfull.
It says quite something of the status of the Louis Vuitton brand – still the cash cow of the LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) French luxury goods conglomerate – that it retains such lustre after all these years. True, the too-cool-for-school likes of Charlotte Gainsbourg have been known to paint their brown and gold luggage black – if ever there was a symbol of the luxury of not caring this must surely be it – but for the most part anyone from the ostentatiously wealthy – Victoria Beckham and her WAG progeny, for example – to more restrained British travellers are more than happy to see and be seen carrying it.
Since 1854 Louis Vuitton has offered the super-rich elegant, hard-edged trunks and suitcases, vanity cases and more, as well as a custom-made service to suit madame – or indeed monsieur's – every idiosyncratic requirement. Prices, in this case, only on application, please.
It wasn't until Jacobs arrived on the scene back in 1997, however, that the label attained high-fashion status too. The designer, it almost goes without saying, is no dunsky. His signature label is the toast of le tout New York and perhaps the single most copied name on the British high street. Louis Vuitton, meanwhile, alone with the possible exception of Prada, is unparalleled in its ability to appeal to those more conventional in their approach to luxury and to the more self-consciously fashionable also.
It is not surprising that the corporate powers that be at the French house are far from backwards in coming forwards where the flexing of any well-honed, determinedly luxe muscle is concerned – despite or perhaps even because of the current economic climate. Louis Vuitton avidly collects and sponsors contemporary international fine art and, at Westfield, is offering customers what it describes as "an urban garden presentation" for the benefit of the Hammersmith Community Gardens Association courtesy of artist Jeremy Deller. Deller has commissioned a group of young landscape architects to create a mobile city garden that will spring up in the new store and then be donated as part of the regeneration of the local West London environment.
French Luxury Brand In PC Shock! Of course, there's rather more to it than pure philanthropy. In an age where the world is flooded with hugely expensive and often highly ephemeral products which only very few can afford or even wish to buy, however, such unexpected marketing strategies may well be said to be not only unusually inspirational but also worth considerably more than their weight in gold.
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