Grayson Perry: Working with Louis Vuitton
Exclusive: High fashion meets 'a little girl Margaret Thatcher'. It's a very stylish collaboration
The artist Grayson Perry is resplendent, dressed in a suitably stern, black-lace day suit with boxy jacket and signature short, bouncing skirt over an ivory silk pussy-bow blouse. "This is what I call my art-collector outfit," he says. "It reminds me of those really well-groomed women who want lots of detail. I like a bit of detail.
"It's also a sexy little-girl version of Mrs Thatcher, as near as I'm going to get to a proper suit. A lot of my outfits stand out so strongly – or at least I stand out so strongly in them – that people shout at me from aeroplanes."
On his shoulder he carries a gleaming patent-leather Louis Vuitton bag ("well, it would be wrong not to") that works nicely with shiny Mary Jane shoes. His blunt, honey-blond bob is blow-dried straight and his nails, like any self-respecting lady's, are painted bright red. "I can get it down to an hour to get ready now," he says. "But that's rushing it... I like to take my time."
Perry is one of Britain's most-noted and high-profile artists. A self-proclaimed "transvestite potter from Essex who won the Turner Prize" (in 2003), he is standing in the exhibition space at the fashion label Louis Vuitton's flagship store in London. Along with AlixPartners, Vuitton is the title sponsor of Perry's just-opened British Museum show, The Tomb of The Unknown Craftsman. Perry has worked on an installation for the store which goes on display today to coincide with it.
At its heart is a bespoke trunk, the sort once made by the house's namesake and in which the Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, famously transported her wardrobe – although it's safe to say that Perry's variation on the theme is a rather more idiosyncratic beast.
"My immediate idea was to make an altarpiece to Alan, because he's very much part of the British Museum show," Perry says, speaking of his famous 50-year-old teddy, Alan Measles, who has a "stunt double" named Elton in pride of place on his own shelf, sitting on a miniature golden throne. The real teddy – given to the artist by his parents when he was three-years old – is safely installed at home because he is "too precious to carry around".
Alan/Elton is, in this instance, flanked by two carnation-stuffed pots depicting the bear again and Claire, the alter ego Perry takes on when he dresses as a woman. Elsewhere, the natural cow-hide leather for which Louis Vuitton is known is printed with the type of boldly hued, folkloric figures that inhabit Perry's imaginary world.
"I love a good shrine," Perry says. "And I like the idea of portable shrines. My motorcycle [a customised Harley Davidson called AM1] is a portable shrine as well and this is a sort of riposte to that, which is why it's called LVAM1. I thought what about if you go to Venice or somewhere where you couldn't take your bike? It would be good to have a nice trunk that opened out." With an artist's expansiveness, Perry says he's not sure how long the trunk took to make. But he remembers that when he first travelled to the Louis Vuitton special-orders workshop in the Paris suburb of Asnieres that "it was cold. I think it must have been in January. The workshop is like a laboratory, like an ultra high-tech laboratory, not like a dusty old shed ". He pauses for thought in front of the trunk before adding, deadpan: "It's very big, isn't it? I wonder whether it's actually going to fit through my front door."
Alongside the trunk are the three winning entries to a competition Perry runs each year at Central Saint Martins college, for which some 25 fashion students are commissioned to design him dresses, with the idea that he can carry them around inside it. Now in its eighth year, Perry buys between seven and 10 outfits each time, paying £500 each.
He describes this year's gold prize-winning dress, which he intends to wear to the celebratory dinner at the British Museum, as "very Audrey Hepburn. I feel very red carpet in it, very perfume advert. I quite like the fact that I'm a 50-year-old bloke and that yesterday I was in a workshop assembling sculpture and today I think I'm Nicole Kidman".
The gown was designed by Saint Martins alumnus Morgan Levy and is elegant much in the manner of Hepburn circa Breakfast at Tiffany's and Kidman in director Baz Luhrmann's Christmas advertising campaign for Chanel No 5. But it's safe to say that the enormous penis, complete with ejaculation of pearls, emblazoned on the back of it is unlike anything either would have worn.
"I'm quite a good client because I'll wear anything," Perry says. "One of the definitions of a good outfit for me is that I take a little breath in it before I step out of the door." It says quite something for the powers that be at Louis Vuitton that they have embraced the project, even providing copies of the student outfits on display that have been made to couture standards.
And Perry is not the sole recipient of the house's support. It has also sponsored shows by Tracy Emin and John Stezaker this year. The brand's creative director, Marc Jacobs, has worked with Stephen Sprouse and Takashi Murakami (to name but two) on accessories, all of which have raised its profile and turned out to be profitable, too.
While Perry's relationship with fashion is by no means straightforward – he has spoken in the past of "how bleak the orgasm of purchase actually is" and his work is known to question the validity of the big brand – he appears very happy with this current meeting of worlds for now.
"I quite like it that I've become kind of iconic enough to be referred to in fashion columns," he says. "So people say, it's a bit Grayson Perryish. And, I tell you what, I thought that in the new Marc Jacobs collection for Louis Vuitton my influence was definitely felt."
It's true that the clothing in question – shown in Paris earlier this month and filled, as it was, with the type of fondant-coloured froth that a little girl's dreams are made of – would suit Claire down to the ground.
"Yes, this is a two-way relationship," Perry says. "And I did actually covet a couple of those pastel frocks."
Grayson Perry, 'The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman', is at the British Museum until February 2012; Grayson Perry, Louis Vuitton, 16-20 New Bond Street, W1
Showstoppers: Fashion and the arts
1. Chanel and the Ballets Russes
The world's most prestigious ballet troupe the Ballets Russes – an itinerant company that entertained the crème de la crème in high style between the years of 1909 and 1929 – had a series of fashionable creative partners. During the golden era, the likes of Miro, de Chirico and Picasso designed sets and costumes for its shows, which featured prima ballerina Anna Pavlova. But one of the most notable was Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel who was wooed by manager Sergei Diaghilev to produce costumes for its production of Le Train Bleu, among others. In 2009, current creative director Karl Lagerfeld recreated a tutu for Swan Lake as part of the ENB's Ballets Russes season.
2. Alexander McQueen, ballet and Bosch
Following in Diaghilev's footsteps, Sadler's Wells invited Alexander McQueen to create costumes for the ballet Eonnagata, choreographed by Russell Maliphant and starring Sylvie Guillem, in 2009. McQueen's pieces referenced Louis XV and Japanese kabuki theatre, incorporating elements of his idiosyncratic modern couture methods in costumes the dancers found difficult to wear during the performance but which garnered glowing reviews. Shortly after his death in 2010, McQueen's final designs were presented in Paris, with ornate gowns printed with the allegorical panoramas of medieval painter Hieronymus Bosch.
3. Yves Saint Laurent and Mondrian
YSL's autumn 1965 collection was a homage to the work of Dutch "De Stijl" artist Piet Mondrian, whose colourful block patterns were an early investigation into artistic minimalism during the Twenties and Thirties. Taking Mondrian's flat dimensionality as inspiration, Saint Laurent was interested in transferring the multicoloured geometric planes to a wearable and unrestrictive day dress. After Elsa Schiaparelli's Dali-esque pieces during the Thirties, it was one of the first examples of a fashion designer directly interpreting art.
4. Dior and Anselm Reyle
Earlier this month during the Paris shows, Dior announced its first collaboration with Berlin-based artist Anselm Reyle, whose signature Pantone-bright elements will decorate classic Lady Dior and Miss Dior handbags in the form of triangular charms. The bags are made over in fluoro camouflage print designs.
5. Acne and Daniel Silver
RCA-educated London artist Daniel Silver has just unveiled a collection for Swedish design cooperative ACNE, which is currently on display in the label's Dover Street studios and store. His work is characterised by the use of reclaimed materials.
6. Dries Van Noten and James Reeve
Belgian designer Dries Van Noten practically instigated an art movement all by himself when he burst into the fashion arena in the late Eighties. Painterly prints, exquisite beading and opulent detailing are his forte, but for his spring/summer 2012 collection, Van Noten found inspiration from his time sitting on the judging panel for the 2010 Hyeres photography festival. James Reeve's monochrome cityscapes were digitally manipulated and abstracted on knits, dresses, skirts and coats, to give the images a nostalgic, ghostly quality.
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