Louis Vuitton doesn't do things by halves. This is the house, after all, that once built a replica steam-train for a 10-minute fashion show, at a purported cost of £5m. Other sets have included carousel horses and a shopping mall-worth of escalators by the contemporary artist Daniel Buren, he of the humbug-striped pillars in Paris's Palais Royal. How to justify the cost? Publicity, chérie: that train show was in 2012, and we're still talking about it.
Louis Vuitton's latest extravagance, however, will last longer than 10 minutes. On Monday an exhibition opens in London (until 18 October). A series of rooms erected behind a modernist façade just outside Somerset House, it's in close proximity to the Royal Courts of Justice (Louis Vuitton loves a trademark, and protects them passionately) and the luxury hotels of the Strand (where its customers stay when passing through London).
Vuitton has titled the exhibition "Series 3"; but rather more evocative is the suffix: "Past, Present, Future". An immersive, multi-sensory experience, using video and photography (of the show and of the season's advertising campaign by photographers Bruce Weber and Juergen Teller), the idea behind the exhibition is simultaneously simple and complex: unpacking the process of creative director Nicolas Ghesquiere's autumn/winter 2015 collection, his third Paris show for the house.
It's interesting, but not unique. Single-brand exhibitions, curated by in-house teams, are something in which fashion companies are increasingly eager to invest time and money. Hermès and Chanel have both staged similar shows in London, while in July Vuitton opened a permanent exhibition space called "La Galerie" in the Paris suburb of Asnières, the location of the Vuitton family home, and an atelier where the label makes made-to-order pieces for private clients.
La Galerie showcases pieces from the Vuitton archives from the past two decades on mannequins. "Series 3", though, is different. For a start, it's about the here and now – OK, it's actually about a show staged back in March (the spring 2016 Vuitton show, which will presumably be the subject of a Series 4 exhibition, will overlap the exhibition, as it is scheduled for 7 October), but the clothes will still be in store.
As the name suggests, it's the third such show – earlier ones debuted in Los Angeles and Tokyo before touring to other cities. Michael Burke, Louis Vuitton's chief executive, said at that first Tokyo exhibit that the shows were about a new way of re-presenting – and, indeed, representing – a collection rather than the traditional rehashing of catwalk shows in varied locations (Vuitton, for instance, restaged that train show in China in the summer of 2012). It's about "transcending" the temporary aspects of the fashion show, and creating something longer lasting.
That's true for Hermès, and for Chanel – both of which, like Vuitton, have rich heritages that are eagerly mined, frequently emphasised, and not that easy for fashion brands to build up. They're an asset – and an asset to be cherished. "We have to have a point of view that's different from everyone else's," Burke says. "You have to have your own message. What's your specific message? What's your point of view?"
It also, of course, has a much wider reach. This show will be seen, up close, by far more than the few hundred who experience Vuitton shows first-hand. The exhibition is open for a month, during which time Vuitton hope tens of thousands will come to witness Ghesquiere's vision, then tell their friends and document it online (of course, the exhibition has a hashtag: #lvseries3).
But at a less commercial level, why stage this show in the first place? What's the motivation behind this expensive and complex endeavour? Louis Vuitton is already the most valuable luxury goods house in the world, according to Forbes. The titles of some of the rooms within Series 3 offer clues: "Artists' hands"; "A tale of craftsmanship"; "Anatomy of le savoir-faire"; there's a focus on craft, on the process behind the clothing rather than the final result, which is glorified – and publicised – by the polished final vision on the catwalk. A Vuitton artisan will be installed mid-exhibition to create the micro-trunk handbags that have become such a hit under Ghesquière, There are also more abstract references, such as a "rain of light" to represent needles; and more direct: 3D-printed "avatars" of models clutching accessories. You can buy, too – a handbag, and T-shirts emblazoned with a graphic designed for the exhibition.
Way back at the start of his Vuitton tenure, I spoke to Ghesquière about his aims for the house. "I'm happy to see innovation and authenticity work together," he told me. "This is Vuitton, for me. To create that harmony between innovation and the craftsmanship." Burke has said much the same: "Louis Vuitton is a 160-year-old lady, and you have to enter into a tango with this institution. You cannot discard it, you have to embrace it. And dance."
Ghesquière is only the second creative director of womenswear, which began in 1997. Part of the role of these exhibitions, thus far launched biannually, is to cement that in the public mind. The previous creative director Marc Jacobs had a pop sensibility – his art-collaboration bags, scribbled with graphics by Stephen Sprouse or Takeshi Murakami, were instantly recognisable. Ghesquière, by contrast, is more cerebral, perhaps more complex.
But, hey, you don't need me to tell you that. Visit this exhibition. Wander through Ghesquiere's mind. And make up your own.
Alexander Fury will be discussing the evolution of Louis Vuitton's fashion identity at the "Series 3" exhibition on 9 October. Book tickets at louisvuitton.co.uk
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