The “Louis Vuitton Marc Jacobs” exhibition at Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs sprawls over two floors with the accomplishments of each man receiving equal square footage. But it is hard for a glass vitrine filled with wood-framed trunks wrapped in frayed waxed canvas to compete with a Kate Moss mannequin—her head replaced by that of a snarling panther—wearing a French maid ensemble of Jacobs’s design and posed on all fours.
Jacobs and his work are the stars of this exhibition.
The goal of “Louis Vuitton Marc Jacobs” is not to tell a chronological story of how the LV monogram became a status symbol and how Jacobs transformed a luggage and handbag house into a fashion brand. Instead, it is meant to offer an impressionistic exploration of each man’s “ah-ha” moments of inspiration and the ways in which they were connected.
Louis Vuitton, who grew up in the Jura region of France, came to Paris as a young man, and established himself as a “packager” in the mid-1800s. He made trunks for an increasingly mobile population, distinguishing himself by creating versions that were lightweight and water-resistant. It could be argued that businesswise, Vuitton came of age in 1854, which was, according to the exhibition, the era of the crinoline. Due to its popularity and bulk, it expanded a woman’s luggage needs. Vuitton wisely associated himself with Charles Frederick Worth, the father of haute couture, and he promoted himself as a “specialist in packing fashion.” Lest anyone wonder how fashion trunks could be the basis of this now global enterprise, one of the museum galleries displays the group of trunks that one well-dressed woman would require for a modest journey. Thirty trunks—constructed to house everything from crinolines and corsets, to dresses and millinery—are piled high.
That direct connection between fashion, culture, and commerce is the most persuasive argument for a critical exploration of Louis Vuitton. And one wishes there were more instances when that relationship registered with such clarity. Lacking those connections, there are times when the Vuitton portion of the exhibition feels more like a straightforward tour through the company’s archives—a place that houses all manner of one-trick trunks that unfold into a bed or that function as a fully outfitted toiletry kit.
Vuitton was a skilled marketer, businessman, and craftsman. He sensed coming cultural shifts. He was savvy about creating and trade-marking monograms and fabrics. (The most famous of those markings—the LV monogram—was created by his son, George Vuitton, in 1896, four years after his father died.) And at the great industrial exhibitions of the day, he displayed only those products that were available for purchase—never the heady concepts and showpieces that his competitors often showed.
Vuitton knew how to build a brand and stoke desires for status. But his product’s allure was not in its great beauty but in what its use symbolized. Inside its protective walls lay rarified couture; owning Vuitton trunks by the dozen was a sign of one’s full participation in the industrial age of travel.
But while these trunks are aesthetically pleasing, they simply cannot compete with the Technicolor explosion of audacity that flies from the imagination of Jacobs.
The rainy Paris evening of the exhibition’s opening, guests lingered in the museum’s foyer to admire young women in white Louis Vuitton lace dresses posed on a grand staircase and slowly cooling themselves with marabou fans. They clustered around waiters offering glasses of champagne.
But they moved briskly through the galleries of trunks.
They did not slow down and once again linger until they entered Jacobs’s world, which was introduced by a wall of video monitors flashing a chaotic puzzle of images ranging from bits of Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.
Jacobs’s voice can be heard—even over the roar of the opening-night crowd filled with editors and designer fans such as Karl Lagerfeld—explaining his thinking on such distinguishing projects as his collaboration with artists Takashi Murakami and Richard Prince. (The voiceovers are in English, but the wall text is in French.) His remarks about his collaboration with Stephen Sprouse are particularly enlightening as he describes how he associated marking up Vuitton bags with graffiti with Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q., which depicts the Mona Lisa with a mustache. Jacobs saw himself as both rebelling against an icon and also creating a new monogram.
It’s also a pleasure to see examples of Jacobs’ early ready-to-wear for Louis Vuitton, in part because so often pieces from those collections were produced in limited numbers—if at all.
In its presentation, the Jacobs portion of the show is filled with energy, from quirky mannequins with animal heads to the animatronic nurses bidding the viewer farewell.
But the wall of handbags—no matter how relevant they may be to the telling of the tale of a company’s transformation—still exudes commerce at its most basic level. So while Jacobs has brought artistry, visual culture, and a hyper-popism to Louis Vuitton, it remains that which its founder created: a specialist in packing— and packaging—fashion.