De­sign

Lux­ury French brand Louis Vuit­ton has had a long love af­fair with the Far East, Chloe Street dis­cov­ers on a visit to Tokyo

Hong Kong Tatler - - Contents -

A trip to Tokyo re­veals Louis Vuit­ton’s long love af­fair with the East

In 1883, two highly in­flu­en­tial Ja­panese politi­cians strolled into Louis Vuit­ton’s store in Paris and or­dered be­spoke trunks. Ita­gaki Taisuke, founder of the Lib­eral Party and home min­is­ter in two gov­ern­ments, chose a clas­sic waterproof waxed, wooden-framed num­ber; Goto Sho­jiro, a sa­mu­rai and also Lib­eral Party founder who served var­i­ously as min­is­ter for com­mu­ni­ca­tions, agri­cul­ture and com­merce, opted for a leather ver­sion. The or­ders, the young brand’s first from Ja­panese cus­tomers, are recorded in beau­ti­fully hand­writ­ten en­tries in one of the com­pany’s ledgers.

Taisuke’s trunk and that ledger fea­ture in Volez, Voguez, Voy­agez—louis Vuit­ton, an ex­hi­bi­tion in the Kioi­cho district of Tokyo, just a short walk from the site where Louis Vuit­ton opened its first Ja­panese store (its fourth after Paris, Nice and Lon­don) in 1978. The show traces the brand’s jour­ney from 1854—when a young Louis Vuit­ton, fol­low­ing an apprenticeship as a box maker and packer, de­cided to es­tab­lish his own busi­ness “to safely pack the most frag­ile ob­jects” and to pro­vide “spe­cial­ity pack­ing for fash­ion”— un­til to­day, a jour­ney in which Ja­panese cul­ture played a sig­nif­i­cant part.

In cu­rat­ing the show, Olivier Sail­lard, di­rec­tor of the Palais Gal­liera in Paris, spent months wad­ing through the mai­son’s ar­chives—a trove of more than 23,000 ob­jects, 165,000 doc­u­ments and 110,000 cus­tomer records—to se­lect the best 600 trunks, ac­ces­sories and doc­u­ments to tell the fas­ci­nat­ing 160-year tale of devel­op­ment from pack­ing com­pany to global fash­ion and ac­ces­sories brand. “I wanted to un­der­stand not only the his­tory of the brand, but also the world the Vuit­tons op­er­ated in,” says the fash­ion his­to­rian, who has pre­vi­ously cre­ated ex­hi­bi­tions on Azze­dine Alaïa, Chris­tian Lacroix and Yo­hji Ya­mamoto, among oth­ers.

The first room of Volez, Voguez, Voy­agez— which had a nine-week run in Paris be­fore trav­el­ling to Ja­pan, where it closes on June 19 and moves to New York—fo­cuses on the devel­op­ment of the flat-topped trunk pi­o­neered by Louis Vuit­ton, con­sid­ered the pro­to­type of mod­ern-day lug­gage. The dis­play fea­tures Louis’ first beige-and-brown stripe, which he ini­ti­ated in 1872 to set his prod­ucts apart from copies of his pop­u­lar flat de­sign, and the tum­bler lock sys­tem de­vel­oped by his son Georges, which al­lowed cus­tomers to open all their bag­gage with a sin­gle, unique key. The fam­ily was clearly very fo­cused on in­no­va­tion. “Louis Vuit­ton was some­one who looked to the fu­ture,” says Robert Carsen, the brain be­hind the ex­hi­bi­tion’s set de­sign and pro­duc­tion. “He was al­ways try­ing to find the new­est and the light­est fab­rics and me­tals. I’m struck by how he wanted to re­new and mod­ernise con­stantly what he was do­ing.”

By the time Sho­jiro and Taisuke bought their be­spoke trunks in 1883, Ja­panese in­flu­ences were well and truly mak­ing their mark in Europe. The con­ti­nent was first ex­posed to the coun­try’s art and cul­ture through the Paris World Fair of 1867, and the pe­riod of Ja­panese in­flu­ence that fol­lowed had a pro­found ef­fect on West­ern cul­ture, post-im­pres­sion­ist French artists in par­tic­u­lar, and would come to be known as Japon­isme.

That in­flu­ence is clear in the mo­tif Georges de­signed in 1896 that be­came the fa­mous Louis Vuit­ton mono­gram—a repet­i­tive

pat­tern of flow­ers, plants and geo­met­ric shapes with the in­ter­laced ini­tials L and V. In his sketches on dis­play at the ex­hi­bi­tion, one can ob­serve how Georges was in­flu­enced by Ja­panese fam­ily crests. The stylised flo­ral mo­tifs that abound in the an­ces­tral heraldic em­blems are very sim­i­lar to the flo­ral shapes Georges drew. “The fa­mous mono­gram is very in­spired by many lit­tle things from Ja­pan,” says Sail­lard. “There was a huge in­ter­est in Ja­pan at this time.”

George’s son Gas­ton-louis, an ob­ses­sive col­lec­tor fas­ci­nated by an­tiques and cu­rios of all prove­nance, also brought Ja­panese in­flu­ences and in­spi­ra­tion to the house. He amassed a size­able se­lec­tion of tsuba— sa­mu­rai sword guards—and one of the most im­pres­sive ar­chives of an­tique trunks in the world, many of which were im­ported from Ja­pan. One can spot the in­flu­ence of these oriental arte­facts per­me­at­ing de­signs—for ex­am­ple, a clearly tsuba-in­spired mo­tif is iden­ti­fi­able on the mir­ror of a 1920s trunk in the ex­hi­bi­tion.

The mai­son’s his­tory is chron­i­cled through 10 themed rooms. The first four high­light the

dif­fer­ent modes of travel—trains, planes, cars and boats—that in­flu­enced the devel­op­ment of the brand. Steamships went into ser­vice in the 1830s, rail­ways in 1848, cars in the 1890s and the first com­mer­cial flight took off in 1914, and the ex­hi­bi­tion demon­strates how each new mode of trans­port af­fected Louis Vuit­ton’s de­signs.

“Ev­ery ob­ject, ev­ery piece of lug­gage Louis in­vented was to make travel pos­si­ble and was very fo­cused,” says Sail­lard. As well as be­ing beau­ti­ful, ev­ery­thing is in­ge­niously prac­ti­cal, from the Steamer bag, ini­tially de­signed to hold dirty laun­dry dur­ing an ocean cross­ing and which fore­shad­owed hand lug­gage, to pic­nic-set or tool-kit trunks de­signed to fit into car boots, to the soft leather 1932 Noé bag de­signed for a client to trans­port five bot­tles of cham­pagne on car jour­neys (the bag re­mains one of the com­pany’s most pop­u­lar styles, though nowa­days its uses are not re­stricted to carrying bot­tles), to the first trunk con­tain­ing a fold-out bed, de­signed in the 1860s to ac­com­pany ex­plor­ers on their ex­pe­di­tions. “It was more than just lug­gage and pack­ing,” says Sail­lard. “It was about a life­style, an art of travel.”

Fi­nally view­ers ar­rive at the Ja­pan room (added to the ex­hi­bi­tion when it moved from Paris to Tokyo), which con­tains, along­side Taisuke’s trunk, two com­mis­sions for con­tem­po­rary Ja­panese clients: one a beau­ti­ful tea cer­e­mony trunk, the other a make-up trunk for Kabuki ac­tor Ichikawa Ebizo XI. The room also fea­tures ex­am­ples of the brand’s iconic (and highly lu­cra­tive) hand­bag col­lab­o­ra­tions with Ja­panese artists. The cherry printed and mul­ti­coloured mono­grams of Takashi Mu­rakami’s 13-year col­lab­o­ra­tion trans­formed Louis Vuit­ton’s for­tunes from the re­la­tion­ship’s in­cep­tion in 2003, and Yayoi Kusama’s de­light­fully dotty aes­thetic (2012) and the hole-rid­den totes cre­ated with Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçon (2014) were also suc­cess­ful part­ner­ships.

The spe­cial re­la­tion­ship between Louis Vuit­ton and Ja­pan is ev­i­dent and en­dur­ing. The brand’s cur­rent cre­ative di­rec­tor, Ni­co­las Gh­esquière, took in­spi­ra­tion from the Ja­panese anime series Evan­ge­lion in creat­ing his fu­tur­is­tic spring/sum­mer 2016 col­lec­tion. He has also cho­sen Light­ning, the vir­tual hero­ine of the cult Ja­panese Nin­tendo game Fi­nal Fan­tasy, to front the lat­est ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign—a novel bid to woo the younger crowd and, of course, the ever-im­por­tant Asian mar­ket. “Light­ning her­alds a new era of ex­pres­sion,” says Gh­esquière, but ar­guably she merely taps into the rich seam of Louis Vuit­ton’s long­stand­ing Japon­isme.

the art of travel From above: The gallery ded­i­cated to travel by rail and the lug­gage de­signed for it has the feel of a vin­tage train car­riage; Le voy­age en avion (The plane trip), an im­age shot by Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­pher Thérèse Bon­ney in 1927; fash­ion photography pub­lished in Vogue and Paris Match circa 1960

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