On March 7, shortly after 10 am, a custom-built, gleaming Louis Vuitton locomotive glided into a tent at the Cour Carrée du Louvre in Paris, unloading a cargo of models, each joined by a porter laden with—what else?—handbags. The stunning, costly production marked a new high for a company that routinely pulls off headline-worthy marketing stunts (i.e. ferreting out retired supermodels, collaborating with hot-ticket artists, opening palatial stores). That basic business principle—spinning leather goods into pop fantasy—was summed up just hours later when Louis Vuitton Marc Jacobs, an exhibition at the Musée de la Mode, was inaugurated with much fanfare.
Curator Pamela Golbin’s aim is to show that Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs, although separated by decades, had the same ability to address the challenges of their respective eras—the industrial revolution for the former, and globalization for the latter.
The first floor is devoted to the founder’s career. Golbin mixes Vuitton’s numerous trunks and suitcases with the museum’s own collection of 19th-century fashion and accessories. Smartly staged, this section shows how complicated wardrobes were then (crinolines, corsets, and countless frills and furbelows), and how in tune Vuitton was with his times. He created luggage for every occasion, from hat cases to a showstopping bed trunk. He also had grand ambitions for the brand, regularly displaying his patented creations at world fairs, which were mega-events in those days.
If the first floor is a pleasant stroll through an era of long, romantic travels, the second floor is a wild romp through Jacobs’ tenure at the label, a very recent past celebrated with high-gloss, sophisticated sets (LVMH is one of the exhibit’s big donors). The result is a family-friendly exhibit with a certain amusement-park quality. The main treats are the bags, of course, 53 of which are displayed in a chocolate box-like set representing the house’s big hits in every fabric imaginable.
The show is divided into hilariously titled sections, with mannequins sporting headpieces by the artist Desi Santiago. A section called Go Wild In the Country shows the designer’s infatuation with skins: crocodile or ostrich-feather creations on mannequins with animal heads. Kage Moss shows a mannequin with a snarling tiger head on all fours, wearing Kate Moss’s outfit in Louis Vuitton’s fall 2012 collection. Oh Gram centers on the famous logo, printed on tiny paillettes in a 2000 dress, worked into lace (2010) or printed all over a coat, helping to detonate logo mania in 1999.
Three personalities are rightly given special sections: the late designer Stephen Sprouse, and the artists Richard Prince and Takashi Murakami, whose colorful collaborations with the brand have indeed marked the previous decade.
The exhibit also pointedly acknowledges that Louis Vuitton is a team effort. The stylists Joe McKenna and Katie Grand are mentioned along with Robert Duffy, Jacobs’ longtime business partner, Camille Miceli, now a jewelry designer at Dior, and designer Peter Copping, now at Nina Ricci. In that regard, it’s a pity the curator didn’t tackle Vuitton’s strong links with the hip-hop world. Performers like Pharrell Williams and Kanye West have played an important role in the brand’s success.
Another important fact about Marc Jacobs that the exhibit somewhat fails to impart is his ability to explore very different themes each season, thus leaving an impression of reckless abandon and constant renewal. Few designers have managed to pull off that hit-and-run technique (Karl Lagerfeld and Tom Ford have), and it clearly explains Jacobs’ Midas Touch. Buzz is essential to his work, and he himself declared in the New York Times that his clothes at Vuitton are merely “window dressing” for the accessories. Strangely, that’s the feeling we get after leaving the museum. The pop aura lingers in your mind more than the clothes.
Maybe the most telling moment on that second floor is a spectacular reference wall, with images of everyone from Nina Simone, Liz Taylor, and Bette Midler to Yves Saint Laurent and Miuccia Prada. It brilliantly shows what a passionate Pac Man Marc Jacobs is, voraciously gobbling up pop culture references and regurgitating them in his collections.
The exhibition ends on a triumphant note, the great success story of a contemporary icon, exemplified by a doll wearing his signature kilt and Birkin bag. On a nearby panel, the designer explains how happy he is to be the last to show on the Paris calendar (interestingly, Chanel used to have that slot). He also reminisces how he felt after visiting Paris as a teenager. “I had the feeling it was wrong to be born in New York. I like Paris so much, I never thought I would work there one day, let alone for one of the biggest brands in the world.”