June 2012, and at a menswear fashion week event in Paris’ Jardin du Palais Royal, I witnessed a hubbub of excitement at the first sighting in the wild of a new Louis Vuitton creation gracing the arm of the brand’s visual creative director. A familiar polka-dotted motif had found its way onto a sunny yellow Monogrammed Lock It bag as part of the Maison’s highly anticipated Yayoi Kusama artist collaboration.
The unofficial sneak peek revealed the latest art-fashion alliance from the luxury house, following in the bold footsteps of previous collaborators Stephen Sprouse, Takashi Murakami and Richard Prince. Now, a decade later, the magic and wonder continue, unveiled in a world-exclusive Harrods extravaganza. Bringing Kusama’s interactive dot and mirror art out of the gallery and onto the high street, the store has been reimagined as an experiential art playground.
The nonagenarian Japanese artist is famous for her immersive works originating from personal obsessions and hallucinations, channelled into otherworldly sculptures, paintings and public art. “At Harrods, we’re bringing Yayoi Kusama to life, placing a 15m sculpture of the artist outside our entrance, where she is seen to be painting her colourful dots across the magnificent façade of our Grade II-listed building,” says Alexander Wells-Greco, creative visual director at Harrods. “‘Crafting Infinity’ also includes playful installations inside the store, spheres of all-surrounding colour and instantly immersive mirrored walls to mesmerise our customers.” Meanwhile, dedicated pop-up spaces host the accompanying collection that was first teased at Louis Vuitton’s Cruise 2023 show, featuring not only bags and leather goods, but the entire gamut of product categories and savoir-faire. From complex embroidery and leather marquetry to limited-edition perfumes, all are Kusama-fied with the artist’s signature flowers, pumpkins and dot art.
Louis Vuitton has supported the arts ever since Gaston-Louis Vuitton (the visionary grandson of the house’s founder) first commissioned artists to create store displays nearly a century ago. It frequently stages fashion shows at the Louvre, sponsors art events, and displays leading artists’ work in its stores. And the 2014 opening of Louis Vuitton’s holding company, LVMH’s Frank Gehry-designed Louis Vuitton Fondation in Paris further cemented the company’s arts-patron status. But what’s particularly noteworthy is the artists the brand chooses to partner with: audacious provocateurs who are not afraid of offending the purists. As Chairman and CEO Michael Burke commented after artist Jeff Koons reproduced a number of old masters on Louis Vuitton bags to much outcry: “People are going to be upset about the sacred entering the realm of the profane. But we like to do things that can be perceived as politically incorrect. If we are getting flak, we think we are doing something right.”
The tactic is paying off. In recent years, a new generation of highly informed fashion enthusiasts have emerged who have been exposed to luxury brands through the lens of contemporary art and streetwear collabs. Where ‘old luxury’ was staid and elitist, today’s young global customer is welcomed with open arms; with visual ideas surrounding us in everyday life, and public art displayed at every turn, these irreverent collaborations act as a gateway to a more culturally inviting world of luxury.
“We’re seeing the emergence of a Gen-Z cohort we’re calling ‘Luxury Archivists’,” says Fiona Harkin, foresight editor of strategic research company The Future Laboratory. “The first true children of the information age, they value expertise above all else, using their status as digital natives to rigorously research and carefully select luxury brands and products. Their desire for information – combined with an innate ability to entertain – is resulting in a distinct command of luxury fashion, brand history and popular culture. Artist partnership collections from the likes of Louis Vuitton have driven new generations of collectors who are now buying into the future worth of these pieces.”
Osman Ahmed, fashion features director at i-D, agrees, flagging the importance of exclusivity and scarcity born of streetwear’s ‘drop’ culture. “When you think of these cult items that get young people queuing outside a skatewear store, you understand that there’s a huge desire for these limited-edition capsules. They create this ‘have to have it now’ fervour. By having these limited-edition artist collaborations, luxury houses mimic the pneumatic delirium that comes with getting your hands on something that’s only available for a short amount of time.”
Key to this evolution is the role of the store as the ultimate public art destination. Following the years of isolation, there’s a yearning for communal physical experiences, particularly those that thrill all the senses. Frieze is the new Fashion Week; galleries are now stores; and stores behave like galleries.
Crucially, the space too operates as a work of art and artisanship. “At Harrods, we are museum-esque in our grandeur, with many corridors, many floors,” says Wells-Greco. “So we work with artists to complement our incredible architecture to really enhance the spaces. There’s a level of bespoke artisanal luxury in this that is deeply embedded into the ethos of all luxury brands.”
For a brand whose heritage is steeped in handcrafted luggage, what could be more emblematic of this culture shift than an artist-conceived handbag? With its energetic brushstrokes, a Louis Vuitton x Yayoi Kusama Dauphine bag represents the perfect investment piece, merging art, design, craftsmanship and history. After all, art’s job is to reflect the times we live in. “That is what’s so collectable about these iconic art collaborations: they define a moment in time,” says Ahmed. “And in years to come, they will become even more valuable, because unlike a classic luxury handbag, it’s something specific that you can’t get any more. Miss it and you’ll be playing catch-up trying to find it on a resale platform 20 years from now.”
Louis Vuitton x Yayoi Kusama is available to shop in-store. Find the collection in Luxury Accessories, Ground Floor; Womenswear, First Floor and Menswear, Second Floor.
For SS01, Sprouse added his neon-coloured graffiti to the sacrosanct LV Monogram, the first time the basic elements of the revered design had been altered since 1896.
Between 2003 and 2015, Murakami transformed the Monogram with his trademark cartoon graphics, flowers and camouflage on sell-out accessories and leather goods.
Inspired by a Prince exhibition at NYC’s Guggenheim, the brand’s then creative director Marc Jacobs printed paintings from Prince’s ‘Jokes’ series on bags for the SS08 collection.
In 2017, enfant terrible Koons riled traditionalist critics by transferring his ‘Gazing Ball’ paintings – reproductions of old masters – onto Louis Vuitton bags in the style of gift-shop merch.
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