Michael Burke, Louis Vuitton’s chairman and CEO, is zeroing in on the kind of innovation that provides a jolt in a luxury world jaded by too much “stuff”. Consumer expectation now, he says, is for “interesting, contemporary, relevant creativity”. Well‑informed customers want to buy into something that has meaning and a good backstory, whether they are shopping for a new bag, car, bottle of wine or painting for their mantel. “Everybody wants to have more information before entering into a transaction,” says Burke. So Louis Vuitton is reaching for a higher plane of design, and the best way to achieve that (and to make bags that are more than just beautiful containers for your phone and keys) is to collaborate with artists. “In fashion today, sociological trends are much more important than they were 20 years ago,” says Burke.
The house has a long history of working with artists, most recently with Jeff Koons, who splashed images of his favourite Old Masters on everything from £2,000 backpacks to entry-level scarves. At first glance, his bags may have looked like classic museum-gift-shop merchandise, but his collaboration was based on his Gazing Ball series of handpainted, large-scale reproductions of Old Masters. Koons brought more to the table than the image of the Mona Lisa on a Speedy – he brought his provocative commentary on art history and how we consume it. He brought substance.
So the holy grail of high fashion right now is to make products that resonate not just with form but with meaning. At Vuitton, this has brought about what Burke describes as a “crescendo” of collaborations, the latest of which is about to launch. Six contemporary artists – Sam Falls, Urs Fischer, Nicholas Hlobo, Alex Israel, Tschabalala Self and Jonas Wood – were given carte blanche to create a Louis Vuitton bag. “There were absolutely no guidelines,” says Burke of the brief. Each artist was given, as a starting point, a Capucines bag, the top-handled style that made its debut in the Vuitton canon in 2013 and has since become a contemporary classic. “And that was it. They could build it from scratch, they could destroy it, slash it, burn it, do what they wanted to it. It was total freedom. Here is an object – repurpose it,” says Burke, who credits Vuitton’s executive vice president Delphine Arnault as the “guiding light and energy” behind the project. She, along with Vuitton’s top executives, including Burke and accessories creative director Camille Miceli, engaged in a process of “intense internal debate” to arrive at the final six collaborators.
Some, like Alex Israel, the California-based creative polymath whose work comments on the powerful cultural and social influence of Hollywood and the American Dream, are well known. Others are less so. The Harlem-born, Connecticut-based Tschabalala Self only graduated from Yale School of Art four years ago and is just starting to make her name. “My first reaction was excitement,” she says of the Vuitton call-up. “It seemed like a great opportunity to do something different.”
That sentiment is reflected by all the artists, whose bags, though unique in design, convey a collective sense of creative joy. “There’s so much bad news out there. This is a very positive, happy, up collaboration,” says Burke. The most playful design is by Urs Fischer, who is famous for his large-scale installations that deal with decay (such as a lifesized Swiss chalet made from loaves of sourdough bread, foam and wood) and transformation (shockingly lifelike wax sculptures of people that are lit and left to melt). His plain white leather bag acts like a serene blank canvas – with a mischievous twist. It comes in a special presentation box that includes hyper-realistic silicone fruit and vegetables that fasten to the bag with a fine gold chain.
“I’m always interested in finding new platforms for creative expression and new audiences – making a handbag for Louis Vuitton provides both,” says California-based Israel. The distinctive shimmering waves of his colourful paintings also sweep across his bag, which looks like a patchwork but is actually made from a single piece of leather, cleverly stitched to give a 3D effect and printed using a special digital-transfer technique. That was just one of a raft of new craft innovations used to realise each artist’s vision by Louis Vuitton’s artisans.
Jonas Wood based his design on one of his paintings; it is made from an intricate fusion of printed leather and hand-embroidery, “mimicking how I paint and how I draw”. But despite the craft that went into creating the bags, “I definitely want people to use them,” he says. “They’re not art objects, they’re bags made by artists. The fact that it’s an object that’s durable but can fade or get worn in over time is very different from art; you kind of wear art with your eyes, think about it and study it for a long time. Art ages, but differently.”
South African artist Nicholas Hlobo prefers to let the owner decide if his bag is art or not. “It is informed by the use. If someone is using it as a bag, then it’s a fashion object. If it’s not used and displayed as an artwork, its presentation redefines it as an art object.” He is the only one of the six to use leather regularly in his installations, which comment on gender, ethnicity and culture in post-apartheid South Africa. His work features intricate two- and three‑dimensional objects crafted from discarded ribbon, leather, wood and rubber, and his Louis Vuitton bag, with its rippling, softly padded reliefs and hand-plaited tails, is the most tactile in the set.
Tschabalala Self, whose art reflects on the black female body, used similar techniques of patchworking and embroidery on her bag as she employs in her work. “I approached the project through the idea of deconstruction and reconstruction,” says Self, who picked apart the LV logo before crafting it back together in a rustic patchwork that dances across the back of her design. “The Louis Vuitton artisans are amazing. The bag looks exactly like my design, down to the smallest detail.” Self doesn’t want to make distinctions between fashion and art: “They both exist within the realm of self‑expression and personal politics. This project allows art to exist as a functional object.”
The design Sam Falls devised has the same enigmatic quality as his artworks. It comes in vividly pigmented linen, with beautiful mother-of-pearl hardware. Despite the different craft techniques used to make them, each bag is priced at €6,500. But will Burke’s customers view the pieces as art or fashion? He pauses. “I think they will see them as beauty. I wouldn’t describe them as art. They are absolutely ultimate design objects that enter into a dance with art.”
Vuitton’s history of working with artists dates back to its founder’s grandson, Gaston-Louis Vuitton, who led the house for half a century from the mid-1930s and commissioned artists he’d met at the Société des Artistes Indépendants to create windows and fragrance bottles, as well as products. In the 1980s César, Arman, Sol LeWitt and Sandro Chia designed silk foulards for the house, but it was former women’s creative director Marc Jacobs who really saw the potential of fashion/art collaborations. In 2001 he let artist Stephen Sprouse loose on the Louis Vuitton monogram – the first time it had been altered since its creation in 1896. Sprouse daubed his distinctive graffiti lettering over it, creating a cult hit that sold out almost instantly. Jacobs followed that up in 2003 with a Takashi Murakami collaboration that remains a bestseller for Vuitton to this day. Richard Prince and Yayoi Kusama have also worked with the house on bags, and in 2013, French artist Daniel Buren designed four long escalator installations for the show space in the courtyard of the Louvre, and his striped and chequerboard works informed the patterns on that season’s clothing and bags.
In terms of investment, this emerging genre – what Christie’s describes as “blue chip artist ready-mades” – is now a fast-growing area of the collector’s market. The more blurred the line between art and fashion, the higher the price will go. Last year, the auction house sold a vintage Hermès Kelly bag, painted with the Nasa logo by the artist Tom Sachs, for £40,000. It had once belonged to the influential gallerist Larry Gagosian, who represents Urs Fischer and Alex Israel. And in Christie’s forthcoming London sale on June 12, Rachel Koffsky, head of sale for handbags and accessories, is putting a Da Vinci leather Masters Montaigne from the Jeff Koons collaboration on the block for the first time. “It will be interesting to see how the secondary market reacts to this piece, because you don’t know until you put it on the auction block and let the collector compete for it.”
One thing is certain – this kind of collaboration adds value for all involved. “A lot of what we see today is that collectors are not just handbag collectors and are not just art collectors. They look at everything they acquire with the same connoisseur eye,” says Koffsky. For the customer, a numbered, limited edition art bag offers uniqueness, a storytelling experience and sustainability. “Buying a piece that’s of investment quality, that has inherent value, that has an auction record, is just a smart purchase,” adds Koffsky.
For the artist, the right kind of fashion collaboration can not only provide an additional means of expression and a valuable income stream, it can also bring their art and ideas to a new audience. “I think it’s interesting to see people wearing something I’ve made. It’s definitely a different kind of context, so the experience is slightly unsettling for me personally,” says Jonas Wood.
And for the brand? “It elevates,” says Burke, to be at the crossroads with art. It’s where many of Louis Vuitton’s top clients like to sit. They will be given the opportunity to pre-order an Arty Capucines, and Burke expects around 30 per cent to be spoken for ahead of the official launch at a pop-up store in LA on June 25, with the remainder sold in a limited network of Louis Vuitton stores. With only 300 made by each artist, it’s already looking like a good investment. “The effort is really in the creation, in the making,” says Burke. “Once you get that right, you don’t have to do anything in particular. The magic occurs.”