Louis Vuitton Series Three

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Louis Vuitton’s enigmatically titled exhibition, ‘Series 3,’ has taken over 180 Strand, just a few doors down from the Courtauld. It documents Nicholas Ghesquiere’s inspirations for his fourth ready-to-wear show as the Artistic Director for women’s collections at Louis Vuitton.

Before going to the exhibition, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. There is very little information available on Louis Vuitton’s website, and I was only aware that it was even happening having walked past the venue. (I have since, however, been absolutely inundated with advertising for it, which is unsurprising). Upon arrival, I was met by an army of people, dressed identically in black suits with white shirts. Their crisp, stark appearance was, I soon realized, to be echoed throughout the exhibition space. The entrance, as well as all the hallways connecting the rooms were a bright, somewhat severe, white. The rooms housing the displays, however, were an immersive, loud, bright, highly sensory experience. The first room, entered via a white tunnel, displayed a trunk hanging from the ceiling. The round walls played a repeating montage of video clips, some of models talking about their experience of working for Louis Vuitton, others of the same models, marching down the catwalk, interspersed with alternating flashes of the famous LV print and white noise, which spun at an increasing speed around the walls. The whole thing was enough to make the visitor just dizzy and nauseous enough that they had to stagger into the next space. Bright lights, loud music and rapid moving images were employed again and again by the curators, in an attempt to make the experience as immersive, and subsequently memorable, as possible.

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The aim of the whole exhibition, was, it quickly became apparent, to emphasize the genius of Ghesquiere, and elevate him to the status of a revered and respected artist. The exhibition guide described the show as a ‘stream of consciousness, dreams and self-reflexive journeys… The designer’s careful thoughts pair with a  delicate artisanal touch.’ This idea of the designer as a genius, and the exhibition as an insight into his inspiration and psyche is reiterated again and again, creating a ‘sensorial journey, venturing deep into the designer’s soul and an artisan’s heart.’ The curators were evidently far less concerned with conveying any information about Louis Vuitton or the new collection.

 The handmade quality of the objects in the collection was also a prominent theme of the exhibition. In one room, the viewer was encouraged to sit at a wooded table, and watch a real time video of the maker’s hands, carefully crafting a clutch bag. The description of this room tells the viewer that ‘each craftsman’s movement is that of an artist.’ Like Ghesquiere, the creators are heralded as artistic heroes, however, unlike the designer, whose name is the most prominent aspect of the exhibition, they remain completely anonymous. In this room, it is only their hands on show. In a later room, the visitor met the maker, head on. Two women were sat at desks, carefully crafting clutch bags. They were surrounded by an intricate system of lights and cameras, projecting videos of their hands onto screens behind them. The act of making a bag was turned into a performance, and the women a spectacle.

a video showing the hands of an anonymous maker

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The visitors were first shown the collection about half way through the exhibition, in a large, bright room with mirrors lining every wall. Lifesize videos of models marched to the pumping beat on large free standing screens. The effect was clever, making the visitor feel as if they were actually at the show, however, again the clothes of secondary importance to the room itself. The information for this room was quick to reinforce Ghesquiere’s position at the top of the pyramid, stating ‘… 45 models, one designer- Ghesquiere.’

Floor to ceiling mirrors were employed in nearly every room, creating the effect of never ending, infinite space. However, they also caused the visitor to look at themselves too, alongside Ghesquiere’s collection. From a curatorial point of view, this forces the viewer to, perhaps subconsciously, compare themselves to the glamourous collection, or imagine themselves wearing it, giving the exhibition an aspiration quality. This was extremely apparent in the final room, in which the entire collection hung in open Perspex boxes. Visitors were not only allowed, but encouraged to touch things, pick them up and open them. The guide for this room read ‘clothes speak to the women to wishes to own them,’ and I overheard a tour guide dub the room ‘every woman’s dream come true- the walk in wardrobe.’ It was clear that, upon entering the room, the visitors were meant to covet the luxurious, fur coats and elaborate jewel encrusted skirts.

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The mirrors also served another function: they made the rooms the perfect setting for the ultimate selfie. They had clearly been conceived of as the most instagrammable rooms ever (it suddenly became apparent why the wifi password had been displayed so prominently in the entrance!), which was a hugely clever PR technique from Louis Vuitton. Every visitor in the exhibition with me was lapping up the opportunity to take the artsiest selfie they could, which, presumably, they would soon share on social media, creating the desired buzz around Ghesquiere’s new collection during Fashion Week season. I couldn’t help thinking throughout that this was one of the most elaborate and immersive marketing strategies I had ever seen.

in selfie heaven

in selfie heaven

This was definitely not most informative fashion exhibition- I left feeling scarcely more knowledgeable about Louis Vuitton than when I arrived. In fact, I would scarcely call it an exhibition,  but rather the most lavish example of experiential marketing I have ever seen. It was an eye-opening foray into the techniques design houses use to promote their collections. In terms of marketing, the exhibition was enormously clever, because it created an experience that no visitor could resist photographing and sharing. It seemed to be an exhibition for exhibition’s sake. The actual collection was of secondary importance to the exhibition itself, and very little information was provided. However, where it succeeded was creating an unforgettable experience, and, even if the visitors can’t remember what one garment in the collection looks like, they will definitely remember that it was by Louis Vuitton.

Nick Waplington at Tate Britain

Nick Waplington, Untitled 2008-2009, Tate Britain

Nick Waplington, Untitled from the series ‘Alexander McQueen Working Process’ 2008-09
© Nick Waplington

Nick Waplington, Untitled 2008-2009, Tate Britain

Nick Waplington, Untitled from the series ‘Alexander McQueen Working Process’ 2008-09
© Nick Waplington

Nick Waplington, Untitled 2008-2009, Tate Britain

Nick Waplington, Untitled from the series ‘Alexander McQueen Working Process’ 2008-09
© Nick Waplington

You may not have noticed, but there are currently two exhibitions on in London about Alexander McQueen’s work. While the V&A’s ‘Savage Beauty’ has garnered most of the headlines, and ticket sales, Nick Waplington’s display of photographs he took of McQueen’s ‘Horn of Plenty’ collection of 2009 at Tate Britain, is an excellent insight into working process, and a fascinating combination of artist and designer in terms of themes and approach.

Spread across several rooms, all of which were empty when I visited, the exhibition comprises huge prints that chronicle the collection’s progress from initial ideas, through mood boards, fittings and fabric choices, to the ultimate culmination of months of work – the catwalk show. What is so refreshing in Waplington’s images is his ability to capture the emotions of those involved, and, allied to this, the number of people necessary to produce such complex designs. His photographs show McQueen, at times elated, at times exhausted, surrounded by the detritus of a busy studio.  Spools of material, the omnipresent pin cushion wristbands worn by assistants, packets of cigarettes, chocolate bars, pens and sketches scattered on desks, as McQueen’s team strive to perfect each design, and thus its moment of triumph on the runway. Fit models stand stoically, as fabric is swathed and pinned to their form. Accessories are tried out and assembled. Each stage presents new complications, and new approaches, as shown in the detailed images.

Waplington juxtaposes these stills of fashion’s work in progress with photographs taken from a landfill site not far from McQueen’s studio. Each room in the exhibition presents the viewer with comparisons between luxury and excess, and the gruesome, yet oddly aesthetic piles of rubbish consumer society leaves in its wake. In each case, Waplington’s technical approach to his subject is evident; as much care is taken in a composition of fabric swatches pinned to a board, as with a stack of discarded compressed papers and food wrappers. The East End is therefore shown as a site of both creation and destruction, or rather of the beginning and end of the consumer food chain. Location becomes significant to each – part of McQueen’s own heritage and identity, and the throwaway culture and hidden recesses of the city where rubbish is laid to rest.

The final room is painted black; a literal dark room that glows with light boxes, each displaying an image of the catwalk shows backstage theatricality. Models are dressed in the final designs – and McQueen’s themes of exaggeration are dramatised further by their red lipsticked mouths and whited out faces. Waplington’s juxtapositions become even sharper, as the delicate silks used to create ‘plastic bag’ hats are worn by elegant women for the ensuing show, their gauzy delicacy mimicking the plastic sheaths photographed so scrupulously in the previous rooms.

The exhibition as a whole is an incredible journey through McQueen’s work on this self-consciously retrospective collection. He was reflecting on his own oeuvre, on the extremes of femininity that fascinated him, on his own roots and influences. In turn, Waplington’s approach mirrors and amplifies this, his artistic sensibility commenting on what he witnessed, and his role as outsider/observer of McQueen’s relentless pursuit of a fashion aesthetic that was self-reflexive and critical of its own world view.

‘Nick Waplington, Alexander McQueen: Working Process’ is on at the Tate Britain until 17 May

Sources:

http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/nick-waplingtonalexander-mcqueen-working-process

https://www.nowness.com/story/nick-waplington-alexander-mcqueen-working-process-tate-britain