How the Louis Vuitton retrospective at the Grand Palais won my wanderlust heart.
I have a confession to make: I’ve never been much of a Louis Vuitton fan.
Fashion heresy, I know. The logo-emblazoned handbags have always seemed just a bit too flashy, too obvious a display.
All that changed about fifteen minutes into my experience at the recent Louis Vuitton “Volez Voguez Voyagez” retrospective at Paris’ Grand Palais. Curated by Olivier Saillard, the exhibition (the title of which translates to “Fly Sail Travel”) retraced the brand’s journey from 1854 through today. Here, I would discover not just the brand’s fine craftsmanship, but a kindred spirit inspired by the love of travel, adventure and life’s journey.
The experience began expectedly enough, taking us back to Mr. Vuitton’s origins as an apprentice to box maker Romain Maréchal. Eyeing Vuitton’s tools of the trade – those of carpenter rather than couturier – and wandering through his early creations, I began to understand the thoughtfulness and quality with which they were crafted. His trunks meticulously compartmentalized every dress, hat, glove, coat and shoe of his clients’ wardrobes. Ergonomically designed and tailored for strength and lightness, his perfected flat trunk heralded the beginning of modern luggage.
Image Credit: Grégoire Vielle (top) / Elle Stark (bottom)
Here, I began to see the genius not only of Louis Vuitton, but that of Olivier Saillard’s curation. For betwixt the heritage trunks was a modern creation, foreshadowing this exhibition to be both a journey through time and one of utter timelessness.
This initial temporal juxtaposition was the 2014 “Studio in a Trunk,” created for, and in collaboration with, photographer and filmmaker Cindy Sherman, herself the subject of retrospective at New York’s MoMA. Inspired by the feather colors of Sherman’s beloved parrot, the trunk’s vivid yellow, green and blue interior compartments were designed for her unique on-set needs, complete with a lighted vanity and pull-out camera case. Handwritten labels designate her tools of the trade: fake eyeballs, clown wigs and miscellaneous small body parts.
While Sherman’s trunk stood apart for its brilliant colors and modern utility, I was surprised how the lexicon of its design felt perfectly in place with Vuitton’s earlier creations. What I did not realize, however, was that this would be just one of many surprises Saillard had in store.
Image Credit: Elle Stark
In the next gallery I learned of an ambitious expedition through Algeria, Mali and the Congo, organized in the mid-1920s by French industrialist, André Citroën. Citroën insisted on outfitting by Vuitton, including special order trunks accommodating the specific climate and all-terrain transport. Instinctively Vuitton recognized luxury as necessity, incorporating carriers for bone china place settings and sterling silver tea sets. By the time Citroën embarked on his second expedition across the legendary Silk Road five years later, the Maison Louis Vuitton had been cemented as the accoutier of civilized adventurers the globe over.
Journeying through the Citroën-era display, I didn’t think to distinguish the contemporary from the classical. Instead, I studied the palettes of gold, silver and sand traversing the entire collection. I was mesmerized by constructions and silhouettes of the past, for how could they feel as relevant today as they were to a bygone era? Through it all, I imagined myself on Citroën’s safari-style adventure – conquering sand dunes, making camp for the night and sipping tea beside the evening’s fire.
My traveler’s spirit had been called, my imagination ignited.
Image Credit: Elle Stark (left; bottom right) / Grégoire Vielle (top right)
Next I was yachting, beckoned to the deck by a warm summer sun. I imagined wind tousling my hair and a gentle sea spray on my skin, my dress billowing in the breeze. Below deck I would later dress for dinner, selecting from elegant garments safeguarded in purpose-built trunks; compartments coddling my hats and jewels. Steamer bags would accommodate purchases from ports near and far.
Image Credit: Elle Stark
Suddenly I’m traveling by train – the Orient Express, perhaps – countries and countrysides passing like celluloid frames out my window. I glide through the cars carrying my bejeweled bag, stylish and smart in my… Marc Jacobs pantsuit? Wait, what? How could I be on a steam train traveling from 1930s Paris to Constantinople wearing a creation from 2013?
This would prove to be the moment of both my revelation and infatuation. Saillard’s curation had given me a time machine, and Vuitton, a wardrobe to journey through it. Never before had I recognized the era-defying genius of Vuitton. Now, it was all I could see.
Image Credit: Elle Stark
Reaching the era when travelers took to the skies, I studied every placard, examined every date. These too were designs from across the ages, yet ageless in their design. Lightweight Aéro and Aviette trunks for long weekend stays, Square Mouth and Gladstone model carry-ons fitting neatly in cabin compartments, butter-soft leathers in cognacs and coals – all crafted for the modern traveler as if in a continuum of modernity.
Image Credit: Grégoire Vielle (top) / Elisha Moore (bottom)
By the time I’d reached the final destination of the exhibition, my perspective of Louis Vuitton had shifted. No longer would I see logos emblazoned on handbags carried in obvious displays of wealth. Instead, I would see fellow travellers ready to embark on their next adventure, if only in their imaginations.