Ambition lies at the heart of the Louis Vuitton brand. The scale of that ambition is hard to miss at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, the new Paris museum of contemporary art: it is badged above the door with a glittering LV, a giant version of the hardware used on the bags.
That ambition is spelt out again when you pass through the museum and into the catwalk show space built alongside it, a trio of sunny, silvered glass globes which Vuitton designer Nicolas Ghesquière described backstage as his “space observatory station”.
Ambition is what keeps the tills ringing. After all, the ambition to be successful, and to show that success to the world, is what a Louis Vuitton handbag is all about. There is a type of woman for whom the wearing of the season’s Petit Malle It-bag (price tag: about £2,500) is the equivalent of planting a flag at the top of a mountain. It tells the world you have arrived.
Ghesquière, who is a purist and conceptual designer, was therefore not the most obvious fit when he took over at Vuitton in late 2013. But, on Wednesday, at his third major Paris catwalk show for the house, it was becoming clear that Ghesquière is doing something rather smart. Instead of fighting against the bombastic drive toward ambition and glory that defines Vuitton, he has located the kernel of something interesting within that – and he is exploring it.
Ambition, for Ghesquière, is about new frontiers, about bravery, about travel, about locking horns with the future. This way, he can make Vuitton’s ambition fly on two levels.
Backstage after the show, Ghesquière said it was “the bags, most of all, wthat reflected “exactly the state of mind I am in now with Vuitton”. The handbags are box-shaped, miniature versions of the monogrammed Louis Vuitton trunks which became part of the iconography of travel and celebrity in the 20th century. The idea for a miniature trunk was part of Ghesquière original pitch for the Vuitton job, and a concept which LVMH owner Bernard Arnault himself was much taken with; the style has been a theme of Ghesquière’s Vuitton collections so far.
This collection included a near-faithful reproduction of an original 1940s style, an orange leather handheld trunk with silver hardware and stitched leather straps, “and then in parallel I designed a digital toolbox for today”, said Ghesquière. This new futuristic vision of the trunk, sleek and glossy as a steel safe, was high-tech inside as well, he said. “Because when you travel, what do you need most? Your iPhone, your iPad, your charger. So these digital toolboxes, these are the explorer’s boxes of our time.”
As if to underscore the idea that these are handbags for a brave new world, the first model onto the catwalk wore a thick Argentinian sheepskin, cosy enough for an arctic mission and sensibly fastened with black leather toggles, as she swung her digital toolbox by her knee.
The clothes were more eclectic than Ghesquière’s clear vision of chic usually allows. After an opening trio of fluffy cream sheepskins, there were curvy ribbed separates with fluted hems at the hip and knee, and neatly tailored trouser suits in this season’s deliberately awkward, just-above-the-ankle length. There were leather biker jackets and curvy leather skirts with a plush femininity which would suit Kim Kardashian, who sat in the front row with Kanye West. The theme of exploration was returned to with silk dresses embroidered with jellyfish and sea urchins.
Backstage after the show, Catherine Deneuve escaped the crush, taking a break for a cigarette and an espresso on the outside steps of the building, while Ghesquière posed for photos with modern Louis Vuitton poster-girls Michelle Williams and Jennifer Connolly. In a break between photographs, he explained that the ambition of his project required a slow timescale.
“I am looking at all the same things I was looking at a year ago. I want to be clear about that,” he said. “It’s the same wardrobe, and I am building it. A woman travels, she picks up pieces which are exotic or ethnic or crafty, she mixes those with urban clothes. It’s romantic, and individual, and I’m interested in that.”