Louis Vuitton exhibit: It's the bag, stupid

By Thomas Adamson

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 8 2012 3:41 p.m. MST

A Louis Vuitton 1886 Drawer Trunk is displayed at the Louis Vuitton-Marc Jacobs exhibit in the Art Decoratifs Musuem, in Paris, Thursday, March 8, 2012.

Francois Mori, Associated Press

PARIS — "Fashions fade, style is eternal," Yves Saint Laurent once said.

An immutable fashion list must include the Ls Vuitton bag, on display demurely but proudly in Paris' Decorative Arts Museum like the historical artifact it should be.

The bag pattern was first patented in 1877 but it can still be seen — almost unchanged — on the Parisian boulevards more than 130 years later. This is thanks to house founder Louis Vuitton, and since 1997, creative director Marc Jacobs.

Both their stories are woven together in a colorful exhibit that spans over a century of fashion history.

The exhibit takes the visitor from the founder's humble beginnings as a case-packer to the fantastical runway shows that transformed the house into one of the world's biggest names, with a revenue last year of €2.5 billion. Though both men are from different centuries, the exhibition asks whether they have more in common than meets the eye.

There's a small clue in the first room: portraits of the two men hang side by side, both sporting mustaches in the style of their age.

"They're both visionaries, though they would be the last to admit it," said museum curator Pamela Golbin, "and they both lived an exact same story at a decisive moment in fashion."

Louis Vuitton faced industrialization of the 19th century and new train travel while Marc Jacobs was confronted with 1990s' changing demands for marketing "making fashion truly globalized for the first time," Golbin said.

The story began for Louis Vuitton as a trunk-packer for rich Parisians, a job in which he was able to hone a mastery of every bolt, lock and corner of travel cases from across the French capital. He built on his knowledge, finally opening his own house in 1854.

The Orient Express was new and fashionable, and the meteoric rise of haute couture under Charles Frederic Worth meant better-dressed women went on trips with more and more clothes — that needed cases to fit them in.

Such was the demand that the norm in the late-19th century norm, as one display shows, was for a traveling lady to take a staggering 30 large cases on each trip.

From this a thousand trunks were born, all perfectly preserved with their original wax coatings and all viewable at the exhibit: hat trunks, toiletries trunks, trunks that pulled out as a chest of drawers, metal trunks for humid countries. For the trendy yet tired, there was a trunk that folded out into a bed.

As it still does under Jacobs, the house had a sense for the avant-garde as early as 1890: one gargantuan case boasts the title the "Never Full Bag."

Then there was the radical facelift of the 1990s. Glossy fashion magazines landed and globalized demands meant that labels had to up their game and expand, or sink. Creative talent was no longer the only criteria sought by the industry: instead "marketing" became the buzz word.

Enter Marc Jacobs, already a big name in the fashion industry, to design the Louis Vuitton house's first ready-to-wear collection, 143 bag-filled years later.

Using his corporate knowledge and irreverent humor he revamped the bags and shoes — the company's financial lifeline.

A vivid display of mannequins kneeling captures the transformation from past to present perfectly: each model has a classic Louis Vuitton bag placed on her back — covered in graffiti.

The exhibit shows other irreverent sources of musings for the designer, including a 2003 manga film by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami that is used to revamp the traditional LV monogram.

The continued growth of the house comes down to his versatility.

Marc Jacobs fall-winter runway show featured models in Edwardian hats exiting a reconstructed train that might have been the turn-of-the-century Orient Express. So there we have it, the full circle.

But, the designer mused backstage, "Whatever you try, clothes never really can live in the past. They are worn now so they are modern, with a modern take. I'm not nostalgic."

The exhibit "Louis Vuitton-Marc Jacobs" runs March 9-Sept. 16.