In 2018, Virgil Abloh was named artistic director of Louis Vuitton's men's division. The historic announcement not only marked the first time that a person of colour took creative reins at the famed maison, it also signalled the beginning of a new streetwear-inclined era. The decision may have been publicly divisive—Abloh's rather overtly 'hypebeast' image was often cited as straying too far from the trappings of a luxury fashion house—but was a sign of the times, where luxury is no longer solely for the elites.
But then again, who's to say that Abloh isn't Louis Vuitton enough? Especially when the maison's ready-to-wear only began in 1997 under the creative directorship of Marc Jacobs. Succeeding Kim Jones, Abloh is only the third creative director in Louis Vuitton's menswear history. And for over two decades, the Louis Vuitton man has gone through more than his fair share of style evolutions.
It's a similar case for many other luxury fashion houses. Alessandro Michele's unwaveringly extravagant and excessive proposals for Gucci have been markedly different from that of Frida Giannini's or Tom Ford's. Balenciaga's current spate of athletic sneakers and oversized graphic-laden hoodies by Demna Gvasalia are certainly not a reflection of founder Christobal Balenciaga's couture creations. And while Kim Jones' designs for Dior Men often reference Christian Dior archives, they hardly bear any resemblance to that of his predecessors'.
As much as adhering to a fashion house's heritage might seem ideal to longtime clients and fans, creative directors are not necessarily obligated to do so. After all, if fashion is supposed to be a signifier of the times in which we live in and designers are frequently called to breathe newness, rehashing designs—no matter how significant they are in the fashion house's history—that have little relevance to how we live now, is rather counterintuitive.
Yet there's no discounting the importance of the history and heritage of a fashion house. Fronted by designers who at times have larger-than-life qualities, it's become imperative to preserve storied beginnings and educate the public on the originators behind their names.
Fashion exhibitions serve to tell the story of a brand's past, beyond what could already be known of its present. In immersive spaces often spanning several rooms, fashion exhibitions—just like any of their artistic counterparts—are themed to highlight or commemorate certain moments in a brand's lengthy history. For example, in celebration of Christian Dior's 70th year, the House of Dior supported the realisation of an extensive exhibition by Paris's Musée des Arts Décoratifs in 2017. Christian Dior, Couturier du Rêve detailed the founder's significant prominence and favoured design themes as well as notable creations, and then showed how they were continued as well as modernised by the house's subsequent creative directors.
It wasn't until Alexander McQueen's posthumous exhibition, which premiered in 2011 at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, that large-scale fashion retrospectives became more commonplace. Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty saw a record-breaking turnout of over 660,000 visitors during its four-month run. It was then billed as the Met's most ambitious fashion exhibition. The exhibition went on to be staged in London's Victoria and Albert Museum for 21 weeks in 2015, and saw such high demand that it prompted the museum to extend its hours for the first time ever in its history. Since then, the museum has continuously showed fashion-themed exhibitions due to increased public interest in high fashion. Its 2019 run of the aforementioned Christian Dior exhibition broke the attendance record of its Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibit, and has become the museum's most attended exhibit ever.
Taking things to a more intimate level, a number of luxury fashion houses have set up permanent museums. These oftentimes are established in places of significance in the designer's lives.
The Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation opened two museums in 2017, both dedicated to the life and works of the late Yves Saint Laurent. The Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris is housed in the same building as the foundation's headquarters and where Saint Laurent spent almost 30 years designing his collections until his retirement in 2002. While the Parisian townhouse had initially served as a gallery featuring a rotating roster of exhibitions of diverse interests, its reopening has focused solely on Saint Laurent's works, spanning two floors. The public space also includes a look into the couturier's very own studio.
In the same time that the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris was shaping up, a plot of land about 2,800km away went up for sale in Marrakech. The location is a stone's throw away from Jardin Majorelle, the famed garden that Saint Laurent and Bergé purchased back in 1980, and became the site for the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech. The second outpost for Saint Laurent's archives offers a smaller segment of the designer's works but specifically curated with a more cultural slant, exploring his fascination with Africa and Morocco.
At Louis Vuitton, the maison's Asnières ateliers in the northwest of the Parisian outskirts had been partly converted into an exhibition space. The estate's top floor was also where Louis Vuitton eventually settled, as he chose to stay close to the atelier. This thus afforded his younger generations the immediate access and education in craftsmanship by the maison's skilled artisans. La Galerie d'Asnières opened to the public in 2015 as a way to preserve the heart and heritage of Louis Vuitton's trunk-making beginnings as well as showcase how the skills of its artisans translated to leather goods and other one-off custom designs throughout the maison's almost 170-year history.
Institutions like these offer a closer look to the inner workings of a fashion house. Vuitton's Asnières home, for example, was where the iconic Louis Vuitton Monogram pattern was birthed and decisions such as its first-ever store opening were made.
Even more than that, these points of archives serve as references for creative directors to be inspired in order to imbue their sense of vision and bring to light lesser- known elements of the fashion house they work for. One of Hermès' best-kept secrets is its closed-to-public area above its Paris flagship boutique located in the city's renowned Faubourg Saint-Honoré. What was once Émile-Maurice Hermès' office has become a vast (but still only a curated selection) archive of objects that he had amassed in his lifetime. Curious objects such as a walking stick crafted with a hidden parasol and a grooming trunk that was once owned by a statesman in Napoleon Bonaparte's government, are all housed within the space among equestrian-related paraphernalia and other oddities. And because Hermès has had a longstanding history of creating equally curious objects, the collection is a continuous source of inspiration for its designers on what could be applied and created to suit the needs of clients today.
Gucci's aptly named Gucci Garden, on the other hand, provides a link to how contemporary designs by current creative director Alessandro Michele fit in with the house's history. The museum—designed with an attached restaurant as well as a boutique with Gucci Garden-branded collections—took over what was once Gucci Museo in Florence's Piazza Signoria and now offers two floors of new Gucci nestled with pieces from previous creative directors. Existing and new fans of the house would be able to see the correlation between Michele's sense of more-is-more as well as his penchant for reviving archival elements, and the house's forgotten history, no matter how minute.
Much of what's been designed today are, more often than not, modern interpretations or sometimes even blatant revivals of what's been done before. With luxury fashion houses having histories that span at least a century, there's a need to ensure that every moment in their timelines is stored not only as a self-serving reference for future collections. Or to remind us of their notable achievements and importance. But also as a way to capture moments in history.
Fashion, after all, isn't just about clothes and fancy adornments. As these in-house institutions show, there are stories to unpack behind every design and motif—even if they seem rather superfluous at first glance. And the more that we look into them, the greater sense of appreciation can be gained for what's being created now and what would later become part of another stamp in our cultural history.
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