Why the Jeff Koons and Louis Vuitton collaboration is one for the art nerds
Written by Tak Pham
In Spring 2017, the French fashion powerhouse Louis Vuitton introduced a new collection of bags wrapped in what art historians would call master paintings. The collection features five iconic paintings with the artists’ names in all caps. The featured works are: Leonardo da Vinci’s Monalisa (La Joconde); Titian’s Mars, Venus and Cupid; Rubens’ Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt; Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Young Girl Playing with Her Dog (La Gimblette); and Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Cypresses.
The bags survey 386 years of Western art history. More excitingly, Louis Vuitton has extended the artwork range to 514 years by collaborating with American contemporary artist Jeff Koons, whose 2015 series Gazing Ball Paintings was the precursor to this collaboration. In an age where originality is highly sought after and creativity has become disposable, Louis Vuitton’s partnership with Jeff Koons seems to offer a different path to individuality.
This was not the first time Louis Vuitton has collaborated with international contemporary artists. In the past few decades, the brand’s patrons have seen their Louis Vuittons adorned with heavy brush typography by Stephen Sprouse in 2001; dark humourous texts on oxidized leather patterns by Richard Prince in 2008; distinguishable dot patterns from Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama in 2012. There was also the 13-year collaboration from 2002 to 2015 with Takashi Murakami, whose multicolour monograms have become the brand’s permanent image. Though these collaborations have yielded certain commercial successes for the brand, none have been able to transcend into “a true work of art” as Jeff Koons has done.
Jeff Koons is inarguably one of the most famous contemporary artists of the 21st century. Gaining attention in mid-1980s, Koons’s practice has developed by ways of commenting on socio-political issues through the images of consumerism. His most well-known series The Balloons (1998-1999), looks back at the pop art of Andy Warhol and Roy Litchtenstein. These metallic animal-shaped balloons challenge viewers’ perceptions of the material, pushing the limit of their imagination.
His collaboration for Louis Vuitton Masters also operates within the same logic. By putting a well-known master painting such as the Monalisa on the outside of the bag, then embossing over it with gold-capped letters of the artist’s name, Koons deliberately challenges the viewer’s knowledge of these works. The bags and the wearers engage in a constant re-defining dynamic where each party asks the other: “Are you a work of art?”
Jeremy Bailey, Important Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, 2013, C print, 17” x 11”
Jeremy Bailey, Important Portrait of Stephen Bailey and Angela Bailey, 2013, C print, 17” x 11”
Jeremy Bailey , Important Portrait of Omar Kholeif and Frank Gallacher, 2013, C print, 17” x 11”
Kanye West’s 2017 Yeezy Season 5 collection also addresses this very same anxiety of authenticity – a struggle of trying to stay uniquely true to oneself. West’s solutions are denim bodysuits, track suits, jeans and oversized sweaters in saturated dark green, blue and red. The collection is ordinary and wearable repositioning the authentic values to the characters of the wearers. Similarly, Toronto-based media artist Jeremy Bailey uses visual satire to challenge the sense of seriousness and self-righteousness that is common in the art scene. Bailey stages ordinary people in art historical compositions before embellishing them with shiny colourful digital objects to declare “anyone can be a work of art.”
Most of Louis Vuitton’s collaboration artists reinvent its image by wrapping the products with designs that align with their personal aesthetic. The results are special edition merchandises with resale values that appreciate as availability becomes scarcer. Jeff Koons’s bags reject this model. They play into the aesthetic of kitsch in order to confront inauthenticity head on.
The house of fine couture rejects the iconic “LV” logo and brownie-checker patterns, which have been forged, and have become an illusive symbol of artificial wealth. Cloaking in master paintings, Louis Vuitton’s collaboration with Jeff Koons makes self-aware irony the source of empowerment. With the collaboration, Louis Vuitton has placed themselves within 514 years of art history, making a space for themselves besides these master artists. They have changed their attitude by removing disposable creativity, and reintroducing timeless quality.
Tak Pham is the associate director at Pari Nadimi, an internationally reputed Toronto gallery known for presenting ambitious, challenging and critically engaging Canadian and international artists since 1998.