LONDON — For the second time since November, Harrods has become bigger than Buckingham Palace, the London Eye and the brightest West End show packaged into one, this time as the centerpiece of Louis Vuitton’s global collaboration with Yayoi Kusama, which began rolling out earlier this year.
Harrods barely had time to pull down the giant star that shone above the store’s Brompton Road entrance, or to dismantle the animated gingerbread installation that was part of “The Fabulous World of Dior,” mega-takeover before it began thinking in colored dots.
But the store worked quickly, and often through the night, to conjure a Louis Vuitton Kusama universe — with help from robotics, augmented reality and gaming — that will dominate the store’s facade, and interiors, for a total of five weeks until Feb. 13.
With support from Dior and Louis Vuitton, Harrods has been stretching the idea of experiential retail and engagement, taking art and design to the streets and to the masses, in a bigger way than most museums or cultural institutions.
It’s proving that partnering with powerful brands can pay commercial dividends and enrich the local culture as well.
If the British — or just about anyone strolling down Brompton Road — have never heard of Kusama before, they will have now.
In the next weeks it will be hard for anyone here to ignore the Louis Vuitton x Yayoi Kusama spectacle, which includes 27 Harrods windows adorned with giant colored dots and alive with anamorphic displays, all of which have been designed and made in London.
Inside the windows are spinning pumpkins and life-sized digital films of the 93-year-old Japanese artist watering surreal plants and watching them sprout, flower and move like little animals.
In others, Kusama paints her signature chubby dots on the window glass, or sits atop a stack of Vuitton trunks watching the Vuitton brand logos float around her like snowflakes.
Kusama is obsessed with polka dots, which she has painted since age 10 and has applied to canvases, tree trunks, entire rooms and even people.
Known for her exacting approach — each dot in her “infinity” paintings is painstakingly placed — Kusama is a prolific artist who has participated in the conceptual, feminist, minimalist, surrealist, pop and abstract art movements since her first appearance on the scene in the 1950s.
Day and night, she dominates Knightsbridge.
Starting this week, the artist will appear as a 15-meter, or 50-foot robot statue painting dots onto the exterior of Harrods on Hans Crescent as she peers into the third floor of the store. She carries a painted dots Capucines handbag from the Vuitton collection.
The storefront along Brompton Road has been transformed into a canvas featuring giant colored dots. Even the window awnings got the dot treatment.
By night, it transforms again into a supersized cinema screen with trippy images of multicolored, dotted pumpkins spinning across the facade, which was mapped for the first time in its history specifically for the installation.
While this may be Vuitton’s second collaboration in a decade with the 93-year-old Kusama — and its biggest project with a single artist — it is first for Harrods in many respects. It marks a post-pandemic bounce back for the store which, like so many others, was dented by lockdowns and a decline in foreign tourism.
“Through the pandemic-hit years, we were less able to deliver the unexpected in Knightsbridge — the ‘wow’ projects. It’s so great to be able to bring this back,” said Alex Unitt, partnerships director at Harrods.
“We want to be bold and push the boundaries of what is possible even more than before. It’s been amazing to partner with brands who share that ethos so wholeheartedly. On the business side, we have seen very encouraging results from these takeovers, which is a clear sign our customers want to see more. Our brand partners have to see that commercial value as well, which I am confident they do,” Unitt added.
“The Fabulous World of Dior,” which ran from mid-November until early January, was Harrods’ largest brand takeover ever. There was a dizzying display of lights on the facade, and gingerbread-themed windows, pop-ups, a café and an exhibition that told the story of the house’s founder Christian Dior, through animated gingerbread men and women.
According to industry sources, the takeover generated more than 25 million pounds in sales, and transformed Dior into the number-one bestselling brand at Harrods. Harrods declined to confirm any figures, but said Dior was a “top performer” throughout the 2022 festive season.
Harrods has pressed its Brompton Road facade — which takes up a full city block — into action once again for a dancing pumpkin projection that runs from 5 to 10 p.m. every evening.
Unitt said Harrods’ frontage is now a more powerful platform than ever.
He said the facade and the Harrods building “have always been able to deliver us brand equity and content, regardless of channel. The step change with these two takeovers is the addition of luster, imagination and iconic heritage of our partner brands. It captures the imagination of people even further.”
He added that “social media pushes awareness and excitement for the projects far beyond the store itself.”
To wit, Harrods and Vuitton worked closely on other experiences meant for anyone with a smartphone.
They created a dedicated app, LVxYK, and placed a QR code in each store window that prompts different experiences for the viewer, whether that’s a shower of colored dots raining down and plopping onto the Brompton Road or an in-store treasure hunt that bridges the physical and digital worlds.
The engagement is meant to cut across generations, different social groups and cultures, and to show how fine art, commerce and digital media can speak to each other on the shop floor.
Delphine Arnault, Vuitton’s executive vice president whose idea it was to reprise the Kusama collaboration after a decade, believes the Japanese artist’s work is “very inclusive. It speaks to everyone — it can speak to a child; it can speak to an intellectual. It’s not too hard to understand, although it’s very complex.”
Kusama’s work also foresaw today’s appetite for immersive experiences, and of works that are shareable on social media, said Arnault, who earlier this month was named chief executive officer of Dior in a major management reshuffle. She’ll take up her new job on Feb. 1.
Vuitton’s and Dior’s parent, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, has long supported the arts worldwide, and has been active in London of late. The LVMH Great Room at the newly reopened Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House houses a vast collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, and the most significant collection of works by Cézanne in the U.K.
While the Harrods frontage puts the focus on art, the store’s interior displays skew more commercial. There are conceptual pop-up spaces, and a patisserie counter that serves macarons, éclairs and choux buns with edible dots. The takeaway boxes showcase even more of Kusama’s artwork.
Inside Harrods’ Door 5 on Hans Crescent, there’s dedicated visual display with dots flying everywhere. The ground floor houses two pop-ups. One showcases a slew of bag styles — and a surfboard — with Kusama’s signature motifs.
Vuitton said its artisans developed a special screen-printing technique that replicates the 3D texture of Kusama’s brushstrokes, “allowing the touch of the artist’s hand to be felt.”
The other pop-up space houses an interactive exhibition that’s adorned with hundreds of painted dots, metallic spheres and reflective surfaces.
It includes a photo booth and carnival-style claw machines filled with prizes such as exclusive Louis Vuitton x Yayoi Kusama stickers. On display is the Infinity Party Trunk, which opens to reveal a mirrored interior with DJ decks, a mirror ball and space to store up to nine bottles of champagne. It is one of only two in the world.
Opposite that space a mirrored corridor, similar to those seen at Kusama exhibitions worldwide, allows visitors to enter into the artist’s dreams of infinity.
Further inside the store, the permanent Louis Vuitton space has been transformed into a Kusama wonderland with shiny painted balls, dotted walls and floors and shop assistants dressed in dotted white coats.
The dots just don’t stop. They spill over items ranging from menswear and womenswear, to shoes, bags, sunglasses, fragrances, fashion jewelry and trunks.
Unitt argues that Harrods has broken new ground with these all-encompassing takeovers.
“These partnerships demonstrate we are not only a retailer, but a commercial-driver, a media platform, a content partner, a creative consultancy, a luxury audience insight provider and much more for these brands,” he said.
“We deliver massive global reach for the message, and that also translates into direct sales,” said Unitt. “I am so proud of what we have achieved.”
There is more to come. Unitt said these projects are labor- and time-intensive, and can’t happen every month. But when Harrods does another one, it will go even bigger.
Unitt said the Dior and Vuitton/Kusama takeovers “are first and foremost physical installations. The magic of them is delivered in person. The next phase of our work on projects of this kind is to push the boundaries even further on the digital side.
“The facade treatments hold a lot of social currency, and the digital reach of them is beyond what we have delivered in the past. And we will always challenge ourselves to do more,” he said.
After Harrods tears down the dots and prepares for its next projects, the Vuitton/Kusama collaboration will live on, with projects and activations taking part worldwide in the first half of the year.
As reported, a second drop of products is scheduled for March 31, to be backed by another ad campaign that’s still under wraps.