SEOUL — A cartoon radish dressed as a rabbit and his diminutive crocodile-like companion riding aboard Louis Vuitton’s signature 1929 Citroen delivery truck is the last thing one would expect to see at the latest incarnation of the brand’s “Volez, Voguez, Voyagez” historical travel-themed exhibition in Seoul.

But in trendy South Korea, where cuteness is a prized cultural aesthetic, Louis Vuitton’s latest emoji-based collaboration with South Korean messaging service Kakao Talk ushers in a new era of digital partnerships and South Korean pop culture relevance for the French luxury fashion house.

The collaboration, unveiled alongside Vuitton’s “Volez, Voguez, Voyagez” exhibit at the Zaha Hadid-designed Dongdaemun Design Plaza, features animated emojis of the brand’s monogram trunks alongside a colorful cast of cartoons including the aforementioned radish/rabbit as well as a cat and dog couple in love; a maneless lion named Ryan; a mischievous personified pink peach, and a hip-hop-obsessed mole named Jay-G who sports an Afro and a black suit. Besides the downloadable emoji pack, which is free for a limited number of visitors, Vuitton and Kakao have also launched purchasable stickers, iron-on patches and custom-made leather luggage tags which will retail for around $200.

Kakao Talk messenger, which can be likened to Whatsapp in the U.S. or China’s WeChat, is South Korea’s most widely used mobile messaging application. Through the platform’s various functions and sister apps, users can send each other gifts like Starbucks coffees, play games together and even hail taxis via the firm’s KakaoTaxi app.

“Kakao Talk is the Instagram of [South] Korea,” Vuitton chief executive officer Michael Burke explained while taking WWD on a tour through the 10-room exhibition. “Ninety percent of adult Koreans use it. You don’t exist in [South] Korea if you’re not on Kakao Talk.

“We were the first [fashion house] to do Snapchat when we did the Palm Springs event two years ago with the first [fashion house] Snapchat story. We got 50 million impressions. Here in [South] Korea, we’re the first to do [a luxury fashion-related collaboration with] Kakao,” he added.

According to Burke, South Korea is Vuitton’s fourth largest market in the world. “[South] Korea is the most [culturally] open and yet most conservative society in Asia, which makes it a very, very interesting place,” he said. “It’s not a coincidence that music, fashion, movies, that emanate from South Korea influences all of Asia. It’s the strongest cultural influencer across Asia — stronger than Hollywood.

“It was influenced by America, with the car culture, the culture of department stores, entertainment…This has made Korean culture more open to outside influences, which allows them to become much more of a dominant cultural force.”

The brand’s latest exhibition in Seoul launched a few weeks after the fashion house’s cruise 2018 traditional Japanese kabuki and noh theater-themed show near Kyoto.

“There’s the right way to appropriate and there’s the wrong way to do it,” Burke explained. “Over a period of six months, [Nicolas Ghesquière] worked with Kansai Yamamoto and came up with a very Kansai Yamamoto Japanese collection. You could accuse them of cultural appropriation but nobody did because we did it with Kansai.

“Last week, somebody else showed a show in Florence and copied blatantly Dapper Dan’s 1988 Louis Vuitton copy,” said Burke, clearly referencing Gucci’s cruise 2018 show. “That was done in what I consider the wrong way. I don’t know what happened but what it looks like some junior designer on a screen did some cut and pasting.

“Cultural appropriation when you’re just cut and pasting and you’re not really going in-depth and you’re not doing any research, there’s a fine line on whether that’s appropriate or not.”

Burke said the new generation of Millennial luxury consumers seek authenticity above all. “They don’t want to be lied to. They want all the information, the behind the scenes. Years ago, designers were put on a pedestal and they were made to look godlike, inventing everything ex nihilo. Anybody who knows anything about creativity knows there’s no such thing as ex nihilo, there’s nothing from nothing. It doesn’t exist. You’re always inspired, always informed by something. You have to be involved with exchanges; exchange is good and necessary…as long as you give credit and you do your homework,” he added.

To celebrate the launch of the “Volez, Voguez, Voyagez” exhibition in Seoul, the fashion house held an opening event with a host of local and international celebrities on Wednesday. LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton chairman and ceo Bernard Arnault attended the cocktail event alongside French actress Isabelle Huppert, Chinese pianist Lang Lang, Japanese model Rila Fukushima, and Korean entertainers Doona Bae, Cha Seung-won, Gong Yoo, Sulli Choi and others. The exhibition is open to the public until Aug. 27.

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