Architecture is hard. Literally, and figuratively. Yet, the discipline is one of the more popular sources of inspiration cited by designers.
Louis Vuitton artistic director of women’s collections Nicolas Ghesquière has staked his own claim to architecture as an overarching theme of the French luxury house’s cruise collections and show locations. While other brands may dabble in deconstructivism or Gothic Revival, Ghesquière is a modernist through and through. Witness the who’s who of luminaries whose buildings have stood in as backdrops for Louis Vuitton’s cruise shows: John Lautner, Oscar Niemeyer, I.M. Pei, Joseph Lluis Sert, and Eero Saarinen.
“Nicolas is on a mission. I think he really feels that he was put on Earth to have a leadership role in acclimating our eyes to the next modern, contemporary way of living. He’s obviously very modern-driven, very positive-architecture, soaring architecture,” said Louis Vuitton chief executive officer Michael Burke on Tuesday, sitting at one of his favorite tables in the restaurant at the Peninsula Hotel on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, overlooking retail real estate that sparked memories from early in his career.
“Because I hired Nicolas in 2013, we had had lengthy discussions about what we liked, what we thought were sources of inspiration for Louis Vuitton, what we thought were some of the roots of Louis Vuitton, what made Louis Vuitton special and what made it different, beyond the clichés of travel,” Burke said.
“Bernard [Arnault, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton chairman and ceo], myself and Nicolas share a passion for architecture. It turns out that Nicolas has just as much of a passion for architecture as a source of inspiration.” Burke said he and Arnault have a passion for architecture and a strong appreciation for what it takes to build buildings. “Fortunately, we’re not building any buildings, but we’re being inspired by an architecture, inspired by a moment, a cultural moment for the show that’s going to happen,” Burke said, referring to Wednesday’s 2020 cruise collection at the Trans World Airlines Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, N.Y.
Burke was asked whether Vuitton feels pressure to keep up with the forays of competitors, including sister brand Dior, which last month traveled to Marrakech, where it showed its cruise collection amid the remains of the ancient El Badi Palace. “No, we always try to do the impossible,” he said. “We’ve never had any outside pressure to come up with what should be surprising and exhilarating and a new experience. It’s always about forward-looking, it’s always about modernistic moments of culture, about women, strong women, and women that are writing their own history. That’s what it’s all about.
“As you can see, this is our sixth cruise together, and there’s been a leitmotif from Day One. It’s a magic trip down a magic lane at a historically and culturally significant venue that is contemporary with who we are today,” Burke said. “Other houses will have different approaches and they’re spectacular, but we don’t believe they apply to us. What applies to us is this very tricky task of putting the finger on the pulse. It’s not about resuscitating the past, it’s not about doing something that’s impossibly futuristic, it’s at the intersection of those two, which defines the present. And defining the present is actually more difficult than referring to other cultures and other times, so we try to position it in our time and we try to get it right. It’s a tricky one.”
Burke emphasized his employer’s passion for architecture. “Bernard and I go back 40 years. We don’t celebrate. Just like Karl [Lagerfeld], we never look back, only forward. We built many things together, so we’ve always hired fabulously talented architects. [Pritzker Prize winner Christian] de Portzamparc on East 57th Street was a gutsy move on my part and Bernard’s part to buy the property,” Burke said of 19 East 57th Street, a 24-story tower with a Dior flagship on the ground floor built in 1991 when he was ceo of Christian Dior USA. “That was fun. So, we’ve had a history of taking audacious bets on venues, projects and architecture. And of course, that translated very nicely when we got involved in the luxury business and the fashion business.”
So who has the final say about the location? The decision is the result of an organic conversation between the triumvirate of Ghesquière, Arnault and Burke. “We’ve never even posed that question, so we never have to answer it,” the latter said. “These are the types of things that Nicolas, Bernard and myself have always been very, very close to. We never say, ‘OK, you get first dibs and next time I get first dibs.’ No, no, it’s an ongoing conversation. Sometimes it’s a question of timing. Sometimes, it’s like, ‘Well, yes, we like that, but maybe the zeitgeist is not absolutely perfect. Maybe next year, maybe in two years.’ We have dozens and dozens of venues and buildings that inspire us, and we never know which one is going to be next year’s. Typically, we start after summer, paring down [the list] and we just go through the advantages. Then, it’s up to Nicolas to figure out if the time is right. I’ll leave that up to him, because fashion is always one step ahead.
“Architecture is typically steeped into a cultural moment,” said Burke, citing Vuitton’s 2016 cruise collection, shown in 2015 against the backdrop of Bob and Dolores Hope’s midcentury modern Palm Springs home designed by Lautner in 1973. “That was a cultural moment, referring to the optimism of the West Coast, the making of California as one of the top five countries in the world, if it were a country, and the boundless optimism and positive can-do attitudes. In Europe, Palm Beach and Palm Springs are often confused. I had to make clear that there’s a very big difference between the two. John Lautner’s architecture was a source of inspiration because fashion, ready-to-wear and couture, is about form and function. Of course, it’s about drape, and when you think about Bob Hope’s house, that was draped. It has very sinuous curves and volume and very sensual architecture.”
While fashion has to be current, the locations of cruise shows have a different set of objectives, according to Burke, who readily admits that some of Vuitton’s choices may have seemed counterintuitive at the time. He explained that the “right time” for a cruise show to unfold in a locality doesn’t mean that everything has to be hunky-dory there. “When I say the right time, it doesn’t mean [only] good times. On the plane, I was watching ‘Bad Times at the El Royale.’ Fabulous…It’s the type of movie you see on an airplane. There were bad times, and those are the good times. That’s when things are happening.
“When we went to Palm Springs, it was not on everybody’s map,” Burke said. “Most people still considered it a place where you went to retire. Now it’s Coachella and Burning Man. When we went there, I can tell you, we had many startled people thinking that this is not the right thing.”
The decision to hold Louis Vuitton’s 2017 cruise show outside Rio de Janeiro at the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, a landmark building designed by the Brazilian Niemeyer, was roundly unpopular. “Every single person that I know told me not to do it, that It was a bad time for Brazil,” Burke explained. “I said, ‘That’s precisely the right time. It’s a great country and a great culture. Don’t abandon them during the bad times. They love modern art, they love fashion, and they love bodies.’ Yes, they were going through a hard time. That’s the moment to come in and pull off something like that, and they’re forever grateful. There was the Zika virus, favelas, and the biggest economic slump since the Twenties, and that’s exactly when we decided to go there.
“There’s a moment to be in New York,” Burke said. “It’s the right time to be in New York, because New York is polarized, and America’s polarized. New York is in a complex situation. Things are happening, and there’s tension. Tension is good. We don’t flee tension. It’s in those moments of tension that creativity occurs. After tomorrow, you’ll see [the Flight Center] in a fully restored state. This is going to be a true addition to New York. It’s returning to public space again. Anybody old enough to have flown into that terminal fell in love with it. It’s spectacular.”
Vuitton’s cruise collection show at the TWA Flight Center was no departure from its modus operandi, with a front row that included Michelle Williams, Emma Stone, and Sophie Turner and Joe Jonas. “Architect Eero Saarinen in 1962 [designed] another type of moment when there was a lot of positive energy in society,” Burke said of the building. “It was the Jet Age, it was the jet plane, the sky was the limit. The structure, itself, looks like a flying….almost like a mechanical albatross — seagull is probably a better analogy. It’s taking flight. That inspiration, flying, which is a dream of mankind….to fly…so that’s what we’re going to be experiencing.”
The Flight Center, which conjures up memories of travel, when it was chic, and stewardesses — dressed in uniforms that included miniskirts or, yes, HotPants with midi-length open vests — walking through the cavernous terminal with its red carpeting, closed in 2001. “It was used by low-cost airlines,” Burke said. “For the last two decades, it’s been closed. It had fallen on hard times. It’s one of the architectural gems of New York. What’s happening is Manhattan is becoming prohibitively expensive. The Millennials don’t want to live out in the suburbs, so it’s the near city that’s really attracting everybody. There’s this flight that’s detrimental to urban life and what’s happening today, these neighborhoods that are extremely well-connected by public transportation. Everything is a half an hour from the city.”
Burke makes a point to credit Ghesquière with being ahead of the fashion curve, saying, “He did bourgeois a year ago. Everybody did bourgeois last season. He was not understood, when he did bourgeois, because bourgeois can be camp in the context of what’s happening this week in New York [the Met Gala’s theme Monday], or, it can be reactionary. If you do it at the right moment, it pushes the envelope, which is what it did last year. Most did not get it. Now they get it, because everybody’s jumped on the bandwagon and bourgeoisie is everywhere.”
By the same token, Vuitton tries to find places that aren’t top-of-mind, the way, say, Rome or Hawaii are known to every traveler. The former is obviously architecturally significant, and the latter offers spectacular natural beauty, but the brand isn’t interested in treading over usual suspects. “There are many locations like that in the world that deserve to be discovered,” Burke said. “We try to seek out locations that aren’t obvious, and only go there due to the audacity of Louis Vuitton. This sets us apart.
“Monaco was an appetizer,” Burke said of Vuitton’s first cruise show in 2014, sounding almost embarrassed that the brand traveled to such a well-known spot. At the other end of the spectrum is the Pei-designed Miho Museum in Kyoto, the site in 2017 of Vuitton’s cruise show. Inspired by Shangri-La as heaven on earth, the architect of the Grand Louvre and its pyramids created a futuristic suspension bridge connected to a dramatic metal tunnel through which the museum was revealed. Models traversed the bridge and walked dramatically through the tunnel. After Rio de Janeiro, Ghesquière and company wanted a palate cleanser, and Miho’s lush landscape complied. “Cruise is about travel and being on the road,” Burke aid. “With Nicolas, we look for epic architectural landmarks in far-flung locations.”
“Saint-Paul-de-Vence had that moment,” Burke said. “It was totally organic. It wasn’t laborious, it was side-by-side fluidity, coexisting. It wasn’t our most spectacular nor was it our biggest, absolute performance. It was a rare moment when architecture and fashion got together. It was otherworldly. There was a storm, and storms in the South of France are powerful. It was like a movie — a drama — with all of the fashion models in the courtyard walking by Giacometti’s statues, and they had the exact same posture. It was serendipity and forever it will remain in my memory.”