PARIS — Mona Lisa, meet Louis Vuitton.
Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, which is plastered on tote bags, T-shirts and mugs in Paris souvenir stores, is the star of a new collaboration between the French luxury brand and American artist Jeff Koons, which was unveiled at a celebrity-studded dinner at the Louvre museum on Tuesday.
Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Connelly, Miranda Kerr, Léa Seydoux and Michelle Williams were among the 200 guests who enjoyed a three-course meal in the presence of the enigmatic muse, marking the first time the Louvre has hosted a dinner in the room housing the world’s most famous painting.
“This evening seems to be almost a dream,” marveled Jennifer Aniston, flanked by her husband, Justin Theroux. “It’s unbelievable.”
Williams watched from a distance as guests including Catherine Deneuve vied for cell phone shots of the “Mona Lisa.”
“I feel like I’m going to remember this night for the rest of my life. I once came to the Louvre and tried to see the ‘Mona Lisa,’ but there were so many people around it that you couldn’t get close,” the soft-spoken actress said. “I haven’t had my moment with her yet.”
On the ground floor, displayed alongside the museum’s permanent sculpture collections, were Louis Vuitton bags printed with images of da Vinci’s painting, in addition to works by Peter Paul Rubens, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Titian and Vincent van Gogh.
The Masters collection of bags and small leather goods, set to go on sale on April 28, follows in the footsteps of Vuitton’s previous collaborations with art world stars including Yayoi Kusama, Takashi Murakami and Richard Prince.
The paintings are covered in a gleaming new variation on the brand’s signature monogram motif, with the artist’s names emblazoned on the front of each bag in metallic block letters — an outré twist that seems designed to spark heated debate.
“I mean, it’s not necessarily surprising,” remarked Chloë Sevigny. “Vuitton has a history of working with really big pop artists, and I think Koons is one of the most celebrated pop artists of our time, so it makes perfect sense.”
She noted that the choice of featuring other artists’ work seemed fitting for the Internet age. “It’s a sign of the times, so it seems very au courant in that way, that kind of everybody is doing that reappropriating thing,” she said. “Slapping some gold on it and an autograph, I mean, I think they’re fun — expensive good fun.”
Deneuve sported the Fragonard version in pink. “It’s joyful, it’s very personal. I think women are going to adore it,” she said emphatically. “If I could choose my own painting, I would probably go for something a bit darker. Perhaps I would choose a [Francisco de] Zurbarán.”
Koons reached out to cradle Hélène Arnault’s Speedy bag, featuring the “Mona Lisa,” as he posed for pictures with the concert pianist and her husband Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive officer of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the luxury conglomerate that owns Louis Vuitton.
“This is what I’ve been looking forward to: to see the bags, to see the collection in the real world,” he said between greeting well-wishers including LVMH scions Antoine and Delphine Arnault, gallerist Larry Gagosian and Jean-Paul Claverie, who advised Arnault on the opening of the Fondation Louis Vuitton near Paris.
“I wanted the bags to really represent the energy of connectivity,” Koons added. “I’m using culture as the metaphor for that type of connectivity, and rejoicing in the shoulders and everybody’s contribution that have come before us.”
It was the second time in two months that Vuitton staged an event at the Louvre, one of the French capital’s top tourist attractions. In March, the brand’s creative director Nicolas Ghesquière showcased his fall collection amid the majestic sculptures of the museum’s Cour Marly.
“I’m very happy to be able to welcome you in this magnificent place in the presence of two icons: the ‘Mona Lisa,’ which is probably the world’s most famous and perhaps most admired painting, and a living icon — Jeff,” Bernard Arnault told guests after they sat down for dinner.
The luxury titan said he had given Koons carte blanche and was impressed by his meticulousness and attention to detail, which dovetailed with the rigor of the Vuitton handbag workshops.
“I also liked the fact that there was something a little transgressive about the whole thing. Vuitton has always been a little transgressive, and having the ‘Mona Lisa’ on a Vuitton bag, with the Vuitton logo and a Jeff Koons logo, will no doubt generate a number of comments,” Arnault remarked.
Koons followed with a speech that veered between complex theories about art and simple expressions of joy.
“I have to pinch myself, because the realization of this opportunity that we all have to be together in this room with these paintings, with the ‘Mona Lisa,’ the da Vinci, with the Titians and the Veronese — it’s so special,” he said.
“The bags for me represent giving it up and how da Vinci gave it up to his heroes. He loved Piero della Francesca. He loved Masaccio. He loved Uccello, and through that love, he was able to have the transcendence to become da Vinci, and through our appreciation of da Vinci, we also participate in that cultural love,” he added.
“I just hope the bags can reflect this type of love, and giving it up, and how transcendence occurs in our lives,” Koons concluded.
In an interview at Vuitton’s headquarters in Paris the day before the event, Michael Burke, chairman and ceo of the brand, said it was the first chapter in an ongoing collaboration with Koons.
“It’s really about rediscovering the masters. We’re telling a five-, six-century-long story of Western pictural art, starting with the Italian Renaissance, and we think it deserves to be better understood,” he said.
The Masters line, consisting of around 20 bags and 15 accessories, will go on sale in 150 Vuitton stores worldwide, in addition to a pop-up space at 655 Madison Avenue in New York, the previous DKNY store, set to open on April 28 through July, which may be extended.
“This is almost the anti-T-shirt,” Burke said. “It’s much more complex than anything we’ve made before. So what’s limiting it is the distribution and the way we make it, which is really what modern luxury is about.”
The prices, too, would make the average tourist balk. They range from 600 euros, or $640 at current exchange rates, for a “Mona Lisa” iPhone case, to 3,000 euros, or $3,185, for a Keepall or Montaigne bag in a choice of designs.
A Speedy from the Masters series costs 2,100 euros, or $2,230, compared with its usual price of 760 euros, or $805. Each painting has been matched with a specific colored leather trim, with the exception of “Mona Lisa,” which is available in a choice of two colors.
Burke and Delphine Arnault, executive vice president of Louis Vuitton, first approached Koons more than two years ago. The artist had previously collaborated with Dom Pérignon, another LVMH brand, on a sculpture housing a bottle of Champagne.
“We had absolutely zero preconceived notions as to what it would be. It was a totally blank canvas, and it took him quite some time to get his head wrapped around it,” Burke recalled.
Marc Jacobs, creative director of Vuitton from 1997 to 2013, had previously given the storied brand a Pop Art spin by inviting artists such as Stephen Sprouse to makeover its handbags.
Koons, known for his sculptures of helium balloons, could have followed a similar route. (Indeed, two of his Balloon Dog sculptures appeared as photo prints on the limited-edition handbags he produced with Swedish high-street retailer Hennes & Mauritz AB in 2014.)
Instead, the Vuitton project is designed to illustrate the unspoken links between major artists — a theme that Koons previously explored with his “Gazing Ball” paintings shown at the Gagosian Gallery in New York in 2015, which featured reproductions of famous works including the “Mona Lisa.”
Koons controversially added gazing balls — mirrored spheres often used as garden ornaments — to his reproductions of the original paintings.
For the Vuitton bags, he went a step further by having the paintings inlaid with his version of the house’s monogram motif, featuring his initials alongside those of the brand. The bags also feature his signature on the back, as well as a tag in the shape of an inflatable rabbit, a reference to another one of his sculptures.
“Since 1896, when the monogram was drawn and registered, it has never changed. We’ve silk-screened over it, we’ve done it in colors, but the graphic aspect of the monogram never changed,” Burke said. “This is the very first time we’ve ever allowed this to happen.”
The metallic monogram was produced using an intarsia technique that the house developed especially for the project: Instead of being stamped or painted, the pattern is actually cut and inserted into the underlying canvas.
“If you look at it very closely, it’s absolutely amazing, and that’s what fascinated Jeff so much: how we took an idea and really made it into something quite beautiful through craft,” the executive said. “Jeff’s a perfectionist and so are we, so we met and I think each side appreciated that meticulousness of the other.”
Obtaining faithful reproductions of the paintings on canvas took more than a year. Burke noted that although the works are in the public domain, Vuitton solicited the support of all the institutions involved.
“The definition would not be possible without their cooperation because we really needed high-definition files to be able to reproduce in that way,” he said, adding that the effect will be virtually impossible to copy.
“You know the truth? Virtually nobody will have ever seen ‘Mona’ in this detail, even if you have seen the original. First of all, you can’t get close to the original — you’re a few meters away. Second of all, she’s under Plexi- or glass,” he noted.
“She has this veil on her head. You don’t see that when you walk up to her. Most of the details and the colors are not really that distinguishable when you see the original. The Vuitton version is actually — because you’re holding it in your hands — a lot more detailed. Most people will be amazed,” Burke predicted.
In addition to the Louvre, the brand is working with the National Gallery in London, home to Van Gogh’s “Wheat Field With Cypresses”; the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, which houses Fragonard’s “Girl With a Dog”; the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes, for “The Tiger Hunt” by Rubens, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, home to Titian’s “Mars, Venus and Cupid.”
“It’s taken us three years. Few houses would have invested that kind of time, energy and enthusiasm to get everybody behind it and to get all the museums behind it,” Burke said. “Why did they embrace it? I think it’s because of the presence of probably one of the most famous contemporary artists, and a house that is a guarantor of a certain way it would be executed,” he added. “He’s a major collector of classic art, and all the museum directors know that.”
No doubt, the institutions will also welcome the publicity that comes with the collaboration. The retrospective dedicated to Koons at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in late 2014 and early 2015 drew 650,000 visitors, a record for a living artist, and generated vigorous debate in art circles.
“We fully expect this to be highly discussed. It can be perceived as transgressive, and so there will be discussions and the museums do want to be part of that discussion,” Burke said.
“And the discussion will be around classic art in today’s world: what’s the role of a museum, and how can we ensure that the future generations appreciate art in museums, knowing that in today’s world everything is online, everything is tweeted and blogged and if it’s not viral, you don’t know about it,” he added.
To that end, each bag features a leather lining printed with a biography and a portrait of the master whose work has been referenced, alongside a short text about Koons. Burke declined to say who would feature in the second installment later this year, though the project covers artists through the 20th century.
“It’s not defined. When we started off, it was serendipity. We don’t know how many we’re going to do,” he said.
“Jeff is telling a story of how various artists have been influenced by previous artists so there will be chapters and you don’t want to write too many chapters or else it may become redundant. So we’ll see. It probably depends on how exciting each chapter is,” he concluded.