Jeff Koons

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Titian and “Mona Lisa” herself — coming soon, to a handbag near you, if you happen by the Champs-Élysées, 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, or any of the 150 Louis Vuitton outposts where the brand’s new, flashy Jeff-Koons-has-his-way-with-the-Masters collaboration will be housed beginning April 28.

In a big, splashy, celebrity-laden party at the Louvre on April 11, under the gaze of Mona herself, Vuitton formally presented Koons’ collection of handbags and small leather goods, which had been on full view on the brand’s web site throughout the day. In pictures, at least, the bags look amazing. They’re a lot of fun, a little outrageous and beautiful — if your idea of beauty veers somewhere between bucolic romp and steely eyed Leonardo da Vinci diva, and whose doesn’t? They’re all marked with a little bunny charm indicating, “Koons worked here.” As for the rights to the paintings, just like “Happy Birthday” and “Hamlet,” these masterpieces fall under public domain, including the 500-year-old “most famous painting in the world,” whose legally co-opted image graces everything from refrigerator magnets and T-shirts to endless artists’ homages and satires. Still, the cost of this enterprise to Vuitton is unimaginable — and its anticipated returns, even more so — just figuring venue rental and Koons’ commission alone.

There might also have been quantifiable “thank yous” to the other museums involved, those housing the rest of Koons’ chosen paintings: the National Gallery in London (Vincent van Gogh’s “Wheat Field With Cypresses); the Alte Pinakothek in Munich (Fragonard’s “Girl With a Dog”); the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes (Peter Paul Rubens’ “The Tiger Hunt”), and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (Titian’s “Mars, Venus and Cupid”).

Vuitton chief executive officer Michael Burke told WWD’s Joelle Diderich that the project required the cooperation of those institutions because extremely high-definition images of the paintings were required to ensure rich detail and stave off the knockoff artists, making the bags virtually impossible to copy. (Listening, Purse Valley?) Burke even audaciously proclaimed that, in Mona’s case at least, the Koons handbag version is better than the original — or at least more detailed to the consumer’s eye, because da Vinci’s gal can only be viewed at a distance, and she’s behind Plexiglas. “She has this veil on her head,” he said. “You don’t see that when you walk up to her.”

What the project didn’t require: any apparent involvement from Nicolas Ghesquière — Vuitton’s artistic director for women’s — apart from his attendance at the dinner. His non-involvement exemplifies the changing role of the once-hallowed designer at major brands.

Vuitton has a history of designer collaborations, beginning in 2000 with Stephen Sprouse and including, over the years, Julie Verhoeven, Yayoi Kusama, Takashi Murakami and Richard Prince. Yet those were very different, instigated by then-creative director Marc Jacobs, who was on the front end of fashion’s current obsession with contemporary art. (That’s not to say Jacobs invented the notion; Elsa Schiaparelli conspired creatively with Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dalí; Yves Saint Laurent famously paid homage to Piet Mondrian.) But Jacobs made collaborations a thing. While focused on accessories, those collaborations were conceived to work in concert with the ready-to-wear — on the runway. The Murakami in particular proved a long-term hit, running from its debut in 2003 through July 2015.

Koons’ Masters collection thus builds on what became a brand signature, with one notable difference: the role of the artistic/creative director. It follows as well Vuitton’s 2014 “the Icon and the Iconoclasts,” through which Karl Lagerfeld, Rei Kawakubo, Christian Louboutin, Frank Gehry, Marc Newson and Cindy Sherman designed limited-edition bags in observance of Vuitton’s 160th anniversary. Then, Ghesquière was credited with involvement in the selection process, along with Delphine Arnault, who conceived both projects. No such public nod to the artistic director this time around.

Whether one should infer in-house dissatisfaction with Ghesquière’s tenure, who knows? Vuitton has denied rumors to that effect, and the designer’s contract runs through next year. One can certainly view the project in light of Vuitton’s brand reality and the broader landscape across fashion, coming as it does at a time of unprecedented designer movement. Since last year, Givenchy, Chloé, Pucci, Calvin Klein, Oscar de la Renta, Dior, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga have all installed new top designers, the last three after one-and-done contracts, and de la Renta, after an abrupt parting of the ways.

Looking at Vuitton alone, a project of this scale and notoriety carried out without the participation of the artistic director, aka fashion designer, telegraphs the brand’s admission that, essentially, Vuitton is today as it was when launched in 1854, a luxury leather goods house, its fashion an interesting brand extension.

In the larger fashion picture, the collaboration exemplifies both hedge and acknowledgement: hedge against a designer’s possible short-term departure and acknowledgment that, since designers come and go, a brand’s core identity must be rock solid, independent of its designer du jour. Yet that identity must also be current and exciting, so resting on laurels of lucrative yet familiar house classics isn’t an option. Thus, the explosion across fashion recently of (often) non-runway items — bag charms and snazzy straps — and whole categories intended to cross over to classic status, whether or not they first appeared on the runway. Circa 10 years ago, four-figure sneakers barely existed. Now, you could say that, price aside, they’re a dime a dozen. They’re everywhere, and even in cases of an initial, one-shot runway appearance, it’s unlikely that designer is still signing off on their “design.”

To date, Vuitton’s Jeff Koons Masters project is an anomaly: No other house has tried something this expansive. In fact, only two or three (including an LVMH stablemate of Vuitton’s) could afford to do so. But continued hedging against potential short-term designer departures is likely to continue across major-house fashion. (A recent high-profile exception: Calvin Klein, where Raf Simons has been given full creative control over the whole shebang.) Taken too far, creative duality across a brand’s offerings could have an effect opposite to that intended:  confusing, rather than strengthening the brand identity.

As for the designers involved, such parallel creative activity within the houses for whom they work will continue to chip away at the already weakened aura of designer as creative deity. That could make them seem ever more expendable in the eyes of their employers — at least until brand blandness sets in, triggering a cyclical designer ascent.

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