Anyone who stopped to gaze 11 storeys up to take in the entire Yayoi Kusama-spot-clad corner of Louis Vuitton’s 5th Avenue Maison in 2012, giggled at a harlequin elephant on a seesaw in 2011, or marvelled at Frank Gehry’s sailboats last autumn, referencing his Foundation Louis Vuitton, will know that you can’t pass a Louis Vuitton store without lingering in front of the brand’s window designs. They stop you in your tracks and suck you into a whimsical world of pure fantasy.
A series of windows in the spring of 2010, installed for the opening of Louis Vuitton’s Bond Street Maison, made such an impression on Wallpaper* that we had to find out who was behind them. Designed as a collector’s cabinet of curiosities, they were filled with creatures crafted from small leather goods, presented under glass jars, like taxidermy; heritage spiked with humour seemed to seep through the glass. Later, these little beauties went on to have their own show in Milan during Salone del Mobile, and are featured again, among other memorable displays, in a new book, Louis Vuitton Windows, published by Assouline - and stocked at WallpaperSTORE*.
The vitrines’ designer is a very grounded Scot, Faye McLeod, who joined Louis Vuitton in July 2009 as the brand’s creative director of global windows, and the ‘Collector’ series was her first. Today, she oversees the windows for more than 460 stores globally. The displays are generally prepared 12 months in advance and shipped worldwide by boat, one hopes all packed in Louis Vuitton trunks.
For McLeod, windows are ‘a platform to perform in’ or a kind of ‘freeze-frame theatre’. She thrives in what she refers to as Louis Vuitton’s ‘creative community of super-talented people’, and has endeavoured to push the boundaries ever since she understood ‘the viewer wanted us to push’. It seems her boss, LVMH chief Bernard Arnault, who made her visual image director of LVMH in 2012, wants that too. ‘She has the remarkable ability to convey an aesthetic that is striking and refined at the same time,’ he says. ‘Faye has understood the spirit of Louis Vuitton perfectly, especially the combination of timelessness and modernity that is the essence of our products’.
It was back in 2010, when McLeod was introduced to the brand’s then-creative director Marc Jacobs, that her remit really expanded. Jacobs asked her and her co-worker, art director Ansel Thompson, to work on his show. Although originally sceptical about producing the ambitious concept, the pair delivered a set of four fully functioning hotel lifts, complete with perfectly choreographed porters who opened and closed the doors as models stepped off into the ‘lobby’ that was the runway for A/W 2011. What followed, now part of fashion folklore, includes an all-white carousel for S/S 2012 and a custom-built train that travelled along specially built tracks for A/W 2012.
Each show set was then developed into concepts for windows. Of her experience with Jacobs, McLeod says, ‘he held my hand throughout it, introducing us to the most amazing talents in the fashion world behind the scenes’. Among them was artist Daniel Buren, who collaborated on a set for S/S 2013 where four escalators, a chequered floor and a matching collection combined to stunning effect. ‘I really love designing show sets,’ says McLeod. ‘Ansel and I come alive in the environment; we are part of a team. There’s so much pressure, but the goosebumps you get when you hear the audience gasp as you unveil a carousel or pull out a train is ingrained in my mind.’
In November 2013, Nicolas Ghesquière was appointed artistic director of women’s collections, and that brought a new way of collaborating. 'Designing shows with Nicolas is inspiring. We have grown our team, bringing in [stage designer] Es Devlin – an amazing woman, with a background in theatre, music and ballet – and [DJ] Michel Gaubert. His music knowledge and how he works with Nicolas is mind-blowing. So together we’re a team pushing boundaries and creating shows that are modern and future-focused. It’s different in a really good way. Ansel and I are learning a lot and we’re loving it.’
Since Ghesquière’s arrival, the company has undertaken an ambitious programme of public exhibitions that offer an insight into the world of Louis Vuitton and the mind of the designer: ‘Series 1’ was shown in Shanghai and Tokyo in 2014; followed by ‘Series 2’ in Los Angeles, Beijing and Rome earlier this year; and ‘Series 3’ was in London until 18 October.
McLeod’s visual team, now numbering 23, incorporates the show designs into the exhibitions, as well as the windows. Both currently reference Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, which were replicated for Louis Vuitton’s A/W 2015 show set. ‘For the windows, we wanted modernity of movement,’ says McLeod. ‘Embracing the show set, our geodesic domes and the colour palette, we created Walking Girl, a digital film, and also incorporated the advertising campaign film by Bruce Weber.’ Such elements also combine in the ‘Series 3’ show, which ‘is about the thought process of Nicolas. The archive is shown so you can see how heritage becomes today’s product.’
Back to the windows, how does McLeod know when it really works? It’s down to the smudge test, she says, when you get nose and hand prints all over the glass and have to wipe them of hourly: ‘That’s when I know a window is a success.'
As originally featured in the November 2015 edition of Wallpaper* (W*200)