Louis Vuitton: Schadenfreude

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Louis Vuitton's Richard Prince Motard Firebird Bag from the Spring 2008 Runway.So we all know that I have some history with the house of Vuitton. My emotions surrounding the brand are in equal measure love and hate. Since we’ve parted ways I have continued to watch LV with mild interest and respect of a certain kind; respect for the creativity and quality that is still at the forefront of the product offering. In the past few months, however, I am sad to see the mighty house embarassing itself in more ways than even my jaded spleen could imagine. The Luxe Chronicles posted a similar essay on this subject last month, but with even more mea culpas in recent weeks, I am glad I delayed in writing a response...er, agreement.

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the world can tell that the heyday of luxury must-haves has cooled off considerably, especially given the current economic and social climate. What is the use of a $2500 or even $500 handbad these days when it costs a fifth of that amount just to fill up a gas tank? Isn’t it a little gross to have something like that on your arm when millions of people have been displaced due to the earthquake in China, and not to mention America’s own mid-west? I don’t know any metrics off hand, but I would venture to guess that luxury sales are probably NOT comping against last year, never mind five years ago.

Bernard Arnault seems to be having a difficult time closing a deal these days, and Dana Thomas’ book Deluxe has probably blown the roof off for the true fashion insiders – the ones that actually care. For those that aren’t inside, it’s hard to see what the brands are doing to draw in that mass market like they did before. The notion of hip-hop stars blinging it up with labels seems incredibly stale. The same stars are wearing the same leggings and tops in every gossip magazine, and the latest crop of tastemakers isn’t appearing and everyone seems to be waiting around for the next luxury trend. Will it be of the Fendi Baguette or Jimmy Choo variety? No one knows. But if there is one house that is trying a bit too hard to make it happen for themselves it’s Louis Vuitton.

To be clear, I think Marc Jacobs’ continual creative leadership of the brand remains strong and exciting. It’s what the Vuitton executives are doing with it that is becoming an embarassment.

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Don't laugh...this is war!This April, Vuitton debuted the “Monogramoflage” – a new collaboration between Marc Jacobs and Takashi Murakami. While the collaboration is always fun and proved very successful for the house in the past (especially in its first edition in 2003,) this pattern proved to be a bit of a let-down. Where was the vivid whimsy of the usual Murakami humor? Apparently it’s time to get serious. Meant to be a symbol of the “war against counterfeiting,” the “Monogramoflage” was shown at the Brooklyn Museum of Art with an installation of very real-looking counterfeit shops that “sold” actual authentic bags. The concept sounded interesting, but after the initial novelty wore off it just seemed very smug. Here’s this big, fancy, luxury brand fabricating a dirty, illicit scene for the elite art patrons to gain a sense of street. Aren’t we witty, clever and funny? Um…no.

As imagined, the monogramoflage has gone over like a lead balloon. No one’s really mentioned it since.

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The Coppolas for Louis Vuitton's "Core Values"The brand did create a beautiful, well-received film advertisement that took the arthouse cinema world by storm, and followed it up with some new print images. Equally beautiful, one can easily see that Vuitton is trying very hard to get back to its classic “goods for the luxury traveler” image that has been lost recently. The campaign is rightly called "Core Values." While I do enjoy and appreciate these images, the attempt feels incredibly self-conscious. The fresh riskiness that used to abound in older campaigns isn’t apparent here. Choosing such artistic icons as Keith Richards and the Coppolas doesn’t make the brand edgy, it just brings it back to where it should have been in the first place: the true luxury market. Just as a "core values" campaign ought to do! (ThreadTrend and StyleFrizz)

The Sex and the City Movie was yet another debacle, with the most over-the-top Vuitton bags gracing practically every frame – even gratuitously. Granted, the whole film was really nothing but one big product-placement storm, but no one could overlook the prominence of Louis Vuitton. The brilliant and spot-on New York Times review by Manohla Dargis even went on to say “Louis Vuitton co-stars.” She finished her review by saying: “There is something depressingly stunted about this movie; something desperate too. It isn’t that Carrie has grown older or overly familiar. It’s that awash in materialism and narcissism, a cloth flower pinned to her dress where cool chicks wear their Obama buttons, this It Girl has become totally Ick.” Right in the middle of the Ick? Louis Vuitton’s Motard Firebird Bag – probably the most memorable moment in the film, for better or worse.

This week’s latest is yet another dose of the proverbial omelette in the face of LV. The brand was forced to close its flagship in Hangzhou, China since “its products did not meet quality standards.” (New York Magazine, and StyleFrizz) Apparently this has something to do with swatching or some other technicality, but still. Something shady is going on here. Surely the Chinese government could have worked out an arrangement with the house to fix the problem rather than all the public embarassment? Better question: Didn't Louis Vuitton know about these technicalities? I guess not, or maybe it was beneath them to comply? The government seized all of the handbags in the store, forcing the company to close its doors there temporarily.

I have to wonder what everyone’s thinking over at the Pont Neuf headquarters in Paris. Is Vuitton’s current stream of misses making up for its many years of hits? Is this just an indication of the market’s growing impatience with the gimmicks of luxury brands? Or, is it Jean Beaudrillard’s fourth order of similacra wherein the copy has come to replace the original?

Could this be the beginning a teutonic shift in luxury fashion? Or is it just slipping?

Louis Vuitton Spring 2008 Runway Detail from Style.com by Davide Gallizio, "Monogramouflage" by Takashi Murakami, Louis Vuitton "Core Values" image - copyrighted by Louis Vuitton,