For a couple of weeks, fashion bloggers have been frothing at their keyboards thanks to speculation that Madonna might be the new face of Louis Vuitton, and the news was finally confirmed this weekend, to a chorus of love-it-hate-it online debate. But with the celebrity magnet Marc Jacobs designing its collection for the past 11 years, Louis Vuitton has had no problem bagging megastars for its advertising campaigns - from Jennifer Lopez, photographed by Vuitton's regular collaborators, the ridiculously cool Mert Atlas and Marcus Piggott, to Sean Connery, shot by the legendary Annie Leibowitz. So why the big furore over the photographer Steven Meisel's six images showing Madonna in what appears to be a smoky French restaurant (although it is actually the Figaro Bistrot in Los Angeles)?
Well, that's the eternal mystique of Madge, and it becomes more compelling as she gets older. Whether you think she's the best thing since Aretha or you've never understood the fuss, whether you're an avid reader of Grazia or you wish those brightly coloured headlines would stop invading your peripheral vision, you will certainly have an opinion on this 50-year-old singer. What was formerly a media fascination with her controversial career, her films and her provocative music videos, has become a sort of grudging awe at the singer's resilience, her endless reinventions, her determination to be adored by the public.
It was ever thus: Madonna's music and acting have always been secondary to her famous ability to change her image, chameleon-like, so that she remains not just relevant but way ahead of the mainstream. And with that series of fashionable masks comes a public hunger for the tiniest snippets of information about the real Madonna (though it could be argued that she's revealed more than enough in the past).
Her marriage to Guy Ritchie, which recently ended with divorce after eight years, was from the beginning a subject of gossip and conjecture. Over the last month, the tabloids and rag mags have reached hysteria, packed with shrieking headlines about the woman who, by general consensus, remains the Queen of Pop after more than 25 years in the business. Naturally, it's not her latest album, Hard Candy, that they are twittering about, or even her current world tour, Sticky & Sweet, it's the post-divorce life behind that weirdly wrinkle-free facade.
In an echo of Nicole Kidman's advert for Chanel No5, directed by Baz Luhrmann, two years after her divorce from Tom Cruise, Madge's turn for Louis Vuitton - a brand that is, like Madonna, known for its reinvention of classics - re-establishes her as a public entity, independent of a private life and indestructible in the face of the press's pesky slings and arrows. Marc Jacobs, certainly, was inspired by her strength, energy and charisma, apparently deciding to use her for the campaign just a day after seeing her in concert. "I wanted the campaign to be very bold, very sensual and very atmospheric," he said in a statement when the pictures were released. "To carry off all these references and all this sophistication, we needed the ultimate performer - and for me, that is Madonna."
It comes as no surprise that Louis Vuitton would want to refocus its advertising somewhat to appeal to the older, wealthier customer, given the economic climate. The company's Core Values campaign has already returned a sense of gravitas to the brand, with the likes of Catherine Deneuve and Mikhail Gorbachev being photographed for the ads. But fashion is still predicated on the quest for youth, and Madonna bridges the gap between classic maturity (her day-to-day wardrobe is refined and flattering) and ageless cool (her on-stage, on-MTV persona remains satisfyingly edgy).
So what's the campaign story? Jacobs is trying to portray the archetypal Parisienne - fishnets, a slash of red lipstick, soaring heels, African-inspired jewellery - in a sepia-toned, nicotine-stained 1940s-style bar, complete with Thonet's iconic model 214 bistro chairs (designed in 1859, four years after Louis Vuitton was established). In fact, there's more than a little Edith Piaf-style melancholic defiance going on here: for Vuitton, defiance in the face of the world's sombre mood; for Madonna, defiance in the face of passing time. And one feels that, as she looks boldly towards Meisel's camera, this chanteuse must surely be channelling Piaf's most famous words: "Non, je ne regrette rien."