There is one large showcase in Paris's Musée des Arts Décoratifs that displays the Louis Vuitton trunks - all 26 of them - that a lady needed for a holiday 150 years ago. That was back in the days before checked-luggage fees, because Louis Vuitton made his name in the age of steam when people travelled by train and ship, with a retinue of porters.
Today, in the Marc Jacobs era of the brand, when we tend to travel light, and by airplane, 53 of Louis Vuitton's bestselling handbags are cutely displayed in a delicious, giant "chocolate box". In the early days it was luggage, but today, it is the handbag that symbolises the brand.
It is just one of the parallels drawn in this unique exhibition that is a portrait of the two men - Louis Vuitton, the founder, and Marc Jacobs, the creative director.
"It's all my fault," says Pamela Golbin, the curator of the exhibition. "I wanted to explore how the brand, at over 150 years old, is not only relevant today, but more importantly is a driving force in the luxury industry." In 1800s Paris there were 400 "packers" contemporary to Louis Vuitton; today, his company is almost the only one left and "the DNA he set up for his brand has now set the standard for the luxury industry".
However, she first had to convince Marc Jacobs. "Museums are not really his thing," she admits, but he was persuaded when Golbin explained her idea: "Louis's entire career was spent during the industrialisation of fashion, a critical time when the industry took its form and if you put Marc into context, it is really the story of fashion and how today it has become globalised."
Sprawling two floors of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the journey of discovery begins with Louis Vuitton, a man who got his big break as a layetier (packer) to Napoleon III's wife Empress Eugenie, who ironically once lived in the same building where the exhibition is now located. After 17 years of studying the foundation of voyage-friendly baggage, Vuitton decided to build his own. He originally designed airtight canvas trunks with flat bottoms - as opposed to the rounded styles of the era - thus making them easier for stacking and storing.
He opened his first store in Paris in 1854, hawking finely made trunks, hat boxes and other luxury luggage for the well-travelled set. He was friendly with the couturier Charles Frederick Worth and they would send clients to each other. Another vitrine in the exhibition shows the number of changes of outfit a lady was expected to make during the day, which explains why so much luggage was required when it came to travel. The actress Sarah Bernhardt took 200 pieces of Vuitton luggage with her on a tour of Brazil. Another vitrine demonstrates, with X-ray images, some of the items that would have been packed in these beautiful trunks - a reference to the X-ray machines that every traveller passes through at airports today.
You start to get some insight into the lifestyle of Louis Vuitton's clients 150 years ago. At the entrance of the exhibition is a zoetrope, a remarkable contraption that was avant garde in Louis's day, explains Golbin. It was a device that produced the illusion of motion from a rapid succession of static images - a forerunner of film. Upstairs in Marc's World we find the Tumblr wall of videos, images and pop culture references including photos of David Bowie, Elizabeth Taylor and Barbra Streisand, and campy footage from his favourite films such as The Graduate. "We started off with the idea of an inspiration board for a collection and that became the Tumblr page - if we could open Marc's head this is what would be inside," quips Golbin.
Around the exhibition there are more vitrines showcasing his ready-to-wear and collaborative artistic work with Richard Prince (which included a series of robotic nurses), Stephen Sprouse (those graffiti bags) and Takahashi Murakami. Golbin points out that Jacobs is a great collaborator and how essential it was to get that "we" element into the exhibition. The collaborations and proliferation of bags on show make the point that every collection starts with the design of a handbag.
The displays are accompanied by cheeky titles such as Just for Kicks for a clockwork display of 12 pairs of shoes, or My Favourite Colour Is Shiny, while in the background you can hear Jacobs's voice telling different anecdotes about the collaborations and collections. At the end, a doll-size replica of the designer wearing a Comme des Garçons kilt, and, of course, a Vuitton bag bids the visitor farewell.
• The Louis Vuitton Marc Jacobs exhibition runs until September 16 at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Rue de Rivoli, Paris 1er. www. lesartsdecoratifs.fr
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