Louis Vuitton Series 3
Retrospective Exhibition Review by Jonathan Parr
"What Series 3 did was to make the audience, the individuals, integral and equal to the fashion via extensive Brechtian devices." Jonathan Parr looks at the performativity of an exhibition.
The Louis Vuitton Series 3 exhibition provided a new format for fashion by adopting the medium of theatre. In so doing, the exhibition presented a fascinating and fully-developed repurposing of theatre and an idea for what it could become.
Drama is a force for democratisation. It has always been a platform to educate, to expose scandal, to share news, politics and ideas and moreover it is always for public consumption. Theatre’s very existence requires communication; to quote Peter Brook: "A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged." Practitioners since time immemorial have established drama as a medium for engagement with the population as a whole. Among the most obvious of this number must be Bertolt Brecht, who wrote: “Our representations of human social life are designed for river-dwellers, fruit farmers, builders of vehicles and upturners of society, whom we invite into our theatres and beg not to forget their cheerful occupations while we hand the world over to their minds and hearts, for them to change as they think fit.”
Conversely, the fashion industry often appears, and perhaps fairly, to be highly elitist and exclusive. The affectionate mocking of it in the Zoolander films illustrates both the popular public opinion held about the industry and the fact that drama is a forum for representing that public opinion. However, fashion as performance has always had links to drama, and theatre in particular, in terms of staging and presentation of an artistic vision and creation. Indeed, by Brook’s definition, a catwalk show is undeniably an act of theatre. Shows by the likes of Alexander McQueen in the 1990s, when he would make robots that fired paint at a model or built a Pepper’s Ghost projection device, corroborate this. However, in these instances, the audience was still very much kept separate – arguably it was theatricality rather than theatre.
Spread over several floors of 180 Strand, each chamber of Louis Vuitton Series 3 was different in terms of content, layout, intention and method of performance. There was a circular room with projections of the Louis Vuitton timeline, complete with images of past collections revolving around the walls. There were sections of historical pieces from early collections and there was a gigantic, clear Perspex wardrobe with pieces from the latest collection for the audience to handle. There was a bare room save for two master-craftspeople from Louis Vuitton, at work on the House’s trademark cases and answering questions from the audience. However, being French non-English speakers, each was accompanied by a translator who interpreted the dialogue between craftsperson and audience.
On the way out of the exhibition the mechanics of the show were revealed as the audience followed a path around the outside of the chambers, recognisable because of their tell-tale shapes. This was reminiscent to the way the audience entered the 2008 production of Brecht’s Good Soul of Szechuan at the Young Vic – entering the auditorium from backstage and onto the stage.
Most important though was the role of the audience. There were several devices used to present the latest collection, the most striking of which were ceiling-height narrow screens on which videos of life-size models from the latest shows played on loops. Because this was a very popular exhibition, frequently attendees were obliged to interact or at least to be aware of the other visitors moving around the space. This blurred the lines of the show and the audience as images of clothing and models on catwalks were presented next to members of the public, which put them into the same context. From whatever angle, in the same line of sight one saw the models on the screen and other members of the audience – they were made equal in our minds.
The fashion world seems so far away, both in terms of cost and practicality, that many people choose to keep it at arm’s length. Most of us will never have the chance to attend a catwalk fashion show, let alone a Louis Vuitton show. What Series 3 did was to make the audience, the individuals, integral and equal to the fashion via extensive Brechtian devices. Thus an attempt was made to democratise the fashion industry: because theatre does democratise and this was drama. As Hungarian critic George Lukács examined in a section of his long essay The Sociology of Modern Drama: “the integrity of individuality, becomes the vital centre of drama. Indeed the bare fact of Being begins to turn tragic.”
Did this have an effect on theatre itself though?
Immersion is not new to Theatre. However, Series 3 did in effect thrust theatre into the high street, quite literally. To turn to Lukács again: “the realisation of personality, its per se expression in life, could in no wise become a theme of earlier drama, since personality was not yet problematic. It is, in the drama of today, the chief and most central problem.” This was an exhibition to be seen at – either in the Celebrity columns written at its opening, to the numerous opportunities for selfies and audience interaction in the exhibition itself to the fact that, ultimately this was an advert for clothing to be worn day-to-day. As Brecht himself wrote: “The theatre is so to speak the most human and universal art of all, the one most commonly practised, i.e. practised not just on the stage but in everyday life.”
Louis Vuitton Series 3, concerned with personality, was that theatre of everyday life and personality that both Brecht and Lukács predicted. Therefore it can be seen to be an attempt at a new and contemporary incarnation of theatre, embodying these concerns. It certainly showed that theatre can be successfully integrated, indeed can be made to be essential, to creating equality across society today.
Brook, Peter ‘The Empty Space’ quoted from The Guardian ‘How do you define theatre’ http://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2010/feb/09/define-theatre-national-scotland
Brecht, Bertolt: Brecht on Theatre (Methuen Drama, UK, 1974) p. 185
Lukács, George: ‘The Sociology of Modern Drama’ in The Theory of the Modern Stage, Eric Bentley ed
(Penguin Books, UK, 1990) p 433
Brecht: Brecht on Theatre p. 152