The rise of the luxury exhibition: ‘It’s to elevate their products to art’ | Australian fashion

Right beside the Museum of Contemporary Art, in a purpose-built white and blue cube, mottled like a QR code, the See LV exhibition is an imposing presence in Sydney’s Circular Quay. It houses some of Louis Vuitton’s greatest hits from over a century and a half of luggage and later fashion design, all on display for free.

South across the city, at the Powerhouse in Ultimo, there are two more fashion exhibitions, Gucci Garden Archetypes (which is staged by Gucci) and Zampatti, a retrospective of the late Australian designer Carla Zampatti, staged by the Powerhouse.

“I just came from Gucci [Gardens], and now I’m at the LV museum,” one visitor at See LV remarks, within earshot. “Corporations seem to be museums now.”

The See LV exhibition space at Circular Quay in Sydney. Photograph: Louis Vuitton

These are not the only big fashion exhibitions opening in Australia this summer, with the National Gallery of Victoria’s blockbuster Alexander McQueen: Mind, Mythos, Muse opening on 11 December, the day See LV closes.

“Commerce and culture have been intertwined for hundreds of years,” says Roger Leong, the curator of Zampatti. “Brands with a long heritage, like Gucci, Chanel, Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton, usually have extensive archives, which gives them the scope to present compelling exhibitions, sometimes in a museum context.”

But he’s quick to draw a distinction between shows like Zampatti and Mind, Mythos and Muse, and the offerings produced entirely in-house by brands such as Gucci Garden and See LV. “A brand-generated one … is generally tightly focused on the brand’s core values.”

Dr Alexandra Palmer, the senior fashion curator at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, puts it more bluntly: “The brand exhibition is to show how fabulous the brand is.

“It’s to elevate their business and products to art, which gives it more cultural value … that it has a long legacy and that you at the end, hopefully, want to buy its products.

The Zampatti exhibition was staged because the Powerhouse’s curatorial team believe she’s a designer with significant legacy in Australia. Leong cites her accomplishments in “female empowerment, multicultural success, philanthropic largesse”.

But, with enough money, a brand doesn’t require a curatorial tick of approval to build something that looks equally spectacular.

The displayed objects at the Louis Vuitton and Gucci exhibitions are pieces from their archives, be they garments, handbags or skateboards. These are luxury commodities on display “lit up like icons or relics”, says Nigel Lezama, a fashion and luxury scholar.

“There’s a real strategy that [luxury brands] use in adopting these high cultural practices to give their own commodities that same sheen and aura [as art].” It’s about giving a sense of “importance that can inspire consumption”.

Glass displays of handbags and toys at the Gucci Garden exhibition
‘All these glass cabinets soon start to feel like a showroom – the line between cultural experience and shopping blurred.’ Photograph: Gucci

See LV and Gucci Garden are both travelling exhibitions; Louis Vuitton having toured Dubai, Wuhan and Hangzhou in China, and Tokyo, while Gucci visited Florence, Hong Kong and Shanghai – before converging in Sydney. “Having selected Sydney makes sense,” says Rong Jake Chen, a designer who has lectured in luxury fashion and marketing at RMIT Melbourne. “We’ve had an influx of tourism since our borders have opened.”

In one room at the Gucci Garden exhibition, infinity mirrors line the floors as you walk through a sprawling display of handbags and shoes designed by [now former] Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele. All these glass cabinets soon start to feel like a showroom – the line between cultural experience and shopping blurred.

Louis Vuitton collaborations, including with Yayoi Kusama, on display at See LV
Brand-staged fashion exhibitions still give audiences free access to pieces of fashion history. Photograph: Louis Vuitton

“That’s where the money is, handbags and shoes. That’s what people buy,” Palmer says. Ready-to-wear and haute couture garments almost become secondary in the advertising campaigns of luxury brands – explaining the push for the prominent displays of leather goods in brand-funded exhibition spaces too.

But a perk to these brand-staged fashion exhibitions is that a visitor can see some of a designer’s more significant pieces.

At See LV, the former menswear creative director Kim Jones’ collaboration with Supreme in 2017 is on display. Marrying Vuitton’s floral motifs with Supreme signature red, it’s thought of as the solidifying moment street-style went high fashion. It’s a bit of fashion history that could otherwise only be accessed at great, lucrative lengths through invitation-only appointments with a sales associate.

The aim may be commercial, Lezama says, “but I can see these things and I can imagine beyond the mystification that happens at the brand level. It’s something that doesn’t really require me to pull my wallet out.

“That’s why I go to them all the time, I love that experience,” Lezama says. “Because I’m not going to be able to buy it.”