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Art & Design Part 1: The New Museums

There are three men, all dressed in black watching me. Given their refined people-watching skills they probably can guess I am not going to buy anything. I could, if I wanted to forego grocery shopping for a few months, but despite my love of beautiful fashion objects I’m not willing to part with R8000 for a pair of sunglasses or R30 000 for a handbag. Even if it boasts the Louis Vuitton label, generating envied stares for decades to come. I am also not sure that buying these designer objects is the point any more; there is something so satisfying in studying pristine looking objects that I can never have. To possess them would rob me of this vicarious pleasure.

Stepping into the Louis Vuitton store at Sandton City, is a bit like visiting the Louvre or the Tate Modern; there is so much mythology and status attached to the place, the objects that just standing in proximity to them and being able to almost touch them generates an endorphin rush.

These vicarious shopping escapades never used to be available to South Africans. Or certainly not on the scale that they have become in recent years. Particularly since the opening of Luminance, a mini Harrods, in Hyde Park Corner shopping centre or The Diamond Walk, a new wing at Sandton City that opened in May this year, which is lined with quasi fashion museums like the Louis Vuitton store. There is no mistaking you have entered a different sartorial stratosphere when you glide down this Diamond Walk – the corridor between the shops is wider – the facades of each store are taller, grander and longer – there are window-shopping displays but mostly you have to get inside to study the objects.

Completing the museum analogy at the Louis Vuitton store at the Diamond Walk is the fact that small items, like sunglasses, purses or clutch bags are displayed under glass. Larger items are few and far between, driving home the fact that these items are rare, collectable, sought-after and valuable. The men in black – the security – also affirm this idea for in reality, such tight security surely must be unnecessary – could they not just tag the items as is the case for valuable ones in other stores? Or is a plastic tag seen as gauche? It is not as if the store is full of customers and theft is easy. I am the only one in the Louis Vuitton. It’s like visiting the Joburg Art Gallery – you can hear your footsteps and the guards are your only company.

Like the Joburg Art Gallery, or in the case of the soon to be opened Zeitz Mocaa (Museum of contempary African Art) in Cape Town, the façade of these shops is grand and the function, the nature of the contents are not always visible from outside. The facades of luxury clothing stores are becoming more ornate and architects and designers are applying their talents to turning them into landmark buildings. Take the new Dior store in Seoul, Korea, designed by architect Christian de Portzamparc . This six-storey structure is wrapped in large-scale white panels that appear like giant petals