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, reflecting Dior’s signature floral designs. A mirrored staircase inside is another architectural feature, bringing to mind the high-end salons during Paris’s fashion heyday. Inhabiting the building or the space presents an encounter with art, culture and status. It is therefore, perhaps no coincidence that the Hyde Park Corner Shopping centre boasts architectural art installations, such as Willem Boshoff’s scripto-visual work on the skylights. The Dolce and Gabbana store at Sandton City, doesn’t boast any artworks, but the rambling maze of rooms are lined with thick plush purple carpets and large black chandeliers, making the store a destination in its own right. Completing the fantasy is a cleaner in a white and black chamber maid outfit.
The Louis Vuitton House has really been pushing this line between commerce and art. Last year it opened a foundation designed by Frank Gehry, who is arguably the go-to-architect for museums – he designed the Guggenheim in Bilbao – and a few weeks ago it opened La Galerie where vintage and never-seen-before items produced by this label are enshrined in museum-like settings. The house itself was once inhabited by the titular Louis, reiterating it as an historical/museum setting and there is an archive too, where “artefacts” are stored in temperature set rooms and cabinets of the sort you would find at say the Wits Art Museum, where they keep indigenous material culture, like beaded aprons, pipes, which in some ways is perhaps no different than an old pair of Louis Vuitton shoes. Are these quasi museums objectifying culture from the West now that they can no longer do so with objects belonging to 'Other' cultures?
Naturally, this move to release objects that were once pure commodities from their crass capitalist moorings is one way of upping the value, generating more sales and extending the mythology that ultimately drives brands. It is not as if these brands don’t deliver; Louis Vuitton items are covetable because they are well-made and will probably last (unlike most of the fly-by-night) products we merrily consume and discard each season. However, you can’t help wondering whether some level of distortion is taking place in this shift that brings us deeper into the belly of consumerism rather than away from it?
In South Africa we are slowly edging in this direction via local design; with all these design fairs (100% Design, Design Indaba, Guild and Sanlam Handmade Contemporary) and Zeitz Mocaa announced that when it opens in late 2016 it will present curated shows of South Africa fashion. This caused a little frisson of anxiety among some in the art world, but it is in line with museum practice across the world, which is using fashion or clothing exhibitions to make museums more “accessible” to the masses – fashion speaks to everyone, because it is such a vital carrier of identity and is embedded in our daily existence. Hence exhibitions such as the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty, which has travelled to the major museums in the world and selling out record numbers of tickets, are becoming vital parts of museum programming.
This populist shift in museum practice, could be having an impact on how we view coveted designer items and how they are displayed. Of course, somewhere along the line these luxury shops must be generating sales too. I have a sense as I wander through the Louis Vuitton shop that the customers who shop are so discreet they are invisible – sending assistants to make the purchases, or getting the store to open at midnight so that they can peruse without the eyes of the men in black trained on them. As for me; all my conscience would ever allow would be a Louis Vuitton pen for R450, which I would probably never use and keep wrapped up in tissue paper as if it is some treasure from a rarely known crypt.