Volez, Voguez, Voyagez

Louis Vuitton Unpacks Their Weird and Wonderful History in NYC

The traveling exhibit Volez, Voguez, Voyagez arrives in North America for the first time.

Say the name “Louis Vuitton” and monogrammed totes, cross-body bags and Damier duffles spring to mind, but travel is where the house got its start. What is now an empire of luxury goods grew from a single Paris storefront, opened in 1854, from which the visionary founder, Mr. Vuitton, outfitted an exclusive class of travellers with high-end luggage the likes of which had never been seen before.

As such, it’s only fitting that the exhibition created to explore and honour Louis Vuitton—both the man and the fashion house he built—is titled Volez, Voguez, Voyagez (French for “Fly, Sail, Travel”). On its fourth stop (after Paris, Tokyo and Seoul), the exhibition has touched down at New York City’s American Stock Exchange Building. Visitors may also want to walk the few blocks to Brookfield Place to check out the accompanying pop-up shop—should the inspiration to splurge on leather goods and accessories arise.

Volez, Voguez, Voyagez
An installment at the Grand Palais exhibition in Paris. Photography by © Grégoire VIEILLE/LOUIS VUITTON MALLETIER.

Context is key when viewing the original items that laid the foundation for the fashion house; the brand was born at a time when a piece of luggage for travel by boat had entirely different requirements than for travel by train or automobile. Vuitton built his business on a reputation for crafting luggage and packaging for any need. “You could order a packing case for anything: paintings, a collection of conductors batons, sets for a tea master in Japan…you name it, they made it,” explains Robert Carsen, the exhibition’s Canadian-born, Paris-based artistic director and set designer.

When dreaming up the environment that would showcase these pieces, Carsen strove to create an immersive experience, employing the very materials used to make the original trunks—such as Alcantara, used in the lining of Vuitton luggage—and recreating the original settings in which the pieces were used. To do this, he tapped into his experience as an opera and theatre director. “When I work on a play or an opera from the 19th, 18th or 17th century, I always try to see what is completely new about the work—not look at it with the distance of one, two or three hundred years—and you feel that, I hope, in this exhibition,” he says.

Ten themed rooms—including one focused solely on the iconic trunk of 1906—are filled with pieces from every era of Vuitton history. Grand sets, photos and video installations that, for example, simulate a moving landscape in the “windows” of the train room effectively transport visitors as they move past hundreds of rare items dating back to the 1800s and drawn from the Palais Galliera (Paris’s museum of fashion), the Vuitton archives and various private collections.

While some installations lean more toward a traditional museum setting, letting the objects speak for themselves, others—such as The Invention of Travel, which explores the rise of yachts and cruises, automobiles and trains—are pure whimsy: A custom-built biplane serves as a display for luggage, trunks are nestled into sand dunes in a desert landscape, nauticalwear and steamer bags sit atop a life-sized cruise deck and a life-size train bearing an updated Louis Vuitton monogram (made famous during Marc Jacobs’ tenure) whizzes by a specially made subway platform.

“I wanted the design to help visitors become immersed and increase their enjoyment of ‘the trip’ even more,” says Carsen, who—along with Olivier Saillard, curator and director of the Palais Galliera—has painted a vivid picture of a bygone era.

The New York adaptation of Volez, Voguez, Voyagez is the largest of any city on the exhibition’s tour to date. A room devoted to the impact the house of Louis Vuitton has had on New York City, on Hollywood and across the United States is entirely new and includes luggage that belonged to Diana Vreeland, Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall and Greta Garbo.

Volez, Voguez, Voyagez
Diana Vreeland’s monogrammed hat box. Photography courtesy of © LOUIS VUITTON MALLETIER.

Rather than being organized chronologically, the exhibit is ordered by theme. Pieces from the 19th century are interspersed with modern-day items, like the graffiti bags created during Marc Jacobs’s turn at the helm, items worn by stars like Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett and collaborations with brands and artists like Supreme, Cindy Sherman and, most recently, Jeff Koons. “There’s an element of the old and the new in this exhibition—how traditions of things that were done over 100 years ago have an influence on things being done today,” says Carsen. “I think people will come away really surprised at the richness of the heritage of Louis Vuitton and understand why the marque continues to develop in the way that it does.”

(Volez, Voguez, Voyagez runs until January 7, 2018, at the American Stock Exchange Building, 86 Trinity Place, N.Y.)

See our favourites from the New York City instalment below:
And see who else is a fan of Volez, Voguez, Voyagez by checking out the exhibition’s opening night celebrations: