Much anfare has heralded the arrival of Vuitton'sSeries 3 exhibition to the Strand in London today, but many still don't know exactly what to expect when they walk through the doors. Is it a branding exercise? Are we celebrating some anniversary or venerating the cleverness of a far-removed creative? Nothing, Vuitton CEO Michael Burke insists, could be further from the exhibition's aims.
"I don't want to tell the customer anything," Burke smiled as we walked the vast retro space, still stepping over men in high-vis jackets mending and fixing and tidying in the hours before opening. "This isn't a Vuitton lesson. I just want them to be able to feel it." An emotional connection to a product? To the creative process? Aren't CEOs meant to be cold and calculating? Burke grins again, aware that he might be unusual in the luxury sphere. "I don't know about romantic. You'll have to ask my wife."
Despite his protestations, there must be an old romantic within any money man willing to fund a designer retelling the story of each collection in interactive (for which read expensive) form. Series 3 is, in simple terms, a showcase of Ghesquière's "creative process and influences" - and the means by which he arrived at a completed collection, in this case his third: autumn/winter 2015.But, this isn't a just any old mood board.
"This isn't about celebrating the heritage of Louis Vuitton - we've done that and we do that, but it's not what this exhibition is about," Burke nodded. "And it's certainly not a retrospective for Nicolas, he's just getting started. This is about the relationship between the clients and the house. The show is so short, and no matter how many people we allow in, no more than 1,000 people are going to see it. Even with livestream, there's no way for enough people to be able to experience it the way we want them to, and that's where the exhibition comes in."
But it's not just beautiful muses and the very visual workings of Ghesquière's brain that we're introduced to - the processes and people behind the season's most coveted luxury items are also foregrounded. The Artists' Hands room features tables topped with screens that play footage of artisans painstakingly creating some of the label's most famous pieces in real-time, while upstairs (rather frighteningly for them) you can watch two skilled craftsmen do it for real. Another room contrastingly shows the very modern workings of the pieces' creation - explaining how leather is laser cut for the accessories - giving fans an understanding of the meeting of old and new that goes into every piece: case in point the miniature trunk bags carried by models in the show.
"Making the Petite Malle is just like making a trunk," Burke said as we stood in front of a table in the craftsmanship room covered in hundreds of tiny bag components. "Obviously the scale is different, but the craftsmanship and the way it is constructed are very similar. Trunks are expensive to make, and they're difficult to make, so when Nicolas said, 'This is what I want to do,' the artisans said, 'No!'" he laughed. "But of course they have done it beautifully."
"Louis Vuitton has always stayed relevant, it was always at the forefront of whatever was happening and that's what we're trying to do today," Burke explained. "At one time, there were more than 200 trunk makers in Paris alone, and only Vuitton has never gone out of business. Two others have been resurrected since then, and so three exist today, but we were the only one that evolved, and changed, and stayed relevant."
Finding a new way to approach well-worn concepts is key to regeneration, and here how the accessories room looks (think "silhouette" not add on), and what the wardrobe can do (and even say), should be a lesson to any fashion curator who thinks shelves of handbags and mannequins in dresses are going to cut it anymore. Onwards and upwards is Burke's only direction of travel.
"When Marc took over, he went 'woop' in this direction," Burke said, gesturing right to signify Jacobs' move to modernity when he was appointed creative director. "And no wonder considering what he was taking on. I signed the contract with him in 1997, and back then there were a lot of people who thought Vuitton doing ready-to-wear wouldn't work. Even within the company. Then we were timeless, he wanted to make us timely - and he did a great job. Now, Nicolas wants to move the cursor a little more towards the middle, back towards timelessness."
Relationships between CEOs and creative directors are often tricky, sometimes fraught, but absolutely always essential to the smooth running of a house - especially one as lucrative and high-profile as Vuitton. Burke, who has spent more than 35 years in the luxury industry, began his career as CEO of Christian Dior and then Louis Vuitton in the USA, before becoming deputy CEO of LVMH in 1997 under Bernard Arnault - an impressive path, no doubt.
Used to being the ying to very creative yangs, Burke teamed up with Karl Lagerfeld as Fendi CEO in 2003, eventually returning to Vuitton as chairmain and CEO three years ago. It's clear from his enthusiastic support of this exhibition, and general casual kind words towards Ghesquière, that this is no frosty pairing. Burke has found his man and is delighted to have him.
"I think that 10 years ago, maybe he wouldn't have been ready for this job, but now - after everything - he is," he nodded. "It takes a special designer to be able to take on the history of a house, to play with it." One without ego? "Yes, I think so," Burke nodded. "To move things on, you can't think about how it appears or how you're perceived, you have to be quite confident. And relaxed."
The sprawling industrial lounge towards the end of the exhibition, designed for chatter and contemplation following your wander through Ghesquière's vast brain, overlooks the Thames and boasts a wall of Vuitton stickers - bearing bags, shoes, and even the show space itself. No one will stop you if you take one or two, but you didn't hear it from us. The Petite Malles on the other hand are an entirely different story.