Intrinsic Insight

Branded: Iconic Conversations Between Past & Present

Branding and globalization seem like contemporary ideas—and ideals. Yet, if we glance back, any notion that we invented them is quickly dispelled. For a visual journey into the past, as well as an intellectual exploration, two major exhibits in 2012 will provide much food for creative thought.

Fashion is all about fantasy (or in the tomayto-tomahtoe spectrum, artifice), and the Met Costume Institute’s 2012 exhibit will deliver on both fronts. The Institute’s venerable curators Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton plan to “originate fictive conversations” between Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada, Italian designers of different eras.

Inspired by Miguel Covarrubias’s “Impossible Interviews” caricatures for Vanity Fair, the exhibit will examine the ties between Schiaparelli (1890-1973), Coco Chanel’s rival, and friend of Dali, and Prada, the former Communist party member, who reinvigorated her grandfather’s fashion house with black nylon backpacks featuring nothing but the branding of the triangular Prada plaque in the early 1990s.

Both women have had crystal ball insights into trends (Schiaparelli is credited for creating the idea of the modern runway show, and Prada launched a million knockoffs with her nylon bags), and both have immersed their work in historical and intellectual depths (Prada has a PhD. in Political Science). Yet Schiaparelli saw her brand go bankrupt—and ultimately eclipsed by that of her nemesis Chanel, whose name continues to carry prestigious, high fashion weight. The Prada name, trading for almost a hundred years now, remains robust, thanks to Miuccia’s efforts. How does one trailblazer lose it all? While another goes maintains the energy of her innovations? The women’s “chat” at the Met will certainly be illuminating.

At the Louvre’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs, a separate conversation will take place between history’s most famous trunk maker, Louis Vuitton, and Marc Jacobs, the designer who guarantees his own icon-hood with every new move he makes.
Right from the start of his business in the 1850s, Vuitton understood the need for branding (ironically to fight counterfeiting attempts of the time), and for a global presence—in its early years, the Parisian firm opened its first foreign outpost on London’s Oxford Street. The LV logo as we know it with its quatrefoil and Japanese-inspired flowers, continues to be the most copied identity ever created.

When New Yorker Marc Jacobs arrived at LV, it was merely a leather goods brand. Jacobs added pret-a-porter, jewelry and menswear lines. In short, he turned the brand into a fashion business, and he added the sheen of art through collaborations with Stephen Sprouse, Takashi Murakami and Richard Prince. The exhibit, curated by Pamela Golbin, will interrogate the men’s parallel lives: Vuitton’s as the entrepreneur and branding icon of the Industrial Revolution and Jacobs as the often troubled but maverick (fashion) man of the our contemporary hyper-globalized moment.

The similarities between the boldness of Vuitton’s acute, pioneering branding sensibilities, and Jacobs’ empire building efforts will be instructive. Perhaps the look back will also shed light on the pressing question: What will happen when we—or perhaps more accurately, LV-loving new moguls in China—tire of the familiar LV logo? Has Jacobs created the foundation that will enable the fashion house to outlast its logo-ed identity? Guesses at the answer to these questions should offer hours of post-exhibit speculations for viewers.

Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, May 10 – August 19, 2012, Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Louis Vuitton-Marc Jacob, March 6 – Sept. 16, 2012, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Louvre, Paris