Listen to this article
Palm Springs, California, where the desert winds gently caress verdant lawns of an almost scarily manicured perfection, and retired elders amble the streets in florid floral print shirts that pop against modernist architectural landmarks. The city has always been one of aesthetic contradictions. But just when you were about to write off the sleepy oasis once beloved of the Rat Pack, Louis Vuitton sweep in with a cruise collection directly inspired by the city’s unique brand of Americana charm.
“Why Palm Springs…?” The Louis Vuitton chief executive Michael Burke explained of the decision to stage their interseasonal fashion extravaganza in Bob Hope’s former home, a futuristic dream house set up overlooking the wind farms in the valley far below. “People were bemused by our decision: ‘Isn’t that where people go to die?’ But they don’t know who really lives here. Palm Springs is forward-looking, futuristic, modernist, cutting edge, audacious. People had written off California, but all of a sudden it’s going through a tremendous rebirth. It’s not just Silicon Valley, it’s the entertainment industry, it’s the music, everything. There’s a super creative spirit around this whole valley . . .”
Attention in fashion is everything. And right now, the cruise show (a standalone event showcasing the interseasonal collection of ready-to-wear that will go in store immediately before Christmas and hang on rails until the following May) has got it all. An increasingly popular enterprise that involves jetting invited guests to a unique location for a one-off spectacle, these shows are the ultimate expression of brand clout — and one-upmanship. Burberry was in LA last month with a re-enactment of its AW15 collection, with a few extra gowns and troop of Queen’s grenadier guards for good measure; Chanel has just staged a cruise show in Seoul; Dior will follow next week in Cannes; and Gucci is off to New York next month for its moment in the spotlight.
For the Palm Springs event, Louis Vuitton flew in 550 guests (of whom Burke estimated more than 60 per cent were clients) and housed everyone (including me) in incredibly comfortable accommodation. The event entailed months of logistical wah, and wads and wads of cash.
For Burke, the expense is irrelevant. “Cruise allows you to have a much louder voice because you’re outside a trade show,” he explained of the collection’s unique vantage. “Because fashion week is a trade show: it’s for editors, photographers, buyers — it’s for the press. It’s not the right climate, and there’s not enough time, to appreciate the point of view of the designer. The advantage of cruise is that they aren’t that many. There are only three brands [Dior, Chanel and LV] that can pull it off. Some have tried to do a one-off. Only three houses have made it a habit. So, with a show like this, there’s less dilution. And the designer has a stage. And as long as you choose a venue that has some resonance, it works.”
The Bob Hope house is some stage. Designed by the American architect John Lautner for the comedian and his wife in 1973, its sweeping futuristic lines lend it the look of a space station, while its interior contains strange anachronisms like a sunken mirrored cocktail bar and Rococo murals. For Vuitton’s artistic director, Nicolas Ghesquière, its appeal was irresistible. “The main inspiration for this show was in the radicalism of the house,” he explained backstage amid a coterie of Louis Vuitton celebrities including Catherine Deneuve, Michelle Williams and the Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi. “I loved the contradiction of the sweetness of the look and the hard 1950s glamour: the pretty wallpaper, very thick carpet and crazy colour. It was so ahead of its time.”
It seems all that Californian sunshine and boozy Americana had also mellowed Ghesquière who presented his most relaxed collection for the house so far. His first collection for Vuitton (AW14) cut a far stricter, shorter silhouette which some global markets struggled with — especially in the Middle East. This time around, the models were swathed in sinuous silks and tissue-thin leathers, pulled together with tough leather accessories but with a marked emphasis on the long and loose: as Natalie Westling swept the runway in a long white gown with chain-link sequin detail and harness belt, her hair backlit a fiery red, I imagined Maid Marian as directed in a film by Nicolas Roeg.
“This was all about a cooler, effortless length,” Ghesquière explained. “I wanted to explore a certain lightness.” It was light, and, most importantly in this particular brand narrative, it was wearable. Shoes were flat, bags were businesslike or bohemian, there were beautiful blouses. Palm Springs brought about a new romanticism and prettiness in Ghesquière’s design, and some of his most commercial looks thus far. There were even occasional palm prints . . .
“We let loose,” observed Burke. “It was long, fluid, very strong: the woman was romantic, but in combat mode. She was determined. She walked with a determined step.”
Burke likens his role as chief executive to that of Ghesquière’s “partner in the tango”. For him, the charm of Palm Springs was in finding an environment Ghesquière could own and thereby develop a vital chapter in the emerging brand narrative. “LV is a 160-year-old institution,” he said of their continuing pas de deux. “It takes a little time to find the tempo — to feel right. And this felt very, very good.”
The residents of Palm Springs concur. Such a major spectacle in the neighbourhood has done wonders for their ego. Even though they couldn’t always quite place the brand in town. “Is it not an Yves Saint Laurent show?” asked one local perched outside the Palm Springs Art Museum as he watched a procession of editors and customers trip up and down its stairs. “Well. Whoever it is, it’s great for this town. We haven’t had this much attention for years.”