Earlier this summer, Out of Body, a 2015 painting by rising art-world star Tschabalala Self came up for auction at Christie’s in London with an estimated sale price of $50,000 to $75,000. One brief bidding war later, the work sold for $466,075, setting a new resale record for the artist. A few days after that, far across the Atlantic in Los Angeles, another work by Self was coming up for sale—and unlike Out of Body, you could keep your car keys and lipstick inside it. Louis Vuitton’s ArtyCapucines bags had arrived.
The world’s largest luxury house has always been at home with art. It’s a relationship now perhaps best known for highly coveted early-aughts It bags instigated by then creative director Marc Jacobs (“not just a great fashion designer,” says Allan Schwartzman, founder and principal of Art Agency and chairman of the fine art division of Sotheby’s, “but also a great art collector”). It was Jacobs who enlisted the likes of Stephen Sprouse, Damien Hirst, Yayoi Kusama, Jeff Koons, and Richard Prince to put their imprimaturs on the house’s Speedys and Neverfulls (and occasionally, in Sprouse’s case, on the runway models themselves).
In 2006, the company cemented its cultural footprint with the Fondation Louis Vuitton, a Frank Gehry–designed nonprofit art museum and cultural center situated on the edge of Paris’s Bois de Boulogne. But back in the mid 19th century, when the company’s eponymous founder established his first trunk-making shop, it was at 4 Rue des Capucines— just around the corner from where a groundbreaking exhibition would later gain a group of independent artists the lasting moniker of “Impressionists” in an exhibition held at the studio of Félix Nadar. As the foremost practitioner of the new art of portrait photography, Nadar had trademarked his building’s exterior with his signature. Vuitton soon made a name for himself too: His client list ranged from royalty to Nadar, whose 1890 bespoke trunk, covered in Vuitton’s distinctive checkerboard canvas, was also emblazoned with the photographer’s flamboyant autograph.
In 1892, Louis Vuitton added handbags to its offerings. This June, at a two-story pop-up in Beverly Hills, the house celebrated its latest purses, the ArtyCapucines bags, which had served as a canvas for, besides Self, contemporary artists Jonas Wood, Nicholas Hlobo, Sam Falls, Urs Fischer, and Alex Israel, alongside Louis Vuitton X, an immersive exhibition of the house’s history of collaboration. The exhibition, which runs through mid-September, moves deftly from archived objects to cutting-edge technology. They include an elegant toiletries case custom-made in 1924 for the beloved globetrotting pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski, early 1990s silk scarves designed by James Rosenquist and Sol LeWitt, and a set of Instagram filters inspired by Vuitton collaborators Richard Prince and Virgil Abloh, for visitors to download.
Other than pointing to the brand’s executive vice president, Delphine Arnault, as the “guiding light and energy” behind the ArtyCapucines, Louis Vuitton largely shrouds the process by which it chooses collaborators. Even for those deeply accustomed to teams of assistants and fabricators, working with Louis Vuitton can still be a revelatory experience for an artist. Since its founding, the house’s labor-intensive construction process (manufacturing a single bag might require more than 200 steps) has incorporated exacting craftsmanship and somewhat limitless access to the world’s best materials and technologies. “There were absolutely no guidelines,” Michael Burke, chairman and CEO of Louis Vuitton, told the Financial Times of the ArtyCapucines project. “They could build it from scratch, they could destroy it, slash it, burn it, do what they wanted to it. It was total freedom. Here is an object—repurpose it.” Burke means it: In 2014, Rei Kawakubo received a similar invitation and created her Iconoclast Tote, which featured three large open gashes in the side; Gehry, for his part of the same assignment, did a twisted, top-handled box; Cindy Sherman made a trunk with an interior inspired by her parrot, Mister Frieda; Karl Lagerfeld designed boxing gloves and a punching bag. Notably, the current group of artists avoided the house’s globally recognized logoemblazoned checked canvas as a backdrop.
“Ultimately, art and fashion are not so different,” Hlobo said in a statement. Hlobo, who is from South Africa and known for using repurposed materials like bulging tire rubber in his sculptures and installations, created a bag featuring a topstitched flowering vine bursting from the leather exterior. “Louis Vuitton has its idea of perfection and beauty. I have my own standards of perfection.”
A high-fashion collaboration can also dramatically increase awareness of an artist’s work. “Artworks don’t really exist in the real world, if that makes sense,” Fischer said in his statement. “They tend to be like complicated children who still live with their parents and don’t want to move out. They don’t go out as much as they should, to challenge themselves. And I often think that galleries can be confining spaces for me in a way—not physically, but in terms of their communicative reach.” Fischer may also mean physically. His artworks—a Swiss chalet constructed out of loaves of sourdough bread, a 20-ton bronze mash-up of a teddy bear and a desk lamp—skew toward the larger-than-life. Fischer’s bag delivers his distinctive vision in portable form: optic white with a selection of six hand-painted silicone casts of individual fruits, vegetables, and an egg on gold-plated chains.
Israel’s Los Angeles–influenced ennui-filled Pop Art frequently appears outside the traditional gallery setting. “There are so many audiences out there, and so many people who don’t make it to museums and galleries—and I want those people to also be able to experience my work in the places they go, and through the platforms they might access,” Israel wrote. His ArtyCapucines marks the latest in an ongoing relationship with Louis Vuitton: He did the custom packaging for the house’s first unisex fragrance collection earlier this year. He also released a textile collection at the same time as Louis Vuitton X, for which the model Karlie Kloss was photographed swaddled in a blanket in his signature neon hues.
“I mean, I don’t really feel the need to drape people in my existence, but I do occasionally put my work out there in contexts that are separate from the original paintings themselves,” wrote Wood, who sampled imagery from three of his paintings to arrange a pattern of overlapping vegetation across his bag. Each mark was redrawn with bundled thread, then outlined and embroidered with more than 200,000 stitches, an experience Wood called “trippy and a little scary.” For Falls, the question was how to distill the vast experiential quality of his abstract, process-based landscapes down to the human scale. His solution had Louis Vuitton artisans using linen and embroidery to replicate the effect of sunlight and falling leaves.
For Self, who translated the house’s quatrefoil and flower logos into appliqués on her ArtyCapucines, the essential question in creating art is always finding the “intention behind why I’m making these pieces and putting them out into the world.” When asked whether she considered the bag to be strictly art or strictly fashion, she had other ideas: “I wanted to make an object of desire... I feel that is where my specialty lies.”
The artists who collaborate with Vuitton reportedly “have a partnership in the item, so they’re not just a designer for hire,” Paul Schimmel, the former chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), says. “I think for Takashi Murakami” whom Schimmel worked with for a 2007 exhibition at MOCA, “Damien Hirst, and Jeff Koons, the collaborations with Louis Vuitton have become an important part of their portfolios. But it isn’t something that all artists are comfortable with— the tail that wags the dog.” For Murakami, the “cross-branding was brilliant,” Schimmel says. At the MOCA opening, “there were 7,000 people” lining up to shop at a pop-up Louis Vuitton boutique stocked with Murakami/Vuitton merchandise, operated by Murakami’s staff. “I think the paradigm shift was less for Takashi than it was for MOCA,” Schimmel notes. “There was all this attention for the museum but they weren’t getting any of the money. The boutique ran out of everything. I think in the end there was one key chain left.”