We continue our in-house debate series with a look at the world’s biggest luxury brand and its increasing entanglement with graffiti and street culture.
In 2001, Louis Vuitton embarked on one of the most alarming creative directional shifts in recent memory. With the help of ’80s fashion designer Stephen Sprouse, the world’s most luxurious luggagemaker decided to reinvent 150 years of aristocratic heritage by incorporating neon graffiti script into its sacred LV monogram print bags. In the years that followed, this flirtation with street art expanded to include scarves, suitcases and even full storefronts plastered in graffiti, prompting a backlash from the urban community who accused the notoriously elite fashion house of being both insulting and exploitative.
Following on from our full Louis Vuitton Week, we continue our Highsnobiety Debates series by asking:
Does Louis Vuitton Have the Right to Appropriate Graffiti Culture?
Absolutely not. It’s a shameless rip-off.
As a brand, Louis Vuitton was recently valued at $28.4 billion. How many street artists do you know who are worth that much? I’d hazard a guess it’s none, so what place does Louis Vuitton have boosting its already outrageous profits via the cheap exploitation of graffiti without doing anything for the scene it snatched it from? As renegade, storefront-defacing street artist Kidult dubbed it, this is “brandalization” in its purest form – it’s artificially marketed consumer culture, and the real graffiti sprayers in the streets are getting no recognition for it.
To me, these lame attempts at coming across as edgy simply amplify the brand’s own insincerities and suggest it’s experiencing a serious crisis of identity. It seems LV has either forgotten or abandoned its upper-crust roots and has instead resorted to forcing collaborations that are both incoherent and without credible foundation. Even on a purely aesthetic level, juxtaposing the rigid, classical monogram pattern against the cursive, avant-gardist script of graffiti just doesn’t make sense. If they were going to innovate, then fine, but this is just copycatting.
Sure, over the years they might’ve worked with Takashi Murakami, Os Gêmeos, RETNA and a handful of other established street artists, but by taking their designs and transplanting them onto ludicrously expensive luxury accessories Louis Vuitton ignores the fact that graffiti is, first and foremost, a free art that’s supposed to be accessible to all. Presumably these artists were compensated for their efforts, so what does it say about their integrity if they’re happy producing work only the super wealthy can enjoy? That old chestnut “sellouts” comes to mind and in some ways the artists are equally to blame.
Graffiti subcultures were born in the streets. For someone unaware of the movement’s origins, seeing a brown leather bag scrawled with neon Louis tags is a complete misrepresentation of what this art form is about and it’s a miseducation to future generations. Is Louis Vuitton trying to suggest they actually give a shit about graffiti and underground culture around the world? Fat chance, although I guess that doesn’t really matter. Fake it ’til you make it, right?
Of course they do. It’s totally fair game.
Is there anything more entertaining than watching an underground purist get all red in the face over the establishment muscling in on their thing? Sure, it’s not hard to see how a 150-year-old luxury fashion label picking up a spray can might get a few snapbacks bent out of shape, but through that angry red mist these fiercely predictable individuals often can’t see the hypocrisy of their own argument.
The point so often made by those opposed to Louis Vuitton’s “appropriation” of graffiti and street culture is that LV has no roots in the urban lifestyle, and is merely imitating something they believe to be cool in order to improve the credibility of their brand. Such an argument has two truck-sized holes in it: firstly, it assumes cultures are fundamentally rigid and unsusceptible to change; secondly, it suggests there are specific “guardians” of urban culture and that only they get to pick and choose who can take part.
While there’s little doubt Louis Vuitton originates in a time and place a million miles away from the edgy grit that characterizes most urban clichés, anyone using that to deny the brand a place in street culture is overlooking the huge role it has played in the evolving world of hip hop for decades now. From the days of Dapper Dan and his outrageous bootlegged LV leather outfits produced for everyone from Run DMC to Big Daddy Kane, to the rise of the genuine article in the rhymes and wardrobes of everyone from Kanye West downwards, Louis Vuitton is a brand unrivaled in its ballin’ status. To suggest that its use of graffiti –one of the original Four Pillars of Hip Hop – is unjustified is, quite frankly, laughable.
In fact, anyone who claims that Louis Vuitton has no right to adopt the stylistic tropes of graffiti has a pretty weak grasp of what that art form is all about. Graffiti isn’t about seeking permission for something; it’s an abject disregard for authority, a neon fuck-you emblazoned somewhere for all to see. The fact that the particular authority getting flipped off this time is the so-called “street art community” makes no difference. If you can’t take the heat then get out of the kitchen, don’t bitch at the stove.
If Louis Vuitton’s forays into street art were really such an insult to the ideological foundations of graffiti culture, then respected writers Aiko, Skam, RETNA, INTI, eL SEED and Os Gêmeos evidently didn’t have too much of a problem with it. Their work with the luxury brand was not only a coup for Louis Vuitton, but a wider signal of how far that world has come – a recognition that the age-old stigmatization of “high” and “low” art is a thing of the past, and that wanting to spend $800 on a scarf doesn’t necessarily require an ingrained love of Raphael or Botticelli.
Street culture doesn’t have any rules, but even if it did, it wouldn’t play by them. You can’t start crying just because a new player picked up the ball.
What do you think? Let us know by voting below or commenting in the box by clicking to the left of your screen. Then check out the other pieces that made up Louis Vuitton Week, or read one of our other Highsnobiety Debates.