Brouhaha over Jeff Koons' new collaboration with Louis Vuitton

A handbag from Jeff Koons' Masters collection, a series which he collaborated on with Louis Vuitton.
A handbag from Jeff Koons' Masters collection, a series which he collaborated on with Louis Vuitton.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • Artist Jeff Koons has been working for well over a year in utmost secrecy on his latest project, titled Masters.

It is a new line of handbags. Also scarves, key chains and small leather goods - 51 pieces in all - done in collaboration with French luxury house Louis Vuitton.

Although Koons has worked on one-off fashion collections with Stella McCartney and H&M before, this is the first time he has created an original design for a brand, as opposed to plunking a reproduction onto a product.

It comprises five of the most famous paintings in history, including da Vinci's Mona Lisa, Van Gogh's Wheat Field With Cypresses and Rubens' The Tiger Hunt, reproduced in high-definition detail on some of Louis Vuitton's most classic leather bags.

Each bag has been adorned with reflective gold or silver letters spelling the artist's name on the outside like a giant piece of hip-hop jewellery.

A handbag from Jeff Koons' Masters collection, a series which he collaborated on with Louis Vuitton. Ella Chen with her newborn, husband and S.H.E bandmates Selina Jen and Hebe Tien (far left).
A handbag from Jeff Koons' Masters collection, a series which he collaborated on with Louis Vuitton. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The bottom edge features Koons' initials - or logo - in one corner and Louis Vuitton's logo on the other.

The leather loop around the handle has been recut to resemble the Koons balloon bunny.

"It's a menage a trois," said Louis Vuitton chief executive Michael Burke.

"I think we're going to get some pushback. People are going to be upset about the sacred entering the realm of the profane. But we like to do things that can be perceived as politically incorrect. If we are getting flak, we think we are doing something right."

The issue here is not exactly a mystery. On the one hand, the French luxury house is exploiting art for its own gain.

On the other, an artist is selling out. In the middle, consumers are being introduced to great art as if it were disposable.

In part to counter this, Louis Vuitton and Koons are spinning the project as an effort to address the falling profile of classical art.

Inside each bag, for example, is a little description of the artist, like a hidden history lesson for the Twitter generation.

Koons saw the project as a way to broaden the audience for his work in a meaningful way. He said: "I can put my work on the street."

When it was pointed out that the collection, ranging from a US$585 (S$816) key chain to a US$4,000 carry-all, was not exactly for every person, he said: "Well, they can walk by the windows of Louis Vuitton and enjoy them."

Besides, everything is relative. Koons holds the record for price at auction for a work by a living artist: US$58.4 million in 2013 for Balloon Dog (Orange). Compared with that, a backpack at US$3,200 is a deal.

"I hope people understand my ideas," Koons said.

"I hope they embrace them as a continuation of my effort to erase the hierarchy attached to fine art and old masters."

The collection was launched in Paris on Tuesday evening at a starry dinner at the Louvre.

The bags will not be sold online. They will be offered only in certain Louis Vuitton stores and a special pop-up store opening in New York this month.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 14, 2017, with the headline 'Brouhaha over Jeff Koons' new collaboration with Louis Vuitton'. Print Edition | Subscribe