Richard Prince vs. Louis Vuitton

Oct. 9.07 | About: LVMH-Moet Hennessy (LVMUY)

Little did I know, when examining Richard Prince's success in the art world, that he would become the latest artist to be swallowed up by the Louis Vuitton machine. He's in illustrious company – Vuitton has worked in recent years with highly sought-after artists such as Olafur Eliasson and Vanessa Beecroft. Interestingly, however, both of those artists maintained more of an arm's-length association with the brand, showing largely self-contained artworks within the context of Vuitton's stores. Prince, by contrast, has gone down the same road as Stephen Sprouse and Takahashi Murakami, and has actually helped design handbags for the French fashion house. And Lauren Goldstein Crowe is not impressed.

Me? I kinda love it. Eliasson is a blandly corporate artist who specializes in making beautiful objects: he fits right in to Vuitton shop windows. Beecroft is an Italian fashionista extraordinaire whose imprimatur is much sought-after by fashion houses. Sprouse and Murakami are self-promoters who jumped at the opportunity to burnish their own brands by advertising themselves all over Vuitton handbags. But Prince? Prince is edgier, and more subversive. And in that sense he has a very similar attitude to that of Marc Jacobs back in his grunge days. Lauren is shocked:

The bag he chose to give to selected front-row editors was particularly bad. When my friend opened hers we laughed out-loud.
Because they were done by an artist, they are supposed to be ironic. The ghosted logo, the shiny finish are supposed to make it look like a bad Chinese fake. I don't know where they were made, but the smell they gave off was pretty powerfully toxic. So the option of these editors giving them to their daughters for dress up is out of the question -- lest they risk damaging their children's brain. But irony in bags is a risky road to take. Design really expensive bags that look cheap? How easy for a fashionista to do one better and just buy the real fake.

I'm not sure that ironic is really the mot juste. The way I see it, Prince is attempting to do for high fashion what he already did for high art: change the very criteria by which quality is judged. Prince's great achievement in the art world, the thing which made him one of the most important artists of the post-War(hol) era, was his idea that he could appropriate mass-market iconography and simply by declaring it to be high art, make it so. Here, he's doing much the same thing with handbags.

If you want to make a fake Richard Prince, it's easy. Just take a photo of a Marlboro ad, blow it up, and frame it. Done. I imagine that Prince is quite tickled that one inevitable consequence of his designing Vuitton handbags is that there really will be lots of fakes on the market pretty soon. In fact, I fully expect him to collect as many of those fakes as he can find, and I daresay that he might even start appropriating them and turning them into genuine Richard Princes by decree.

In a way, Lauren has put her finger on exactly why this collection might be much more interesting than the average handbag line: it takes aim at a crucial support of the entire fashion industry, the distinction between real and fake. In some ways, the fake Richard Prince bags will be more real than the genuine ones, which can after all only ever pretend to be fake. This is of course very troubling for the fashion industry – that's the whole point. So congratulations to Marc Jacobs and Richard Prince for knocking the fashionistas a little off kilter. In the grand scheme of things, it will only help to improve Jacobs's iconoclastic reputation, and the fashion world will start to enjoy the frisson it received last night. So, as in any good fairy tale, everybody wins in the end. Even the Chinese counterfeiters.