Friday morning and there’s an air of excitement hanging over one particular corner of New Bond Street. Above us tower three storeys dedicated entirely to the gold-embossed, fur-adorned, monogrammed, labeltastic world of Louis Vuitton.
This is the French luxury company’s brand spanking new store, oops, ‘maison’ (LV’s preferred terminology). Second only in size to its Paris flagship, and second to none when it comes to jaw-dropping, utterly OTT opulence.
The floor-to-ceiling glass windows are lined with monogrammed golden chainmail, creating a gilded cage, behind which one can glimpse the rare and exotic creatures within; luggage stacked almost higher than the eye can see, and mannequins sporting outfits that would cost more than most people’s monthly mortgage payments.
Pride of place: The new Louis Vuitton store opened this week on New Bond Street
As I joined the queue of 60 people — mostly women, mostly wearing ridiculous heels, some pushing state-of-the art prams housing over-accessorised infants — I couldn’t help but wonder: why aren’t all these people at work?
And if they’re on holiday, what on earth are they doing at a time when, as we’re constantly being told, the economy is on the verge of meltdown, waiting to enter a shop where even the most diminutive gift — a cardholder in the iconic monogrammed leather — will set you back a three-figure sum?
There was no rush as the doors opened: no fashionable woman these days can hurry anywhere, given the artworks on her feet. But we shuffled, old lady fashion, despite our Botoxed faces and aerobicised bodies, towards the latest, biggest, most expensive temple to taste — good or bad, you decide — this country has ever seen.
I felt like Alice stepping into Wonderland. Only I was stepping into the world of Louis Vuitton.
The refurbished store is nothing short of extraordinary: a bright hall of mirrors, designed by architect Peter Marino. While the company refuses to divulge exactly how much the revamp cost, industry experts have estimated that the final bill was between £30 and £50million. And you can see why.
Expensive taste: Louis Vuitton's picnic set costs a five-figure sum
The thick beige carpet underfoot was woven in a little Caribbean workshop owned by Marino, the silk wallpaper was lacquered on site with silver leaf, the ground floor shelves are plated with gold titanium, and where there is not silk, gold, silver, or titanium, there is French lacquer and wood.
Huge bunches of roses and peonies in delicate shades of pink, red and purple give off a heady fragrance that vies with the scent of leather and polish.
Across all three floors are ‘priceless’ artworks by achingly cool artists, such as Damien Hirst (he placed surgical instruments in a custom-made trunk), Japanese cartoonist Takashi Murakami (his contribution is a slightly terrifying, three-eyed, pink creature) and offbeat art duo Gilbert and George, whose mirrored self-portraits decorate the lower ground floor.
It is all of this that makes it a ‘maison’, apparently, as opposed to — well — a shop.
It is an homage to culture, you see. Not greed. On one side there is a wall of vintage trunks and cases, suspended on cables, like art. But for those interested in more contemporary luggage, there is a ‘bag bar’.
If you’ve never encountered a bag bar before — and frankly, who has? — think of it as being like one of those revolving sushi bars.
You perch on a stool but rather than seeing plates of salmon sashimi passing in front of you, there are heavily-logoed bits of Louis Vuitton luggage, like a fairground attraction for millionaires, or the ultimate Generation Game.
‘This is a happy store,’ said one of the black-clad, beautiful, young female sales assistants. ‘It is supposed to make you laugh.’
Laugh? I nearly cried when I inquired about the prices.
There are very few price tags, I soon learned, as these are vulgar, according to management. Strange how different people have different definitions of ‘vulgar’.
Personally I would have said that a fur bum bag, just one of the many items in questionable taste on display, was vulgar, but what would I know?
A whisky case, like a tiny trunk, made from crocodile skin, with separate compartments, containing a silver ice bucket and tongs, crystal tumblers, a crystal decanter with silver lid, (but no whisky) and two crystal ashtrays, was a snip at £41,000.
Travel in style: The 'maison' even sells an classic luggage set
‘Ashtrays? That’s not very modern,’ I said to the man who was standing over me imperiously, in case I were to break something or touch it with a human hand. ‘One could use them to house peanuts,’ he commented imperiously.
I asked if the crocodile skin used was organic or cruelty free, but by the raised eyebrows, I guess that treating our fellow creatures humanely is one little luxury too far.
Still, one had already been sold by 10.10am. To whom, I’ll never know. The maddeningly discreet staff refused to divulge.
Perhaps you need a picnic set, for £38,500? This is, of course, no ordinary picnic set. This is a picnic set that includes solid silver monogrammed cutlery, plates edged with silver leaf and embossed with the company logo, crystal glasses, and silver serving dishes.
The perfect complement? An LV embossed croquet set, and a custom made travel caviar set — with a double bowl (LV ice cubes not included), tiny plates, and a slide-out drawer to house the serving spoon and the individual caviar spoons, all in a crocodile skin case.
I didn’t dare ask the price of these last two, I felt that my black-clad hosts were getting a little irritated by my vulgarity in actually wanting to know what things on sale, in a shop, actually cost.
But before they clammed up entirely, I did discover that for those on a budget, there’s a shoe care kit, in a monogrammed bag, for £460. A veritable bargain!
A glass staircase runs throughout the building with constantly changing LED displays in the floor. When I decided to venture upstairs, the steps were blue.
Floor to ceiling: The London store is second only in size to its Paris flagship, and second to none when it comes to jaw-dropping, utterly OTT opulence
Lots of women were having problems with these stairs: the lights confused us, and made us even more unstable on our feet.
But upstairs is the altar to shoes, and I have two questions to beg here: why are shoe departments always up a flight of stairs, and why do shoes cost upwards of £800, and measure upwards of 6in high?
Also on the first floor was womenswear. But there were so many seasons of it on sale that I no longer knew what decade I was in: there was spring-summer, cruise, and pre-fall: lovely hot clothes mostly made out of fur (a biker jacket trimmed with the hideous stuff is £2,900), incongruous on such a hot summer’s day.
There is a trunk so that you can haul your loot to whatever far-flung time zone will be appropriate for your new clothes. I assume the people who shop here don’t worry about easyJet excess baggage fines. But I am slightly wrong.
I met lots of young women — late teens and early 20s — who have been saving every penny they have just to be able to shop here.
Eileen had come from Southend for the day. She is 18, works in a boutique, and has saved ‘for months’ for the limited edition ‘leopard’ scarf. She was nearly in tears because, by 10.20am, the turquoise version had sold out, despite its £600 tag.
I met Alicia, a hairdresser, who had flown here from Ireland (there were so many women from Ireland here for the first day): she is 22, and wants the ‘Artsy bag in olive, it’s about £860, that is a month’s wages but it is worth it’.
Why Louis Vuitton? Aren’t labels passé, too ostentatious in these difficult times? Her friend Shanel disagreed: ‘The recession is so over,’ she said, with a wave of her tanned hand.
But while Louis Vuitton wants you to know that people will happily pay 50 times more for the real McCoy instead of a fake, the brand got into trouble earlier this month with the Advertising Standards Authority for two advertisements depicting a craftsman using needle and thread; this was ‘misleading’, as most LV products are machine-produced.
Rather takes the gloss off, doesn’t it? And makes me feel a little sorry for the young women who buy into this myth.
Topping it is a tall order: The store has pulled out all the stops, including this scarf draped giraffe
Money, of course, does not equal taste. Would any sane person want a pair of gold biker shorts, for £580? I found all the military inspired fashion a bit obscene: shorts for £1,030, for example, when real soldiers are having to scrimp and save.
And finally I met Ridu, here in London from Mumbai via Dubai, who had just spent £400 on a pair of sunglasses.
‘Isn’t this a bit incongruous, when there are slums in Mumbai, and a global recession?’ She looked at me as though I were insane.
The world of Louis Vuitton is so seductive, so clever at luring you with its gloss of intellect, art and culture, you start to think that you are the shabby one for scurrying off to Primark, where there are, it has to be said, far bigger queues every day of the week.
The best bit of the whole store is downstairs, in the men’s department. With a sort of gentlemen’s club feel, the place is full of low tables, squishy sofas and lashings of leather.
Rather incongruously for a place devoted to conspicuous consumption there is an enormous artwork by English artist Michael Landy, best known for a performance piece that saw him destroying every one of his possessions.
His oeuvre here is a Heath Robinson affair made of a strange combination of antlers, teddy bears, a gonk and rusty tools. It includes a great big yawning bucket into which shoppers are invited to toss their exhausted credit cards.
The machine chews up the tiny oblongs of plastic that get so many of us into so much trouble, and spits them out.
My advice is to do just that first, and then explore the store and gape open-mouthed at the excess, at the life size giraffe in the window wearing scarves, at the caviar case, at the briefcase once owned by Princess Margaret (only the tacky royals are represented here) and then leave with a shudder, and without a backwards glance.
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