Louis Vuitton's Trunk Show
In Tokyo's fashionable Omotesando district, the luxury-goods company's in-house team unpacks its best and biggest effort yet
John Alderman -- Interior Design, 4/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
In the newly fashionable Omotesando district, on one of the few tree-lined avenues amid Tokyo's concrete sprawl, early evening finds the sidewalk aglow. The light is spilling from the mesh-draped windows of the world's largest Louis Vuitton store, a nine-story stack of rectangular volumes—and a new shrine to Japan's famous cult of luxury goods. "The basic units are not exactly floors but spaces shaped like boxes, a tribute to the fact that Louis Vuitton was founded as a trunk maker," says the namesake principal of architecture firm Jun Aoki and Associates, which designed the building.
The 32,000-square-foot interior is the work of the Louis Vuitton Département d'Architecture, led by principals Eric Carlson and David McNulty. Why would a maker of luxury leather goods, fashion accessories, clothing, and shoes employ an in-house team of architects? Mostly it's a matter of necessity, explains Carlson. Louis Vuitton tackles 50 to 100 renovation and building projects at nearly 300 stores worldwide every year. (Roughly 20 percent of projects are designed internally. For the rest, Louis Vuitton's architecture department acts as design manager and guide.) This level of activity makes an architecture staff a good investment. "Our challenge is doing an incredible number of projects very quickly, with the expectation that the next be much better than the previous," says Carlson.
Encouraging customer circulation, the chief task at any multilevel store, was particularly crucial for the Omotesando location's five levels of public retail: the basement to the fourth level. Levels are linked by a central stairway and segregated by category. Men's leather goods are in the basement; women's leather goods are on the street level. Watches and jewelry are on level two, women's shoes and ready-to-wear are on three, and luggage is on four.
Carlson and McNulty responded by enchanting visitors with playful structural surprises. Glazed cutouts between the building's stacked architectural boxes allow glimpses of the merchandise on other levels, views made more tempting by veils of stainless-steel mesh, a favorite material of the Vuitton architects. The mesh idea found its first Vuitton application on the exterior of a store in Seoul, South Korea; the type in Tokyo is a variation on a material used for conveyor belts in factories that process candied almonds.
Texture plays a central role, too. Alternating shiny and matte squares of wall plaster create a checkerboard reminiscent of Louis Vuitton's City bags. On other walls, scraped lines recall the striations of the popular Epi leather used for bags and wallets.
Optical illusion dazzles in a variety of guises. What seems to be just a mirrored wall sometimes hides a secret window; two-way mirrors occasionally light up to reveal a featured product behind. Hallways and bathrooms for staff and customers are patterned from top to bottom with tessellated marquetry designed by Aoki in wengé, walnut, and moabi wood.
For a luxury brand, however, the greatest enticement is less in the eye of the shopper than in the opening of successive velvet ropes guarding access to ever rarer, more prestigious merchandise. Only elite clientele are invited to the upper levels, where fantasy really takes over. On level five—past an invitation-only gallery with vintage Vuitton trunks and a sunken conversation area—a mirrored door opens to a sunlit salon that allows VIPs to browse and make special orders in private. The lightness of white leather-covered Barcelona chairs by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and a white woven-leather custom carpet makes the room serene and chic. The mystery element lies in the box hanging from the ceiling. With the discreet flick of a switch, this steel-framed white-linen enclosure descends to serve as a changing room—teasingly translucent, of course. Says Carlson, "In addition to saving space, the linen-walled changing room picks up on the lining theme found throughout the project."
An elevator lined in steel mesh ascends from level five, past the executive offices on six, to arrive at the seventh level's double-height hall dedicated to product launches, parties, and art exhibits. White wows here as well. The floor is white terrazzo, and the three walls of windows are draped in white synthetic fabric sewn together in a repeating LV pattern. In overpopulated Tokyo, though, it's the huge hall's emptiness that delivers the dramatic impact.