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Louis Vuitton Series 3 exhibition, Dazed Digital
Louis Vuitton Series 3 exhibitionCourtesy of Louis Vuitton

What’s behind fashion's free exhibitions?

Both Chanel and Louis Vuitton are currently staging two major public shows in London – but are they fighting fashion elitism, or just great branding?

London is currently playing host to two free fashion exhibitions: Chanel’s Mademoiselle Privé at the Saatchi Gallery, and Louis Vuitton Series 3. They come in the wake of two similar events: Hermès Wanderland – which was also at the Saatchi – and Pradasphere at Harrods. Two notable absences in this list of recent blockbuster shows are the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition at the Barbican and, of course, Savage Beauty at the V&A. That’s because there is a crucial difference between them – apart from the fact that they were both paid-for, the JPG and McQueen retrospectives were curated by external curators and held in collaboration with the brands, the Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Hermès and Prada exhibitions are operations produced in-house. But are the recent spate of free exhibitions a way for brands to open up their secretive worlds to the public, or simply another form of marketing?

Over the course of the just-gone fashion month, we’ve seen multiple houses give non-industry professionals unprecedented access into their worlds – from Givenchy who invited 1,200 members of the public to their Marina Abramović directed event, to Balmain and Jacquemus who launched competitions with tickets to their respective shows as prizes. Previously, the public’s access to shows had been restricted to media outlets, social media platforms, the odd biopic and shops themselves, but now – while the air of exclusivity remains – it seems that the barrier between fashion and its fans is slowly being lowered. Perhaps social media has woken houses up to the fact that the public “buying into” the brand doesn’t devalue it.

Few were invited to Chanel and Louis Vuitton’s SS16 shows at Paris Fashion Week last month, but everybody – from Anna Wintour to the Primark shopper – is invited to their exhibitions in London which are not only open to the public, but free. It’s a democratising act, for those who living in or visiting the city. While purchasing a Louis Vuitton bag remains the privilege of a financial minority, taking home some stickers available for free at the gallery’s gift shop does not – and yet provides a small way in which people can access the brand. Similarly, entering the marble-floored confines of the Chanel’s New Bond Street establishment is an intimidating experience for most people, but going to a public exhibition is not. Here you’re permitted to marvel the craftsmanship of the house’s ateliers, without acting under the pretense of genuinely considering making a purchase.

“Here you’re permitted to marvel the craftsmanship of the house’s ateliers, without acting under the pretense of genuinely considering making a purchase”

“In this digital era, fashion shows are diffused online and immediately accessible for the public,” Louis Vuitton’s creative director Nicolas Ghesquière told Business of Fashion in July, expanding on the Series 3 exhibition. “But it takes more than that to feel the ambience and share the intense creativity, energy and emotion around one show. This is what we would like to share with a large public worldwide.”

However there’s something interesting about the houses’ decisions to display their designs in a gallery space, particularly in the case of Louis Vuitton, who are exhibiting their not-even-a-season-old AW15 collection – the one that can be currently found in stores. This space is usually reserved for ancient artefacts, fine art or objects of decades-old cultural significance rather than products. Bypassing an external curator or art institution to display these items in the gallery space elevates them, makes them more covetable. Indeed, for all fashion’s artistry, it remains an industry built on a founding principle of sell, sell, sell.

In today’s climate, social media is a crucial component to any marketing strategy and one which exhibitions, particularly in the case of Instagram, are ideally catered towards. In fact, Louis Vuitton Series 3 was specifically engineered to the app, providing grade-A feed fodder for the snap-happy generation of today’s fashion fans. This is something to which the 20,406 pictures (by today’s count) on the app tagged with #lvseries3 will attest. Just as shows provide a way for images of houses’ new collections to be transmitted all around the world, this exhibition does too, with pictures of Louis Vuitton’s new advertising campaigns, ready-to-wear and accessories (which are currently on-sale) flooding peoples’ feeds.

Brands are marketing themselves through the carefully curated lens of a fashion exhibition. They are opening themselves up to a new, vast audience while maintaining their aura of exclusivity by presenting their products are high art, sometimes even hidden behind cases of glass. As for whether these exhibitions are democratising fashion or a new form of marketing, the answer is perhaps a paradox: they are managing to do both. And if the three hour queue to visit Series 3 on Saturday is any proof, they are proving to be a great success.