Luxury is about emotion, believes Louis Vuitton's CEO Yves Carcelle, and executives at one of the world's biggest luxury brands will be hoping that their recent two-day celebratory extravaganza in steamy Shanghai tugs at the heart and purse strings of Chinese consumers.
The French fashion house marked 20 years in China last week with a complete restaging of their Fall 2012 fashion show, including a custom built steam train, and the opening of a new Maison in Shanghai - a mammoth store designed by architect Peter Marino featuring four levels of luxury. There is a room of rare and exceptional products, a "Haute Maroquinerie" area where men can personalise every aspect of a shoe, a grand spiral marble and gold metal staircase with stunning artwork sitting in the centre, planted terraces and special pieces available only at this Maison. Artistic director Marc Jacobs made the journey to the dynamic city of Shanghai for the first time, referencing the celebration's focus on the art and romance of travel.
On the Maison's fourth floor - the exclusive invitation-only level officially known as the Apartment, where VVIPs can shop and luxuriate in private - we meet Louis Vuitton executives to hear about their plans. "I would love to be in Queenstown skiing right now," remarks Christopher Zanardi-Landi, the engaging executive vice-president of the company, when he discovers I'm from New Zealand.
He talks eloquently and passionately about the changing face of the Chinese market over the 20 years Louis Vuitton has been here (he was previously president of Louis Vuitton China), the power of digital and social media ("it's very funny, I can remember very clearly seven or eight years ago having the conversation, 'Should we have a website in Chinese?"'), and his personal favourite area of the store, the men's shoe area on the second floor where a cheerful artisan footwear maker creates shoes as we chat.
Looming over much of the two-day celebrations have been questions over the slowdown of the Chinese economy, but Zanardi-Landi seems unconcerned, remarking instead on the explosion of luxury: "We're probably more concerned about the speed of the explosion than anything else at this point". That's a subtle nod to the exclusivity issue that Louis Vuitton is also facing in China: there is a notion that luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Chanel have met saturation point here, with consumers moving on to "under the radar" brands like Hermes or Celine. But Zanardi-Landi explains that in terms of the Chinese market, "We think that we've just started."
Next we meet the brand's famously charming CEO, Yves Carcelle, in the main room of the fourth-floor apartment. He is joined by Jordi Constans, the 48-year-old Spaniard who will take over as Louis Vuitton CEO at the end of the year when Carcelle moves to be president of the Foundation Louis Vuitton. "We really wanted to make a statement with the store," explains Carcelle, although he won't be drawn to comment on whether the new Maison is bigger than the famous Champs Elysees store.
He talks about the evolution and speed of change in the Chinese market - "We have seen customer evolution in five years that might have taken 20 years in the West" - as well as the evolution of the Louis Vuitton customer. "I think luxury is something you have to educate yourself to. There is one moment, what we call 'My First Louis Vuitton Bag', and I think an interesting moment in life, but then we hope that 20 years later you will have 'My first Louis Vuitton Diamond'." Carcelle also looks back on the house's early days as one of the first luxury brands in China, when there was no media. Nothing at all like today, with the media of the world flying in for the two-day celebrations.
Outside the luxury supermall Plaza 66 later that night, a crowd is politely told by a security guard to stay back as Louis Vuitton mini vans pull up and guests make their way on to the brown carpet. This is the fun part of the celebrations, after a day of official business, and inside is possibly the most packed Maison opening in Louis Vuitton history, with people pushing their way closer to the bottom of the stunning grand marble staircase where the ribbon cutting is taking place. "Please move back," someone yells repeatedly to the loud, bustling crowd, to no avail.
The fashion rent-a-crowd has been flown in for glamour factor: British model and TV presenter Alexa Chung; another Brit, model and It-girl Poppy Delevingne, looking divine in a floaty peach dress; writer Derek Blasberg, various other very tall and skinny European It-girls and socialites. Louis Vuitton collaborators Katie Grand and Stephen Jones are here too; show stylist Grand with a diamante headband sitting in her frizzy hair, and milliner Jones in one of his own designs, a sheer glittery flat cap.
Upstairs on the womenswear level on the third floor, Chung, in a black turtle neck and short pleated green leopard print skirt, deadpans to her minder, "There's lots of cool things in this store isn't there?" She looks tired, if a little grumpy, earlier shaking her head 'no' before walking off when someone asks her for an interview among the scrum of guests downstairs. Nearby, the stunning French actress Clemence Poesy, wearing a lace princess coat from Louis Vuitton's Resort 2013 range, happily poses with fans who dare to ask for a snapshot. Soon after, a very shiny, tanned and taut Marc Jacobs - with a plaster on his forehead, apparently covering a cut from falling earlier in the week - wanders past with LVMH boss Bernard Arnault, heading to the Apartment on the fourth floor, away from the crushing crowds. Yves Carcelle and Jordi Constans take a quiet moment together to observe the crowd; they look very happy. Perhaps they have spotted, among the madness, VIP clients shopping - one woman buying three bags in different colours, another trying on various styles of shoes.
Chung looks much happier at breakfast on the 91st floor of the hotel the next morning, as she goofs off with Blasberg and prances over to the buffet. Today Louis Vuitton is sending guests on various excursions around the city - acupuncture, gallery visits, tea ceremonies and more. I am off on an architecture tour, hosted by Michelle Blumenthal, a fiery art expert who has lived in Shanghai for nine years. As well as art, she is passionate and knowledgeable about the architecture of her beloved city, pointing out famous buildings as we make our way to the former French concession in our luxury Louis Vuitton mini-van. We visit two well-known art galleries featuring exhibitions from contemporary Chinese artists, before heading to the famous Bund for a delicious lunch at a restaurant that hasn't even opened yet. Such is the power of Louis Vuitton.
That evening, the main event: a fashion show held on the banks of the Huangpu River, a complete restaging of the Fall 2012 show originally held in Paris, featuring the specially commissioned Louis Vuitton Express steam train. The scale of production and attention to detail is mind-blowing. The space has been built especially for the event, including a huge grand hall area hosting pre-show drinks with Louis Vuitton porters standing next to piles of luggage and Art Deco style chandeliers hanging from the roof. A large staircase takes guests up to the show venue, with the Louis Vuitton monogram flower motif detailing the rail. The sound of a bustling railway station greets us as we enter the show venue, set up to look like a train station from a bygone area, with the catwalk as the platform. I spot Nicole Warne, the Australian blogger behind the website Gary Pepper Vintage, who has been representing New Zealand fashion over the last few days. "I'm only wearing New Zealand designers!" she says, laughing.
Last night's outfit was a Karen Walker cocktail dress, earlier today was Twenty-seven Names, and tonight she looks stunning in a Kate Sylvester silk floor-length gown. I find my seat, with handwritten place card - "Madame Zoe Walker" - and take it all in. Soon there is drama - just as the show is about to start, one of the men holding up a protective rope falls backward into the makeshift railway; he is quickly helped up and moved on backstage.
Then as the railway clock hanging above strikes 9pm, steam starts pouring in as the iron gates behind us open, the ground vibrates and the Louis Vuitton Express steam train slowly roars in, with models inside. It feels like a theatre production, the sense of drama and romance heightened with a beautiful and dramatic soundtrack of horns, strings and chorals. One can't help creating back stories for each model as she makes her way off the train and looks right then left for her white-gloved porter carrying her bags: the girl in the shiny red dress is off to greet her lover after six months apart; the one in the brown psychedelic printed pant suit has made the journey to a new city alone to start a new life; another with a huge black leather coat shrugged nonchalantly over her shoulders dashes from the station to a glamorous cocktail party.
Now I understand Carcelle's idea of the emotion of luxury: the emotion, romance and nostalgia of travel, the emotion of a mind-blowing fashion show experience - and the emotion that a massive budget can provoke.
Following the show, we are transported to the after party through a corridor decorated with old maps and images of the Paris to Shanghai train route. We enter a new space, decorated to look like the inside of a glamorous train carriage overlooking the river and futuristic Pudong skyline. Outside, among the cigarette smoke and haze of humidity, I bump into New Zealand model Ashleigh Good, who walked in the show. "Nice to see another Kiwi here," she jokes. This was just her second runway show (the first was Givenchy in Paris), one that she describes as a little terrifying.
Later, another Shanghai surprise: Alexa Chung, in a cute Louis Vuitton leopard print beret, bounds on stage and introduces the "phenomenally talented" Lana Del Rey. Like a jazz bar from 1930s Shanghai, the chanteuse belts out stripped back versions of her hits, from Video Games to National Anthem, and actually sounds rather good. "Go crazy," Del Rey instructs the crowd as she exits the stage to make way for the DJs, and by gosh, they do.
With the heady Shanghai heat, view of the skyline, thumping 90s Euro Trash tunes and celebrities dancing on tables, it is one the most surreal nights of my life. It is like a high-end blue light disco or a really fun fashionable wedding, with a packed dance floor.
Someone quickly breaks rank to jump up on stage and dance, a crowd quickly follows and soon after, I spot Yves Carcelle up there dancing freely too. Louis Vuitton has booked possibly the most unpretentious DJs ever, or the most self-consciously ironic (there are three, including Jeremy Healy, who has worked on show soundtracks for the likes of Dior, Galliano and Victoria's Secret). Sample playlist? CeCe Peniston's Finally, Moloko's Sing it Back, Dee-Lite's Groove is in the Heart, a Bob Marley remix and several Rihanna tracks that make the dancefloor go wild. Carly Rae Jepsen's Call Me Maybe goes down well in the VIP area, where Katie Grand - who has changed out of the dirty old pink Converse sneakers worn backstage during the show - dances on a table by herself, while Alexa Chung and Derek Blasberg take photos of themselves on their iPhones, snapping another surreal Shanghai moment.
* Zoe Walker was a guest of Louis Vuitton and flew to Shanghai direct with Air New Zealand.