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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 January 2006, 17:48 GMT
Top Paris stores embrace art chic
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC correspondent in Paris

Naked models
The Louis Vuitton exhibition has been described as 'porno chic'
It's an age old recipe for success.

Naked skin and lots of it - but not necessarily the sort of skin you might expect to find at that Parisian purveyor of luxury luggage and handbags, Louis Vuitton.

The world has become accustomed to Vuitton's initial-branded signature luggage, but this time, the naked skin is Art, with a capital A.

For Louis Vuitton's recently opened emporium in Paris is now not just a consumer temple but, from Thursday, boasts a chic art gallery on the seventh floor that will be open to the public.

The Espace Louis Vuitton is a separate space for contemporary art and culture.

Is it art?

But just how separate or independent can that art be when it is commissioned by a commercial patron such as this powerful global brand?

Very independent, according to Yves Carcelle, the chairman and CEO of Louis Vuitton Malletier.

"We thought it was important to give the space we have here another dimension; to commission works of art to enable a very wide public to have contact with modern art."

French luxury marques have always tended towards nudity and provocation, perhaps more than art on a traditional sense
Isabelle Musnik
Influencia editor

Even the shop downstairs incorporates some bold works, such as the video wall by James Turrell, an American artist whose main medium is light.

"We don't want to limit ourselves," says Mr Carcelle.

"The artists were totally free in their work. The main difference between art and creativity in fashion is that in fashion you need to be able to sell the product. Art works only if you give it total freedom."

Even the lifts up to the exhibition space are a work of art: "sensory deprivation lifts" by artist Olafur Eliasson - whose sun-like installation at the Tate Modern, The Weather Project, was in complete contrast to this.

In the lifts, all light and sound is totally blacked out, leaving visitors with the eerie feeling of being quite literally unsure whether they're going up or down. Claustrophobics beware.

Yet on emerging from the pitch-black lift at the purely "art" exhibition upstairs, it is hard to escape the Louis Vuitton branding as you gaze at the 13 photographs that make up Alphabet Concept, by New York photographer Vanessa Beecroft.

Louis Vuitton model
Models are shown juxtaposed to Louis Vuitton products

The striking images show female nudes: models seemingly chosen for their starkly dark or luminously white skin, wearing clown-like coloured wigs on their heads.

Their bodies are intertwined to shape the letters of Louis Vuitton's name.

Beecroft's live performance work, which was created for the grand opening of the shop last October, also forms part of the display, with video and further photos.

Curled around the logoed suitcases and the handbags in the atrium, are similar G-string-clad models - this time, almost naked apart from their Louis Vuitton shoes.

The installation was one of the highlights of the extravagant, celeb-studded opening night, which attracted crowds of excited Parisians on the Champs Elysees eager to catch a glimpse of the guests, who ranged from Winona Ryder to Karl Lagerfeld.

They, needless to say, kept their clothes on.

In fashion

It seems that one's own space for art and culture is the latest must-have accessory for French luxury firms.

Cartier already has its own exhibition space in Paris at the Fondation Cartier, which memorably gave space to designer Jean-Paul Gautier, who filled the room with intricate designer dresses - made using real baguettes.

So what do the fashionistas and opinion formers make of this trend?

"It's a very good idea," says Isabelle Musnik, editor of the style magazine Influencia.

Louis Vuitton gallery
If you don't like the art, there's always the view

"The Louis Vuitton brand has been very present in all artistic domains, so the link between contemporary art and LV is a logical one. The company has always moved with the times, and "porno chic" - the naked models draped around handbags - is a French speciality.

"French luxury marques have always tended towards nudity and provocation, perhaps more than art on a traditional sense."

Yet all this talk of art provokes the age-old question. If it's paid for by a commercial company - is it really art?

Or is it also designed to sell more handbags, not least to the groups of Japanese tourists who flock to the store to worship at the altar of the logoed luggage?

"Sell more handbags? Yes, that's my dream," says Yves Carcelle with a disarming smile.

Meanwhile, one guest at the official opening points out that even the ceiling of the Sistine chapel had to be commissioned by wealthy patrons.

And while not quite the Sistine chapel, if art isn't your thing, there is still a fabulous view over the Champs Elysees from the seventh floor gallery.

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