Has Kusama sold out to Louis Vuitton?

Commercially opportunistic or creative win? Kusama and Louis Vuitton collaboration under fire.
model for louis vuitton campaign with polka dots

This past week, social media has been bombarded with posts regarding the latest designer takeover by an artist. Pushing the hashtag #LVxYayoiKusama, the collaboration between the iconic French fashion house Louis Vuitton and the 93-year-old – and equally iconic – Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama was launched on 1 January in China and Japan, with the rest of the world following five days later.

It is not the first time the two have collaborated. In fact, this collaboration marks the 10th anniversary of the duo’s first partnership, which was under the creative direction of Marc Jacobs in 2012, coinciding with Kusama’s 2012 retrospective at New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art.

That collaboration was the result of Jacobs reaching out to Kusama in 2006 and visiting her in her studio where she hand-painted the first Louis Vuitton Ellipse bag with her polka dot motif.

It would become the most successful pairing in the history of Louis Vuitton. Today, those first released pieces attract premium collector prices, and are highly sought after. It is not surprising then – given the dollar churn and long legs on these designs – that designer Nicolas Ghesquière has been brought in to create a new branded line.

This time it coincides with the major retrospective Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now at M+ in Hong Kong, and the launch of Art SG (the latest art fair in Singapore, which capitalised on the event by placing artworks by Kusama on sale, with prices ranging from $155,00 to $840,000, and citywide advertising).

After visiting Art SG, Georgina Adams wrote, ‘There were plenty of negative comments at the fair about the collaboration… at the way Kusama has been turned into a global luxury goods brand.’  

Comprising 450 individual pieces from bags to clothing, trainers, fragrances and sunglasses, the collection has been ‘Kusama’ed’ with faux paint daubs. While the multimillion-dollar launch is banking on success, not all have received it favourably, with many questioning the lack of involvement by Kusama herself, and sheer commercialisation of the collaboration by LV.

LV’s executive vice president Delphine Arnault (who supervises all LV product-related activities) told Women’s Wear Daily that ‘the project was a year and a half in the making, conceived and realised in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic via Zoom and file-sharing technology’ linking with the Kusama studio.

Writer William Van Meter said the 2012 collaboration ‘…pushed the boundaries of how far a fashion/art collaboration could go, and redefined the heritage luxury brand’. However, there seems to be a dramatic shift in tone this time around.

Of the current campaign, Georgia Adams wrote, ‘Both the material and the displays are hideous: a dizzying blanket bomb of dots, dots and more dots in red, white and silver across every conceivable support.’

Comments on social media have added to the critiques: ‘Looks like a Google ad’, ‘Today I declare creativity completely died at LV… RIP’, and ‘I love the design, but how did advertising make such a racist advertisement?’. While a few bloggers have called out racial framing across the supermodel roll-out of the campaign, they are a smaller group compared with the overall negativity regarding how LV has adopted Kusama’s dots.

The big brand criticism comes not long after fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier was sued by the Uffizi Galleries for his use of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and rising calls for accountability within the fashion industry.

Read: Fashion appropriation igniting backlash from art sector

The economics – and ethics – of art as a brand

Highsnobriety made the point this week that, ‘The Kusama collab is so huge that it actually figures into Louis Vuitton’s first quarter earning expectations.’

The collaboration is being launched in two ‘drops’ – this first one in January, with a further release on 31 March.

While Kusama’s image is all over this campaign, it remains unclear how involved she has been this time round. She lives voluntarily in a psychiatric hospital. In 2012, Kusama said of that campaign: ‘Louis Vuitton understands and appreciates the nature of my art’ (New York magazine). This time no endorsing statement is being carried by the campaign.

Where this gets blurry is the move beyond the design object, appropriating Kusama’s installations as an in-store experience, and add-ons that act to devalue her art-making. The Louis Vuitton website offers the opportunity to ‘Kusama-ify Your World’, with access to social filters inspired by her signature motifs, and LVxYK: THE GAME, where the new collection can be discovered through a series of mini games, the brand explains.

Read: To merch or not to merch

When it comes to the stores themselves, many have taken on an installation quality, riffing off Kusama’s renowned series of Infinity Rooms. A pop-up Louis Vuitton store in New York’s Meatpacking District is wallpapered in yellow with black dots mimicking those headline installations, while a pop-up in SoHo, New York was similarly decorated to offer an immersive experience in a different palette. These are repeated globally.

A robotic doppelgänger of the artist painting her famous spots is featured in the window of the Louis Vuitton store on Fifth Avenue, while a sculpture of Kusama – in over life-sized proportions – hangs off the 1912 façade of Louis Vuitton’s Paris headquarters, seemingly peering into the building while painting it with her signature dots.

The expense of this campaign is mind-blowing, and only goes to underscore the excesses of the fashion industry, and its self-serving motifs, arguably at the cost of the artworks themselves.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina