Behind the Glass

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One day, two people with very different aesthetic styles but a common purpose find their way to creative jobs at Louis Vuitton. Neither of them has calculated that, in just a matter of years, they might help redefine the luxury brand’s image. Louis Vuitton Windows (Assouline) is the story of merchandising directors Faye McLeod and Ansel Thompson, and of their more than 30 window displays—creations that have featured life-sized ostriches, gilded velociraptors, and a fantastical Orient Express.

When you look at what McLeod and Thompson actually did and how the windows actually looked, it often wasn’t as straightforward as their words might lead you to believe. “I wanted to be respectful of the brand’s heritage,” asserted Faye in the book’s introduction, written by New York Times fashion director Vanessa Friedman. But if the script for the duo was to respect Vuitton’s past, it was a script that they often veered away from, in ways that were fascinating and surreal. In Windows, McLeod said that she was nervous about “revealing her own tendencies.” She would soon learn, however, that it was Vuitton that “wanted to do things most brands would be too scared to do.” So McLeod and Thompson went to work, and their bosses seemed pleased with the results.

To understand why the windows looked as they did, you need to consider the time and place from which they emerged. For a 155-year-old brand in the late 2000s to present itself like this—audacious, provocative—didn’t constitute some default retail reaction. Rather, it was an act of irreverence. This was the start of an era in which brands that produced accessories and clothes were not just expected to sell product, they were expected to have an image. And as the largest luxury brand, Vuitton had higher goals and was playing for bigger stakes. It might have been easy for McLeod and Thompson to play it safe with the displays, continuing in the brand’s traditional vein, but their displays became workouts for the mind. People stopped and looked. Often, they went inside to learn more.

All fashion ads and retail displays are kind of a lie: What matters is how potent and persuasive are the stories and dreams and truths that are smuggled in that lie. And McLeod and Thompson are great smugglers. At times, they helped convey the designer’s message of the season. Yes, those messages were often gratuitous and usually out of reach. But McLeod and Thompson’s creations were also a type of visual theater that bubbled over with a sense of longing for the magical and the worthwhile, however elusive those might be in fashion. Behind those windows, they offered something that their audience could recognize as true. Mostly, it was an experience associated with a thrill—a tryst at a hotel, a wild roller-coaster ride. Today, inside those glass boxes, there’s something tangible to want, or someone to aspire to be like. And so as you peer into those Vuitton windows—and form your own interpretations—the only sane thing to do is believe that what you see could be real.