Fake or Facsimile: Part 12: The Magpie Collection

Marc Jacobs was the “creative director” for Louis Vuitton for 16 years.  The Spring 2014 Paris show was the last that he staged for Louis Vuitton (LV).  At the time of his announced departure, Reuters credited Marc Jacobs: “the star designer” with having “turned Louis Vuitton from a staid luggage-maker into the world’s biggest luxury brand”.[i]  If this is true, then the Jacobs directorship must be counted as one of the greatest success stories in the entire history of fashion.  One of his exceptional achievements was to set a course for LV artistic collaborations which are both still remembered and celebrated—the kind of LV collaboration more recently familiar to us from the Spring 2017 Masters Collection, designed by Jeff Koons.

In a stunning 16-year career, there were bound to be a couple of hiccups along the way.   Questions of taste are fundamental to fashion—and my fashion sense may be ill-informed and uncouth, but it would be hard for me to judge the LV collaboration with Richard Prince an unqualified success, particularly as it affects the Spring 2008 Paris Collection (which in the “virtual reality”—where most of us live—is generally identified as early Autumn 2007).

Both Marc Jacobs (MJ) and Richard Prince are known as “appropriation” artists (and designers)—another moment where there is explicit overlap with Jeff Koons (who, for instance, “appropriated” the Popeye image).  And all three, Jacobs, Prince and Koons have therefore been accused of plagiarism and slapped with significant (successful) lawsuits for breaches of copyright.  In fact, this is so much a part of Richard Prince’s world that he has actually indicated (with respect to his artistic method of appropriation): “I sometimes spend more time in my lawyer’s office than in my studio.”[ii]

Popeye tattoo close-up.

Having recently had a chance to re-inspect Koons’ massive Popeye, I am happy to report that Koons apparently did secure the copyright permission for the three versions of his stainless steel Popeye sculpture (2009-2011).  This is just as well, since those with a greater familiarity with this “ultimate American hero”[iii] will be persuaded by the striking similarity between the Dark Horse (Comics) PVC “vintage-style statuette” (less than 5 inches) and the so-called “three-dimensional crescendo by Jeff Koons” (6 feet and 5 inches).  The pose, the shoes, the clothing, the pipe, the can of spinach, and even the tattoos (especially the remarkable tattoo of a military tank on the inner left biceps) are all completely identical between humble plastic and mirror-polished stainless steel.[iv]  What fundamentally distinguishes the polyvinyl chloride (PVC) original and the stainless steel copy are obviously: the materials, the size and weight, and the price.  The 2002 “retro-style” statuette (now sold out)[v] belonged to a PVC set of 7 figurines, at that time selling for $39.99 USD;[vi] even adjusted for inflation in 2014, the new price (according to the US Inflation Calculator) of $52.62 seems an incredible bargain for a complete set of all 7-Popeye “family” members at less than .0002% of the Sotheby’s auction cost.

The most extraordinary example of a (successful) complaint brought against Marc Jacobs is what appears to be a recycling of a 1950s Swedish scarf—marketed in 2008—where the only significant visible distinction is the replacing of “the names and dates on the top of the scarf”.  In the 2008 version, the original design is preserved under the name of “Marc Jacobs Since 1984”.  According to the reports, a settlement was reached “in early March of 2008”, which is to say quite soon after the complaint was registered.  The convincing similarities between the two scarves can be viewed online,[vii] and this makes the “repetition” even more mystifying, since the MJ “bandanna” doesn’t appear in any way to reflect the urbane, trendy and contemporary preferences that one might associate with the MJ brand.

It was reported that MJ had managed—when he left Louis Vuitton—to build his personal business empire up to somewhere in the vicinity of $1 Billion USD, which was the figure, at the time, provided by LV Chair Bernard Arnault.[viii]  It might be difficult to believe that every single item that went out under his “Marc Jacobs” label received the full “branding” and “quality control” that his personal moniker might suggest to loyal brand “groupies”.  But: his name (as a brand) does build up the intense sense of loyalty which these luxury houses are trying to instil, and then to discover a MJ “designed” bandanna both so dated, and so out of keeping with the urban chic for which he is known, would erode the sense of confidence in perspicacious trend-setting which propels a designer to the forefront of fashion.  As MJ himself has explained: “The difference between a good designer and a real designer is to be in tune to what is there in the moment and define it before anyone else.”[ix]  By any standards, and whatever engagement with the “retro-chic” we embrace, it is hard to see this MJ bandanna as at “the cutting edge”.

Ivanka Trump, whose every word and gesture is now under intense 24-hour scrutiny,[x] has been subject to a “civil suit” by Italian shoe designer Aquazzura for blatant recycling of their “original” designs.  It is Ms Trump’s misfortune to have discovered that the life of a “personal brand” brings with it quite profound obligations (and even further public scrutiny).  Ms Trump’s initial defence seemed quite persuasive and plausible, viz. according to her lawyer, Ms Trump “was not involved in the design, promotion or sale” of the “Hettie” shoe, allegedly a near perfect copy[xi] of Aquazzua’s “sandal”,[xii] identified as “Wild Thing”.  Her declaration to the court that: “I had no involvement in the conception, design, production or sale of the ‘Hettie Shoe’” did not, however, sit well with the needs of brand promotion and confidence.  Ms Trump apparently, earlier, declared in support of her brand: “There’s not a shoe I’m not intimately involved in designing.”[xiii]  This did nothing to convince the litigants of her prima facie non-involvement in the day-to-day operation of her brand.  There is, however, one crucial difference between the Aquazzura sandal and the Ivanka shoe of which every consumer should be aware: not that both seem to be equally appalling by the standards of healthy footware, but that “Wild Thing” apparently retails at $785 USD, and that in 2016 the ticket price for the “Hettie” was $145, which means either a 435% markup, or a 81.5% discount, depending on your assessment of the brand economies.

It is very difficult to be too censorious about this if one is a privileged practitioner of the academic profession, and when part of that professional obligation is to engage in “original” research.  Some wag has suggested that what most academics pass off as research is, in fact, a comprehensive and diligent trawl through whatever other people have said on the given topic, and then rigorously (and in a profoundly disciplined way) to preserve “the originality” of the research by removing all the quotation marks.  The famous French theorist Roland Barthes is said to have, perhaps, put the matter a little more generously: “The writer is someone who arranges quotes and removes the quotation marks.”[xiv]

All designers have their detractors and their defenders, but I want to push the issues of concern to me with respect to two MJ famous/notorious Collection events: New York in September 2007 and Paris in October 2007.  The first was for the MJ label in NY, and the second was a Richard Prince (RP) collaboration in Paris for LV (the Spring 2008 Ready-to-Wear show).

In September MJ tried an “experimental” approach, which, it was reported, elicited two attendee reactions: either “stoicism” or deciding that MJ was, in fact, “obnoxious”.[xv]  The NY show did not get off to a good start, since it was scheduled for a challenging 9pm kick off, which was then delayed until 11pm.  As one Guardian correspondent put it, MJ “accomplished the unthinkable and make lateness unfashionable”.[xvi]

A striking gimmick took place at the very start of the (11pm) show.  My guess is it would have been received with a bit more enthusiasm had it occurred at 9:30pm rather than 11pm.  MJ reversed the order of the show, which is to say he made his entrance at the very beginning of his collection, with all his models appearing in reverse order.  Apart from the spectators’ being irritated by the long wait, it may also have fallen flat, because it has apparently been tried about a decade before—by the highly original Martin Margiela, identified as a Belgian fashion “deconstructionist”.  And it must be said in fairness that MJ openly acknowledges his debt to Margiela: his influence belongs to “anybody who’s aware of what life is in a contemporary world”.[xvii] [ForF Part 13]

According to Suzy Menkes in The New York Times, the overall effect (in NY in 2007) of “this magpie collection” was derivative (“an echo chamber of existing ideas”), and an extremely poorly executed “foraging in the vintage closet.”  In short, “the entire show was a parody of fashion now.” [xviii]  Perhaps, even with a little of the familiar misogyny thrown in as the chili pepper seasoning?  The models were made to strut their stuff in ill-fitting footware:  “the models’ ankles hung over the backs of shoes that were deliberately too small.”[xix]  It may be clever, it may be unusual, it may be counter-intuitive, it may be “interrogating” consumers, it may be opposing “the discourse” of capitalism, but whatever may have been intended, it is not a fashion that is going “to catch on”—or at least I don’t think it is.

The pressure on that occasion in NY seems to have rattled MJ a wee bit, since the media representatives were presented with an opportunity to inspect his “Rolling Stones” style tongue as he retreated from the (Paris) runway.[xx]  Another personal detail, that is more than gossip and actually relevant to the discussion of the MJ brand, is that the designer sports a “SpongeBob SquarePants” tattoo on his arm.[xxi]

Apparently SpongeBob SquarePants is the inspiration for the vivid pastel colouring of both the NY and Paris shows.  As MJ has explained: “I’m a fan of SpongeBob SquarePants… because that’s where our colour came from!”[xxii]  And to underline the point, in Paris, MJ himself carted around “a vanity case featuring a working television screen showing”[xxiii] …………… SpongeBob!  Awesome!

The LV Spring 2008 Collection (read October 2007) was what has been called “Fashion Medicine” since it realized Richard Prince’s vision of a runway full of nurses wearing “sheer organza scrubs over their dip-dye corset dresses”[xxiv] with Richard Prince designed LV handbags prominently displayed.   One summary of this MJ/RP/LV partnership suggests that the “nurses in see-through outfits” were accompanied by RP/LV handbags with what were described as displaying “cheeky quotes on the front”.[xxv]  I am willing to admit my need for a vast education in the world of fashion, but with this judgment I cannot make my peace.

Richard Price is another “appropriation artist” (designer) who with the Paris show established a history with the LV handbag.  What is described as “cheeky” above actually, in my opinion, represents the achievement of a new low, specifically accomplished with the marketing of the LV “Limited Edition Richard Prince Mixed Blue Monogram Heartbreak Jokes Tote Bag” from the “Louis Vuitton 2008 runway collection”.  Yoogi’sCloset, a robust site for “authenticated pre-owned luxury”, explains under “Yoogi’s Notes” that this LV handbag is “emblazoned with jokes dear to the artist” and that this accessory is “truly a must-have for the serious Louis Vuitton collector… who wishes to make a bold statement.”  Having studied the “Graduate Jokes” printed on this LV handbag carefully, the only conclusion one can draw is that the “humour” is at best lame, at worst misogynistic,[xxvi] and that the “bold statement” is meant to be some kind of public embrace of chauvinism.

Oh, I’m sorry: this could be a blinkered rush to judgment; these lame “jokes” could actually be representative of profound meditations on the ubiquity of popular culture, and even 3rd Millennium forms of cultural appropriation of the kind we might have, in the past, associated with 20th-Century Modernism.  Perhaps, in this collaboration, and in displaying these RP handbags, we are given an opportunity to express “the disjointedness and randomness of the contemporary culture of celebrity worship”.[xxvii]  Who could have known otherwise that by carting around a handbag with extremely stale expressions of humour, one could be engaged at the highest levels of Post-Modern theory and cultural criticism?

Spinach close-up.

Jeff Koons has described his Popeye as “a sense of transcendence”, the “transcendence of male energy”,[xxviii] and the catalogue note that Sotheby’s has posted claims, for instance, “Popeye embodies the essential metaphor that underlines the very core of Koons’s practice: the acceptance of cultural history and the acceptance of the self… Proposing an altered concept of the Duchampian readymade, Koons creates objects based on emblems or ideas drawn from the mass consciousness as the cipher for a new conceptual dialogue”; then in apparent conflict with what has been claimed earlier, the note concludes that, in gazing at Koons’ Popeye, and considering his transformation (by way of spinach), we are enabled “to reconsider and overcome our own sense of self”.[xxix]  A full engagement with Popeye, then, it is suggested, brings us into the very orbit of Post-Modern criticism of the whole notion of a constructed “self”.  The Popeye of Jeff Koons appears to play into both sides of Nietzsche’s dismantling of received moral imperatives: both by shunning the psychological certainties of “the self”, supposedly standing behind any particular action,[xxx] and then also as an early American instantiation of the Übermensch.[xxxi]  I am not willing to share with my readers the disorienting experience I had when I came face-to-face with Popeye, which forced me to interrogate the very idea of a “self”, an idea which, to that point, I had been breezily taking for granted.

So, in light of being set adrift in this way, by this “uncanny”[xxxii] confrontation with  Popeye—who remains a celebrated icon of Pop Art from Andy Warhol, via Roy Lichtenstein to Jeff Koons—I wonder what an intensified and more sustained engagement with SpongeBob SquarePants might yield in revealing the complex unconscious structures of our contemporary mass culture.  The (for me as yet) undiscovered “deep psychology” at work here might prove quite unsettling.

However, before we proceed to the next stage of our considerations: please, a very practical word of warning.  I have carefully studied the “Marc Jacobs” website—especially the so-called “small print”.   Please exercise extreme caution.  Under Marc Jacobs International, LLC: “Terms of Use: Proprietary Rights”, the reader will be informed:

“Unless you obtain MJI’s prior written consent, You may not copy, reproduce, republish, upload, post, repost, transmit or distribute…”  Furthermore: “You may not otherwise download, display, copy, reproduce, distribute, modify, perform, transfer, create derivative works from…”

Obviously, I hesitated even to reproduce these very precise instructions from the MJI website, because these exact words are being cited in this blog.  But I had to overcame my indecision in order to post this warning, which must be understood as undertaken in the public interest.  It is a public service presented for those who might be tempted into carrying on the Rabbit, Balloon Dog, Popeye, SpongeBob iconic American traditions.  The best advice I can give: however you decide to proceed, do not appropriate the intellectual property of an American appropriation artist.

 

Next Time: Parisian Semi Couture

 

[i] reuters.com, October 2nd, 2013 (Astrid Wendlandt and Pascale Denis): “Designer Marc Jacobs leaves Vuitton to float own Brand”

[ii] vulture.com, April 20th, 2016 (Carl Swanson): “Richard Prince: Always wanted to be the coolest Artist in the World”.  According to the interview conducted by Carl Swanson, Richard Prince was able to make his case quite explicitly on this matter: “And, listen, I’m in fucking plenty of lawsuits.  And always have been. I sometimes spend more time in my lawyer’s office than in my studio.”

[iii] Alexander Rotter, Co-Head, Contemporary Art Worldwide, Sotheby’s New York: Auction Preview: “Jeff Koons’s American Hero, Popeye”

[iv] cartoonbrew.com, May 15th, 2014 (Amid Amidi): “Did Jeff Koons just make $28 Milliion by plagiarizing a Dark Horse Popeye Toy? [Update: No, he had permission to copy]”

[v] darkhorse.com: “Classic Comic Characters #41: Popeye II”

[vi] darkhorse.com” “Popeye PVC Set”; Publication Date: November 27th, 2002

[vii] Fashionlawwiki at Fordham Law School: “Inspiration, Homage, and Copying: the Works of Marc Jacobs”; see also thecut.com, February 20th, 2008: “Heavens!  Has Marc ripped off the Swedes?!”

[viii] The New York Times, October 2nd, 2013 (Suzy Menkes and Eric Wilson): “Marc Jacobs to leave Louis Vuitton”

[ix] The New York Times, November 15th, 2007 (Eric Wilson): “Loving and Hating Marc Jacobs”

[x] David A. Fahrenthold of The Washington Post is: “a reporter covering the Trump family and their business interests.”

[xi] The Aquazzura “‘Wild Thing’ sandal” and the Ivanka Trump “Hettie” shoe can be viewed side-by-side at The Huffington Post, June 22nd, 2016 (Jamie Feldman): “Ivanka Trump sued for allegedly copying Shoe Designs”

[xii] bloomberg.com, June 13th, 2017 (Bob Van Voris and Lindsey Rupp): “Ivanka Trump seeks to duck Deposition…”

[xiii] The Telegraph, June 24th, 2017: “Ivanka Trump ordered to testify in Dispute with Shoe Company”

[xiv] This epigraph is attributed to Roland Barthes at the beginning of Irène by Pierre Lemaitre (in English translation by Frank Wynne).  New York: Quercus, 2014

[xv] The New York Times, November 15th, 2007 (Eric Wilson): op. cit.

[xvi] The Guardian, February 8th, 2008 (Hadley Freeman): “Jacobs out to make up Lost Ground after Rude Awakening”

[xvii] The Independent, December 6th, 2009 (Harriet Walker): “Out of Sight, not out of Mind: Celebrating two Decades of Martin Margiela Magic”

[xviii] The New York Times, September 12th, 2007 (Suzy Menkes): “Marc Jacobs disappoints with a Freak Show”

[xix] The Guardian, February 8th, 2008 (Hadley Freeman): op. cit.

[xx] Anyone wishing a closer medical inspection can enjoy the spectacle at wm.magazine, November 1st, 2012 (Horacio Silva): “Fashion Scandals! (‘The Late Late Show’)”

[xxi] The New York Times, November 15th, 2007 (Eric Wilson): op. cit.

[xxii] Vogue (Runway), October 6th, 2007 (Sarah Mower): “Spring 2008 Ready-to-Wear: Louis Vuitton”

[xxiii] Vogue, October 7th, 2007 (Dolly Jones): “Spring/Summer 2008 Ready-to-Wear: Louis Vuitton”

[xxiv] marie claire, October 5th, 2016 (Caroline Leaper): “The 10 most memorable Louis Vuitton Fashion Show Moments ever”

[xxv] SpottedFashion, October 9th, 2013: “Art and Fashion: The many Collaborations for Louis Vuitton by Marc Jacobs”

[xxvi] Yoogi’s Closet: “Louis Vuitton: Limited Edition Richard Prince Mixed Blue Monogram Heartbreak Joke Tote Bag”; through painstaking research I have made an effort to decipher some of “the Graduate Jokes” printed onto the handbags.  As indicated, these are both misogynistic and lame (at best “sophomoric” rather than Graduate).  A single one I am willing to reproduce for context only: “What a fight.  When the bell rang, I came out of my corner and threw six straight punches in a row.  Then the other guy came out of his corner.”

[xxvii] The New York Times, November 15th, 2007 (Eric Wilson): op. cit.

[xxviii] This is Jeff Koons speaking to Alan Yentob on BBC Television (Summer 2015): “Jeff Koons: Diary of a Seducer”

[xxix] Sotheby’s: May 2014: Contemporary Art Evening Auction: Jeff Koons, Popeye: Catalogue Note: this appears to be an extract (pp. 128-129) from a volume published for a 2012 Frankfurt exhibition in the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung: Jeff Koons: The Sculptor.

[xxx] For instance: Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality (1st Treatise §13): “But there is no such substratum; there is no ‘being’ behind the doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is simply fabricated…”  Translation by Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen.  Indianapolis: Hackett. 1998; p. 25

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] “Uncanny” is the usual—but in my opinion not particularly effective translation—of Martin Heidegger’s unheimlich.

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