During the last six months London has been the chosen destination for Hermès, Louis Vuitton and Chanel to stage temporary exhibitions. The shows all share similar purposes to market their luxury brands within gallery spaces, through immersive, multi-sensory and digitally curated experiences. In the 1950’s Andy Warhol stated that: ‘All department stores will become museums and all museums will become department stores.’ These recent exhibitions are evidence of this prophecy.
Though the merging of art and fashion spaces is not a new concept, the presentation of the luxury experience nonetheless is an interesting phenomenon to consider through these recent displays. In addition to the decadently built sets, throughout each of the exhibitions sensory interaction was a calculated marketing tool. Touch and smell for example were incorporated into all the displays. For instance, within Hermès’ ‘Wanderland’ leather goods hung in the gallery space inviting visitors to touch, and one space at the Chanel Mademoiselle Privé’ show, reminiscent of a scene from Willy Wonka’s factory, featured drums filled with the iconic Chanel No.5 fragrance that opened, filling the room with frothy smoke smelling of the love-or-hate scent.
The work of sensory theorist David Howes is pertinent to consider in relation to these sensory spectacles. In his text ‘Hyperesthesia, or, the Sensual Logic of Late Capitalism’, Howes argues that businesses have moved towards multi-sensory marketing as a differentiation strategy, thus branding the senses and ‘creating a sense of hyperesthesia in the shopper’. According to Howes, synaesthesia involves short-circuiting the full five-sense model of perception, to establish cross-linkages between sensual sensitivity and experiences of objects and happenings; ‘hyperesthesia’ involves this multi-sensory process to be connected to products and brands. Within these spaces products and experiences engage sensory perception beyond vision. The experience of a Chanel perfume or Hermès handbag for example, requires touch and smell, which is unique to the brand. Through this encounter, the visitor will register the connection between multi-sensory experience and the brand, thus supporting Howes’ argument concerning ‘hyperesthesia’.
In addition to tapping into sensory brand encounters, these exhibitions have also embraced
visitor’s digital experiences. There are no doubts that these displays were all strategic and
glorified marketing exercises, allowing the visitor to not only taste (literally at ‘Series 3’ cafe) the experience of a luxury brand, but also to capture it through their smartphones. It was necessary to book online to see Louis Vuitton ‘Series 3’ and the Chanel exhibition could be navigated with a specific app. Even the elaborate sets, especially those of the Louis Vuitton exhibition featuring large logo-ed graphics, shiny surfaces and mirrors and, perfect for that Instagram ‘selfie’ moment. All spurred on by the fact that complimentary Wi-Fi was easily accessible throughout all the spaces - seamlessly allowing the visitor to become a promoter of the brand.
Nonetheless, there seemed to be control over what could and couldn’t be photographed within the shows. In sections of the Chanel display it was difficult to get close and therefore photograph both the haute couture; which seemed to float on illuminated transparent bodies, and the re-editions of the ‘High Jewellery’, which triggered alarms if you ventured too close. The strategically set physical and metaphorical distance between body of the visitor and the body of the brand added to the unobtainable allure of the pieces; fantasy garments and diamonds that can be seen but not accessed intimately or through the superficial medium of the screen.
Experience through digital surface was a concern explored in the finale of Hermès’ 'Wanderland’. The exit door, which seemed to be three dimensional with stuccowork and architectural decoration, was in fact an intricate digital projection on a flat surface. When asked in an interview with Suzy Menkes about this choice, Hermes CEO Axel Dumas mused that "The future is digital." And it seems that through these multi-sensory immersive approaches it still remains physical.