Fourteen years ago, Louis Vuitton launched a series of bags that would dramatically elevate the status of the brand’s staid Monogram canvas. And all it took was to deface the signature fabric with graffiti writing. Today, scribbled text across perfectly respectable surfaces continue to make loud fashion statements
Close-up of Stephen Sprouse’s graffiti on Louis Vuitton’s Monogram Canvas in 2001
Handwriting has a long history, but anthropologists and educators now declare that it belongs to the past. Their proclamation may not be so overstated. Texting with a keyboard—physical or virtual—is, after all, more prevalent than putting pen to paper. Yet, high tech has a knack of reviving the interest in the low tech it replaces. If you look at the resurgence of the long playing record despite the popularity of digital downloads, there’s hope that hand-penned lettering may not entirely be replaced by fonts of electronic lineage. No matter how popular Brandon Grotesque may still be, free-form handwriting is not losing out. In fact, the less orderly, the less uniform, and the less rigid the handwriting, the more appealing they are. And no other industry love scrawls and scribbles more than fashion. Graffiti has a soul mate.
If credit must be given to he who merits it, then Marc Jacobs deserves to be commended for popularising handwriting-as-pattern, bringing toilet-stall shorthand and neon warehouse-wall inscriptions to fashion’s hallowed grounds. Back in 2001, Mr Jacobs collaborated with Stephen Sprouse to breathe new life to Louis Vuitton’s Monogram canvas. Created in 1896 for the making of luggage, LV’s signature patterned fabric had become, a century later, a reminder of faded glories and a way of travel no longer preferred. What Mr Sprouse did to the Monogram canvas with his almost-naïve lettering not only gave it street cred, which LV needed rather badly at that time, it also gave it shock value. No one could imagine such irreverence. The aesthetic blow was a punch to the taste of the soignée set, but to the young consumer group (Gen X?), it was an appealing sock to a design institution. It wasn’t just graffiti writing, it was script in neon, and it was confrontational and attention-grabbing, and to its detractors, it fed into the vacuity of capitalist consumerism.
Top left, Louis Vuitton X Stephen Sprouse Speedy 30 bag. Top right, Louis Vuitton store in New York’s Soho during the launch of the Graffiti series. Below: Marc Jacobs posed in the nude for New York Magazine in 2008
Mr Jacobs, installed at Louis Vuitton during the frantic brand revivalism of the Nineties, would later tell the press that he did receive instructions not to defile LV’s iconic motifs, but, unsurprisingly, he wasn’t one to follow decrees. Whether this was an act of disaffection or strutting on a whim, it was hard to tell. Always in tune with the pop culture of any given time, Mr Jacobs would pluck from the zeitgeist of the past with total abandon to infuse his designs with more than a whiff of long-gone vice and excesses. Some think this is his true talent. He told the Guardian in a 2009 interview of the first Stephen Sprouse fashion show he attended in 1984, aged 21: “It was like a rock concert. Deafening hardcore rock… the audience was downtown club-kids sitting next to Vogue and New York Times fashion editors. It was the first time that had happened in New York.” The first is always the most unforgettable, and 17 years later, he would pluck Stephen Sprouse out of obscurity and introduce street lettering to Parisian fashion.
Mr Sprouse was, at that time, an out-of-full-time-practice “cult” fashion designer—trained at Halston, but much associated with Day-Glo (colours) of the Eighties, and known among pop royalty as the designer of rock costumes, such as those for Duran Duran’s 1989 Big Thing tour (interestingly, before he became a full-fledge designer, he made clothes for the punk-pop ingénue Debby Harry, who was a downstairs neighbour). Mr Sprouse may have brought punk and fluorescence and downtown vibe together, but his approach and quality were steep in traditional dressmaking. His friends, who had the privilege of wearing his custom-made clothes, knew, for example, that he used Norman Norell’s tailor. Regrettably, design skill and business savvy wasn’t the downtown cool and uptown chic that Mr Sprouse had successfully paired. In 1985, much to the shock of the disco set that worshipped him, he declared bankruptcy.
Under the auspices of Louis Vuitton and with those bags he vandalised, Stephen Sprouse (left) became known as a “graffiti designer”, a title that belied his true legacy as a fashion designer since he used graffiti as an element of design, not quite as a style of art such as those of working graffiti artists Lee Quiñones and Keith Haring. The collaboration emerged at a time when graffiti art was becoming increasingly mainstream; facilitated by the rapid rise of rap music. Graffiti visually expresses rap (and, the related hip hop) just as breaking physically articulates it. The influence of graffiti art on rap music—or pop music—goes as far back as the late Seventies, when in 1979, Blondie’s music video for the single Rapture (in which Debbie Harry raps somewhat unconvincingly) featured Jean-Michel Basquiat.
While the result of the Jacobs-Sprouse partnership appeared headily new at that time, fashion observers across the Atlantic thought it déjà vu. In the Autumn/Winter season of 1983, Vivienne Westwood and one-time partner and co-designer Malcolm McLaren hatched a conceptually strong collection with hip-hop overtones called ‘Witches’. The idea came about after meeting Keith Haring in New York. Ms Westwood found Mr Haring’s drawings to be “a magical, esoteric sign language” and was keen to use them as prints for that season’s collection. The separates—characterised by oversized tops—were etched with Mr Haring’s distinctive graffiti. The British design duo was, however, no stranger to defacement graphics. In 1975, they renamed at existing shop of theirs—Let It Rock—to Sex! Situated at the suitably named World’s End on London’s King’s Road, it was fronted by its name in pink rubber letters, 1.2 metres high! Inside, graffiti of pornographic images ravished the walls. It was totally in keeping with Sex’s maxim: “Craft must have clothes but truth loves to go naked”. ‘Witches’ was the last collection jointly designed by Ms Westwood and Mr McLaren.
While fashion and music played down the social nuisance that graffiti represented, on our shores, graffiti in the guise of art did not take a grip of our pop consciousness since it was not condone by our government, at least not in public spaces, where the presence of graffiti would be considered vandalism (since 1994, an American, a Swiss and two Germans have found out the painful way). In 2001, Louis Vuitton changed how we saw graffiti, and illustrated graffiti’s relevance and parity to modern fashion via its bags. In no time, graffiti’s social standing and creative value were elevated. And since it was not unlawful to have graffiti on your handbag (always private property whether in the shop or in your hand), women thronged the LV stores to acquire one (or more), only to be told that there were sold out.
By many accounts, the collection enjoyed a 100 percent sell-through, and it was reported that the Speedy 30 travelling bag alone enjoyed sales in excess of USD300 million in its first year. Mr Sprouse died of lung cancer in 2004, three years after the collaboration, but Louis Vuitton continued to produce the Graffiti series in the six years that followed. Mr Jacobs was so thrilled with its success (including latter reiterations) that he would appear in a series of LV print ads with nothing more than graffiti scrawled all over his body. Only an adequately sized, graffiti-covered Keepall protected his modesty. Who could have known that the defacement of an iconic fabric would prove so wildly lucrative for what, at that time, was still essentially a bag brand?
Following in Marc Jacob’s footsteps is Jeremy Scott, whose appropriation of popular icons in madcap ways has elevated him to a position that few designers using classical motifs can reach. His latest in a long collaboration with Longchamp sees the Le Pliage bag that he favours smothered with glyphs of the zodiac in Halloween orange. Rihanna was one of the first to carry this version even before it hit the stores. Le Pliage, one of the most knocked off brand-name bags (just explore Bugis Street market), is Longchamp’s most successful product. Introduced in 1993 by Philippe Cassegrain (son of founder Jean Cassegrain), who also designed the bag, Le Pliage’s success can be traced to two attributes not always evident in luxury products: undeniable practicality and attractive price. The early issues of Le Pliage, if you look back now, were the antithesis of the IT bag, and were attractive to women who did not need her handbag to define her. But the simplicity of its design easily lends itself to counterfeiting. With lookalikes flooding the market, Longchamp’s iconic tote no longer enjoyed the advantage of a charmed genesis.
If the Monogram canvas needed a jolt of new life, Le Pliage’s unexciting nylon, too, required creative tempering. Jeremy Scott, the American designer who placed teddy bears on Adidas sneakers and gave Moschino’s cross-body bag the shape of McDonald’s French fry cup, is the guy to do just that. Mr Scott has been prescribing makeovers for the Le Pliage since 2006. True to his penchant for plastering the low brow onto high style, he made Longchamp’s star bag a canvas on which to transfer his goofy graphics: from holiday postcards to the ugly faces of the Eighties’ cartoon series Madballs. But graffiti has always been on the mind of Mr Scott, whose popularity among hip hop stars has never waned. Le Pliage’s latest face is possibly an extension of what he did at the house of Moschino for the current spring/summer season: red-carpet-worthy gowns are fashioned out of fabrics with graffiti that look like it has been transposed from abandoned buildings in certain seedy American neighbourhood. To some, this is the genius of Jeremy Scott: the knack for celebrating his own national identity through sneaky Americanisation of European brands.
The popularity of handwritten text has also been boosted by the viral sharing of the work of the English typographer and calligrapher Sebastian Lester. One of the most popular blogs on YouTube is Mr Lester’s hand-drawn calligraphy, in particular the one that shows him illustrating recognisable logotype with a broad-tip pen (at last check, the post hit 1,276, 049 views, not counting the reposts and shares). That a video that’s not about a pop star twerking or someone’s pet doing something painfully silly could ensnare more than a million hits attests to both Mr Lester’s amazing skill and the elegance of lettering by hand. Mr Lester has shown that unadulterated handwriting can make beautiful art. Technology may make work for most of us easier, but, in the end, our hands still easily make the best work.
Longchamp X Jeremy Scott ‘Zodiac’ Le Pliage travel bag, SGD440, is available at Longchamp stores