Street theatre: Louis Vuitton’s Faye McLeod on designing the brand’s windows

Since joining Louis Vuitton in 2009, creative director of visual merchandising Faye McLeod has worked on dozens of inventive window displays for the brand. Her work is now showcased in a lavish new book by French publisher Assouline

In 1925, Gaston-Louis Vuitton wrote an article on shop windows for French design magazine Vendre. Praising a new wave of “magnificent and modern” store facades, he urged shop owners to use their windows to turn the streets into a cheerful space. “Let’s draw the passer-by, let’s give him a reason to dawdle, to stroll!” he wrote.

Vuitton (the grandson of Louis, and the third generation to run the Louis Vuitton brand), was known for creating striking window arrangements, combining bold colours and simple shapes to dramatic effect. Describing the art of creating a good display, he said it required both “a sharp sense of architecture and the skills of a stage director.”

90 years on, Louis Vuitton is known for creating some of the most inventive and extravagant window displays in retail. Over the past six years, creative director of visual merchandising Faye McLeod and art director Ansel Thompson have worked with leading visual artists, set designers and production companies to create dozens of beautifully crafted window arrangements for flagship stores as well as smaller branches.

Windows promoting a collaboration with Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama in 2012, for example, featured life-sized models of the artist among snaking polka-dot tendrils. The facade of the brand’s New York maison store was wrapped in thousands of black polka dots, and windows had to be cleaned four times a day due to passers-by pressing their face and hands against them to get a closer look.

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Louis Vuitton’s Fall/Winter 2012-13 windows. Displays referenced the brand’s lavish fashion show, which featured a working Louis Vuitton train and replica station. Lead image (top): 2012’s Christmas windows in Paris. Image: Stephanie Muratet

Another 2012 display featured accessories arranged among thousands of brightly coloured feather arrows, while 2013’s Natural History windows featured golden veloceraptor, triceratops and diplodocus skeletons (below). Other windows have featured unicorns, dancing bears, vintage train cars depicting a fictional version of the Orient Express (above) and aluminium sails designed by architect Frank Gehry.

Thompson and McLeod’s work is now showcased in Louis Vuitton Windows, a lavish book published by Assouline which includes photographs of some of their most ambitious concepts alongside behind-the-scenes images, renders and sketches. The book also includes an introduction by Vanessa Friedman, fashion director at the New York Times.

McLeod joined Louis Vuitton in 2009. She studied fashion design and technology at Cardonald College in Glasgow, and was previously visual director at Jigsaw and creative director of windows and visual merchandising at Liberty (where she met Thompson).

The pair are now based in New York and work with a team of 18 to create 10 Louis Vuitton window displays each year. Team members come from a range of backgrounds, including psychology, automotive design, architecture and illustration.

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2012 windows promoting a collaboration with Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama at Louis Vuitton’s maison store in New York. Image: Stephanie Muratet

“We collaborate with the artistic director [Nicolas Ghesquière, who took over from Marc Jacobs in November 2013] and his studio,” says McLeod. “Our role is to take his vision with the CEO’s and make it happen. The design process is different with each idea – sometimes we sketch, 3D render or we model make, we have no rules in our design process – but we present each month in Paris to our senior management and this is where we discuss all creative projects,” she adds.

Displays for the brand’s flagship maison stores take around four days to install and are produced locally, says McLeod. “We work with production companies that often work in the film industry or exhibit design and we quite literally create our own window theatre,” she adds.

There’s a theatrical, fantastical aspect to windows: animals feature heavily, from white unicorns matching those featured in Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2012 show (a collaboration between McLeod, Thompson and Es Devlin, it featured an elaborate rotating carousel) to striped monkeys, artificial dancing bears and exotic birds and a harlequin elephant in a circus-themed display.

The attention to detail in displays is always impressive, with nuts and bolts often cleverly concealed to create a sense of wonder or intrigue. 2011’s Life is a Journey windows featured dozens of red hot air balloons in varying sizes, which appeared suspended in mid-air, while Circus windows featured mannequins poised on tight ropes. As Friedman notes in her introduction to the book, “no finishing line is visible, no matter how closely you look.”

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Ostrich windows at Louis Vuitton’s New Bond Street store in London, 2010.Image: Melvyn Vincent

Displays are the result of a collaboration between model makers, artists, engineers and set designers and often involve hundreds or thousands of parts, many of which are handcrafted. Over 23,000 tentacles were produced for the Yayoi Kusama windows, and tens of millions of polka dots, while 700,000 brightly feathers were fixed to arrow shafts by hand for the Arrows display.

McLeod and her team produced some hugely ambitious work for Marc Jacobs – including a life-size replica train station and functioning train for his Autumn/Winter 2012/13 show – and McLeod says Ghesquire is also keen on pushing his team to “new levels of inventiveness” when it comes to window designs and runway shows.

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The Louis Vuitton Spring/Summer 15 and 16 presentations (again designed with Es Devlin) featured multi-screen video projections and in the past two years, Ghesquière has launched a series of exhibitions offering an insight into his inspirations and the process behind bringing a catwalk show to life. London’s Series 3 exhibition, which followed shows in Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, Los Angeles and Rome, featured photographs, interviews, mannequins and projections of models alongside videos of artisans hard at work, offering a behind-the-scenes look at Ghesquière’s AW15 collection.

With windows, McLeod says there is now a greater emphasis on moving image, “and we are continually working on finding new materials and ways of making props,” she adds. “Our 3D printer is always on in the studio.”

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Louis Vuitton’s Natural History windows featured golden stegosaurus, triceratops and velociraptor skeletons. Image: Melvyn Vincent

In the book’s introduction, McLeod describes store windows as a kind of ‘freeze-frame theatre’. Her designs are more than just a frame for products on show, and each one tells a story.

At £550, Assouline’s new book has a price tag to match Louis Vuitton’s luxury products – but the images within it are a reminder of the artistry and creativity that have gone into Louis Vuitton’s windows over the years. The brand isn’t the only luxury retailer creating lavish displays, but McLeod and Thompson’s designs are more ambitious and experimental than most.

As McLeod points out, the shop window is still an important tool for brands – even in an age of digital shopping – allowing them make an immediate connection with passers-by. Displays also exist beyond the high street, as something to be liked, shared and talked about online. “I like to think of [the window] as a front row seat for the viewer. Brands can tell stories that sometimes they can’t convey in advertising or in-store experiences,” she adds.

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