Text: TREY TAYLOR
Around 30,000,000 dots served as the backdrop of Louis Vuitton’s windows in collaboration with dotty Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama at London’s Bond Street store in the summer of 2012. For Vuitton’s Dandelion windows, it was 79,000 seeds. Their arrows concept? 707,354 feathers put on each shaft by hand.
Causing passersby to look up from their iPhones is Faye McLeod’s day job. As Visual Creative Director of Louis Vuitton, the 43-year-old Scottish import can get away with quite a lot. She is equipped with a 26-person team—14 in New York, 12 in Paris—to help her stop sidewalk traffic in front of any one of Vuitton’s 467 window displays, and direct them to the nearest entrance.
Luxury publisher Assouline has released a new book, Louis Vuitton Windows, which was recently fêted at Maison Assouline in both New York and London. The event included a life-size Yayoi Kusama doll and an Inception-experience, with viewers looking through tiny viewfinders at images of windows. The book commemorates these window displays. Hatched together with her creative soul mate Ansel Thompson, the book showcases the pair’s colossal output, which they’ve served to the hungry eyes of the public. “Ansel has an engineer’s brain,” McLeod begins. “He’s the reality check to my ‘sometimes wild’ ideas. We balance each other creatively.” One of her "sometimes wild" ideas saw an ostrich’s neck magically elongated across two windows, its length acting as a rail on which five Vuitton bags could be hung. “Ostrich was inspired from spending time in South Africa as a child. When I saw Marc [Jacobs]'s fountain show with the ostrich bow shoes, it took my mind there.”
At its core, every window is a theater upon which she can stage a miniature production, an optimum venue for coaxing her audience to whip out their phones for an Instagram snap. With 467 stores to stage-manage, does she ever feel the pressure? “Of course,” she says. “We have a lot of viewers to keep happy. We always have to put the focus on the product and celebrate the creativity of Louis Vuitton designs.” To ease that pressure, McLeod often consults Louis Vuitton’s mammoth archives. “We look at everything. Past marketing, past windows, exhibitions, product and graphics...The archives are vast and you can always find something very special.”
Thankfully, McLeod specializes in special. To reach heightened levels of creativity, they often track down collaborators to breathe new life into the brand’s public-facing look. While both Thompson and McLeod were initially worried about how a visual grenade like Kusama would integrate into Vuitton’s “bigger picture,” their collaboration ended up proving to be a watershed moment in the world of windows. “I've never seen so many people engage with these windows: noses against glass, handprints,” she recalls. “It was crazy; we had to clean the glass every hour on our Fifth Avenue maison in New York City. It was a joy to work with such an icon.”
Her glass isn’t half-empty, either. Playing set dresser, she also lends her talents seasonally for Louis Vuitton’s runway shows, where she and Thompson work together with production designer Es Devlin. The 44-year-old was called upon by Thompson and McLeod to join the creative team after they had seen her mainline imagination in massive sets and arena tours for Kanye West, Miley Cyrus, and the Pet Shop Boys, along with a slew of famous operas and stageplays. What about her fashion credentials? “I just hadn’t done anything—like, nada,” she admits. Although she had been approached many times by other fashion brands, Vuitton’s offer seemed different. “I genuinely just liked the sound and feel and vibe of these people,” she says.
In the words of Devlin, Faye McLeod is “incredibly highly attuned and sensitive to everything in the world.” She senses every object, every sound, every nuance, and channels it into her work. That may sound abstract, but it manifests in specific ways. “We were showing some speaker designs for some transparent glass boxes to Nicolas Ghèsquiere and I swore that all he did was move one hair on one of his eyebrows. That would be the only inflection—and she gave me a look. I thought, this woman already knows what this man’s opinion is of this picture and has already moved two steps beyond on how to define the next picture in a way that the hair on that eyebrow won't move in the same way the next time we show it.”
For the layman, the eyebrow twitch effectively meant that Ghèsquiere wasn’t wholly pleased with the idea. Sort of how Miranda Priestly purses her lips in The Devil Wears Prada to signify a deep loathing. With McLeod, her intuition precipitates disappointment, allowing her to avoid it at all costs. Speaking of costs, McLeod also handles the set’s budget. She keeps them from inflating when staging Vuitton’s legendary runway shows. She has, Devlin says, an “extraordinary combination of sensitivity and hard-core, Glaswegian pragmatism. She'll just look at the budget and go, ‘Okay, these are the things that we need to keep, these are the things that are going to make a statement, these things can go’.”
In other words, you have to know when to go big, but you also have to know when to K.I.S.S. McLeod has that balance down pat. With her creative team, she is bringing fashion’s sense of rampant creative faculty to the masses. Next time you walk by a sumptuous window display, ready to snap a selfie, imagine how much work went into its execution. How many feathers? How many cans of paint, specks of dust, grains of sand?
McLeod is slowly but surely raising the bar in design, all the while building upon Vuitton’s legacy-making archives. “We have been adding our windows to Louis Vuitton archives,” explains McLeod. “In the future I want whoever is working at Louis Vuitton to find all our creations and take it into their future, like Gaston-Louis Vuitton (Louis Vuitton’s grandson) did for us with his drawings from 1927. I want to enrich archives for Louis Vuitton’s future. We do such fun things, we storytell. Louis Vuitton is past, present, and future—and it’s bigger than all of us.”