“They touch on the metaphysical: the right here right now and its connection to the past and the future. They’re about shine, the basics of philosophy, passion, what it means to be a human, what it means to be an animal, the idea of transcendence.”
That was Jeff Koons, genius or charlatan, depending on whom you talk to — an artist known for elevating children’s toys and vacuum cleaners to the stature of the Greek gods, sitting in the office area of his 35,000-square-foot studio meditating on his latest project: a multifaceted series he has been working on under conditions of the utmost secrecy for well over a year, entitled “Masters.”
Now, on the verge of the unveiling, Mr. Koons was sparkling of eye, beatific of mien and bountiful of reference. “Working on this, I felt a sense of my own potential, and the sharing of that with a large community,” he said happily.
What was this wormhole to the eternal?
Another enormous public sculpture, like “Split Rocker,” the 37-foot-high flower-covered rocking horse bust that had pride of place in Rockefeller Center in 2014? A museum retrospective, like the career-defining show at the Whitney the same year?
Broaden your minds, people! A new line of handbags.
Also scarves, key chains and small leather goods, including wallets and laptop sleeves — 51 pieces in all — done in collaboration with the French luxury house Louis Vuitton. Though Mr. Koons has flirted with fashion before, working on one-off collections with Stella McCartney and H&M, this is the first time he has created an original design for a brand, as opposed to simply plunking a reproduction of his work onto a product or remaking a sculpture as a necklace.
Inspired by Mr. Koons’s “Gazing Ball” series of paintings from 2015, which featured exacting reproductions of various masterworks (Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe,” Monet’s “Water Lilies,” Klimt’s “The Kiss”) with blue reflective spheres normally used as lawn ornaments affixed on top and refracting the viewer, the collection comprises five of the most famous paintings in history, including the “Mona Lisa,” Van Gogh’s “Wheat Field With Cypresses” and Rubens’s “The Tiger Hunt,” all of which have been reproduced in high-definition detail on some of Vuitton’s most classic leather bags.
In place of a gazing ball, each bag has been adorned with highly reflective gold or silver letters spelling the artist’s name on the outside like a giant piece of hip-hop jewelry. The bottom edge features Mr. Koons’s initials — or logo — in one corner and Vuitton’s logo on the other. The leather loop around the handle that normally secretes a lock or an identification tag has been recut to resemble the Koons balloon bunny.
“It’s a ménage à trois!” said Michael Burke, the chief executive of Vuitton.
That makes the collection sound kind of kinky, but at first glance, despite the buildup, it looks like nothing so much as a bunch of souvenir bags from a museum shop, all remade as luxury accessories. Which in turn tends to elicit the reaction (not uncommon at first sight of Mr. Koons’s work): “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Though, of course, they are not. At all.
“I think we’re going to get some pushback,” Mr. Burke said. “People are going to be upset about the sacred entering the realm of the profane. But we like to do things that can be perceived as politically incorrect. If we are getting flak, we think we are doing something right.”
Besides, getting cozy with high culture is not exactly new territory for Louis Vuitton.
The brand has a long history of art world association, from the major exhibitions it underwrote in the 1990s, causing some uproar (“Art is the domain of the minister of culture, not commerce,” Mr. Burke said, somewhat sarcastically), to the various artist collaborations the former designer Marc Jacobs instigated with Yayoi Kusama, Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince and Stephen Sprouse. The company’s fashion shows long took place in the Cour Carrée of the Louvre, and last month Vuitton became the first fashion house to have a show in the museum’s sculpture cour. In 2014, the company opened the Fondation Louis Vuitton, which houses the LVMH collection (including work by Mr. Koons) as well as temporary exhibitions.
Though Nicolas Ghesquière, the label’s artistic director of women’s wear, who succeeded Mr. Jacobs in 2013, also has an affinity for art, he was not involved in the Koons collaboration, which came about through Delphine Arnault, the daughter of the LVMH chief Bernard Arnault. Mr. Koons said he had known the Arnaults for “about two decades,” since they began collecting his work. In 2013, he created a limited-edition “Balloon Venus” sculpture to house a special edition of Dom Pérignon, another LVMH brand. According to Mr. Burke, Mr. Koons’s name kept coming up in “what next” discussions., The Arnaults invited him to lunch, and a few meetings later, the specifics were agreed upon.
“I thought maybe they wanted me to do a watch,” Mr. Koons said. “But then they asked about working on the bags, and I thought it could be wonderful. I have several women in my life.” He has eight children, including two daughters, one with his current wife, Justine, and one from an earlier relationship. He saw the project as a way to broaden the audience for his work in a meaningful way.
“It’s a great platform for communication!” he said. (He tends to speak either with great enthusiasm or in slightly medicated, wondrous paragraphs.) “I can put my work on the street!”
When it was pointed out that given the prices for the collection, which range from $585 for a key chain to $4,000 for the large carryall, with most hovering between $1,000 and $3,000, it wasn’t exactly every person gear, he said, “Well, they can walk by the windows of Louis Vuitton and enjoy them.”
(Besides, everything is relative. Mr. Koons has the record for price at auction for a work by a living artist: $58.4 million in 2013 for “Balloon Dog (Orange).” Compared with that, a backpack at $3,200 is a deal.)
“I hope people understand my ideas,” Mr. Koons said. “I hope they embrace them as a continuation of my effort to erase the hierarchy attached to fine art and old masters.”
This is part of his mission statement as an artist: He wants to eradicate the elitism of the art world. He says he doesn’t see any distinction between the bags and his art because his definition of art is something that “connects in a profound way to the universal, and when it is about focusing on interests or information, it automatically achieves that.” And these bags, which are all about paintings that have deep meaning for Mr. Koons, qualify (he said he visited Fragonard’s “Girl With a Dog,” another painting in the Vuitton collection, “at least once a year”).
Larry Gagosian, one of Mr. Koons’s gallerists, thinks the Vuitton collaboration makes perfect sense in the arc of his career. “Jeff is one of the few artists who can step into that water without screwing up his day job,” he said. “It’s not the kind of thing Mark Rothko would do, but arguably Andy Warhol paved the way for this, and Jeff has been inspired by the example of Warhol to a degree.
“Some people will probably think it’s too commercial, that serious artists shouldn’t make handbags. But I also think a lot of people will really dig them. They are extremely marketable.”
Mr. Burke added: “People are going to think, ‘How dare they?’ But that’s good, because then you have to think, ‘Why do I think that?’”
The issue here is not exactly a mystery. On one hand, Vuitton is exploiting art for its own gain. On the other, an artist is selling out. In the middle, consumers are being introduced to great art as if it is disposable.
In part to counter this, Vuitton and Mr. Koons have added a subnarrative to the project that spins it as an effort to address the falling profile of classical art — a civic service, if you will. Inside each bag, for example, is a little description of the artist, like a hidden history lesson for the Twitter generation.
And they have the support of the museums. They didn’t need them — the art is all in the public domain — but they wanted the best quality photographs to work from, which meant using high-resolution shots that the institutions keep for their records. Jean-Luc Martinez, the director of the Louvre, was on board very quickly. “I totally agree with this project,” he said.
None of his peers refused. “They immediately got that for classical art to compete with contemporary art, you need to get it on the street,” Mr. Burke said. “They all said, ‘We want these artists to be better known.’” At recent auctions contemporary art sold better than old masters.
Mr. Gagosian said, “The more people who look at great art, the better for our culture.”
Even, apparently, if the art is around the form of a tote bag, where because of the museums’ cooperation, the representation allows the owner to get “closer to the paintings than they can in the museum,” Mr. Burke said.
“We have even replicated the cracks in the canvas,” he continued.
According to Mr. Burke, when the poker-faced Mr. Arnault saw the finished product, “he had a big smile, which is a lot of reaction from him.”
Mr. Gagosian said that he had the same feeling, and that he was particularly interested in the Mona Lisas. Mr. Burke said he started giggling.
The collection finally met the public in Paris on Tuesday evening at a starry dinner at the Louvre. Mr. Koons was there. (He has become a convert to Louis Vuitton suiting, at least for formal occasions. For working, he tends to navy Theory shirts, navy Joe’s Jeans and sneakers; he seems to have a thing about blue.) So were Catherine Deneuve and Michelle Williams. Alicia Vikander wasn’t, though she will be the face of the collaboration.
“She has a Mona Lisa-ish quality, no?” Mr. Burke asked.
The bags won’t be sold online. They will be offered only in certain Vuitton stores and a special pop-up store opening in New York later this month. Mr. Burke is preparing himself for some fallout. He is also preparing for a possible second line.
“Well, there are over 40 artists in the Gazing Ball series,” he said. “There’s lots of opportunity there.”
Mr. Koons said, “I can’t wait to see the bags in the real world,” adding that he would probably start to carry the Rubens Keepall, a duffel-like bag, instead of the basic black shoulder bag he now uses. He said he was excited “to find out what people will choose, and what clothes they will wear with the bags, what type of presentation of themselves they will display.” The whole experience, he noted, “made me want to make more things that are accessible to people.”
It’s a good line. The question is: Will anyone buy it?