Back in 2016 and 2017, when Louis Vuitton showed outdoors in Rio de Janeiro and Kyoto, the brand hired a Brazilian shaman to bring good weather to its Cruise shows. The sun shone on those events, although we’ll never know whether his magic worked or the brand just got lucky. Fast forward to 2023 and nobody uses weather shamans anymore. We’re in the era of climate emergency. Strange weather is the norm and no amount of manmade magic can control it. Let’s play rain roulette.
And so, we head to the Italian lakes for Louis Vuitton’s Cruise 24 show, held on Isola Bella, a private island on Lago (Lake) Maggiore. It belongs to the Borromeo family, who still live in the art-filled, Italian baroque pleasure palace, built by their ancestors in the 16th century to entertain Europe’s great and not so good. Forget Ibiza, this was the original European party island, with Napoleon and Josephine among the historical figures to enjoy its charms. In 2023, it’s still attracting a fashionable crowd, with Louis Vuitton planning to show in its lush ornamental gardens – weather permitting… You know what comes next? Rain. Torrents of it washing away the best-laid plans of brands. But clouds also have silver linings.
In theory, the Italian lakes in May should be a glorious speedboat-and-negroni-fuelled joyride with every sun-drenched day playing out like a scene from The Talented Mr Ripley (without the murder). The weather has other plans. Storms squall across Northern Italy as we drive through the mountains to Como, but when we pull up to the Villa d’Este the sun has broken through the clouds, lighting up its ochre exterior like a celebration cake. Everything inside comes in sunny shades of marigold, egg yolk, gilt and Prussian blue. Great pompoms of yellow flowers burst from enormous vases and patterned carpets swirl into infinity down long, elegant corridors.
The hotel is legendary. It passed through several royal and aristocratic owners (including an 18th-century Princess of Wales) before becoming a home-from-home for well-to-do Victorians. Helmut Newton made it notorious in fashion circles, shooting many of his famous nudes in its rooms, corridors and gardens. He was banned from the place for a time because the management thought his erotic pictures brought the hotel into disrepute, but in fact, Newton sealed Villa d’Este’s reputation as the most louche lakeside destination in the world.
I keep my clothes on for a stroll around the famous floating pool; suspended over the lake, it swells with each passing speedboat. The elegant terraced gardens with their picturesque grotto and classical statues stretch up the mountainside. Rain starts to fall as I watch a pair of ducks splash though the puddles on the lakeside terrace. Then it’s time to go to dinner. We hop in a people-carrier and are transported to a medieval castle overlooking Lake Maggiore for a cocktail on a battlement terrace, bursting with flowers, followed by a candlelit dinner beneath historic frescos (dress code: casual chic). All is quiet when we arrive back at Villa d’Este, the lake gently lapping the dock.
The next day we take a boat ride around Lake Como and lounge on LV-monogrammed cushions as we practice our speedboat selfie techniques. For the best results, sit at the back of the boat, just in front of the outboard engine so that its wake makes a glamorous background. Our captain points out George Clooney’s house (smaller than you’d think), the Versace Villa (hiya, Donatella!) and several other historic lakeside abodes. We pull up to a restaurant across the lake, where a slap-up lunch is waiting for us.
Excitement is building. We hear that Oprah is coming to the show, alongside Catherine Deneuve, Jaden Smith and Gemma Chan. The rain holds off, but it can’t last. Word reaches us that the fashion show, which was to have been held tonight in the famous terraced gardens of Isola Bella, will be moved inside the pleasure palace. These shows are planned months in advance, with every detail sweated over and finessed, but the Vuitton team are such professionals that if they are experiencing any horror at having to change their meticulous plans at the last minute, they aren’t showing it. The brand’s elite organisational machine cranks into top gear – they know they can pull it off.
You have to feel for them, though. It’s pouring with rain as we step on to a vaporetto and head across the water to Isola Bella. There’s a tiny village next to the main house and Louis Vuitton have taken over the whole place, branding the little bars, shops and restaurants. The expectation was that everyone would watch the show in the garden and then spread out into the village to eat, drink and party. Instead, we escape the weather inside this vast, historic pleasuredome. Designed for hedonism, its walls are painted blue with elaborate wedding cake mouldings and racy reliefs. Old masters hang on the walls and marble-floored salons stretch the length of the place. If the walls could speak, we probably couldn’t repeat it (NSFW). Handsome waiters ply us with champagne and we’re ushered to benches which line the salons. It’s not reserved seating so everyone finds a perch and waits for the show to start.
Nicolas Ghesquière has a habit of showing his far-flug Cruise collections at sites of great architectural interest. In the past he’s favoured modernist masterpieces as his backdrop (who could forget last year when the setting sun cast a golden light over the brutalist beauty of San Diego’s Salk Institute?). This year, however, inspired by the lake setting and the historic venue, the mood of his collection was both romantic and supernatural.
Ghesquière’s models stalked the salons and ballrooms looking like mythical lake creatures called up from the deep by the lure of a good party. Jackets were a cross between modern scuba-wear and 17th-century doublets, embellished with couture-level finery, while skirts were encrusted with sequin scales fit for a mermaid, their hems rippled with undulating frills. The level of craft was awe-inspiring. One cape-jacket was dripping with embroidered water droplets. Adding to the drama were striking masks and soaring headpieces, crafted by an atelier in Rome that usually makes costumes for the opera. Cashmere Neapolitan ice cream-coloured sweaters with sheer stripe panels, roomy city coats, slouchy boots and capacious duffel bags carried the torch for covetable practicality, but the fantastical, audacious and intense finery won the night.
There were sumptuous brocades, embroidered with mythical creatures, and intricate lace, fashioned into jeans, while a Byzantine gold and jewel-embroidered breastplate decorated the front of a scuba-sweatshirt. Then the designer served up a series of glorious pastel finale gowns that were at once fragile and fierce. Elongated, with swirling hems and swooping shoulders, they soared. What would it have looked like in the garden? Nothing short of spectacular. Louis Vuitton later released a video of the dress rehearsal, which happened earlier in the day before the heavens opened. Yet, moving inside the legendary party palace allowed us a close-up look at the workmanship and finery lavished on this collection. I’d call that a silver-embroidered lining.
Photography by Bella Macgregor. Taken from 10+ Issue 6 – VISIONARY, WOMEN, REVOLUTION – out now. Order your copy here.
Date MAY 24, 2023
Location ISOLA BELLA, ITALY
Designer NICOLAS GHESQUIERE
Fashion Editor MARIE-AMELIE SAUVE
Make-up PAT MCGRATH
Casting ASHLEY BROKAW