Paris to Shanghai, by train. The concept alone dredges up an atmosphere of yesteryear, when Orient Express-style train travel was the luxury way to travel. And what two cities summon that fabulous yesteryear better than Paris and Shanghai, a city once hailed as "Paris of the East?"
That nostalgic sentiment is what Louis Vuitton is tapping into for its new campaign, "Louis Vuitton Express" — which kicked off this week with a teaser video, "Paris to Shanghai by Train by The Selby," — as the digital extension of an event marketing campaign that's rolling online, on YouTube and on Facebook from the brand's French HQ to its new China HQ.
But who or what, you might ask, is "The Selby?" And will "The Selby" be enough to get Vuitton back in the good graces of Chinese luxury buyers who have recently come to treat the the brand kind of like locomotive travel — a relic of the past?
Fashion cognoscenti (including China's hipster jetsetting class) know that "The Selby" is the nom de web of Todd Selby, a New York photographer whose four-year-old blog featuring his hipster pals' homes has grown into a full-time business and brand in its own right. He has published a book based on his blog with another due in October, based on his "Edible Selby" foodie photo series for the New York Times' T Magazine.
Selby has also shot images for brands including Dockers, Fendi, Cole Haan, Jack Purcell, and Nike, and a number for projects for Louis Vuitton. Now he's helping the LVMH-owned luxury brand woo back some of China's luxury customers at a critical time for the company.
The background to the collaboration hails back to LV's autumn/winter '12 Paris Fashion Week show in February, which celebrated the old-time romance of the golden age of train travel, when travelers dressed to the nines — with Louis Vuitton travel trunks as their articles de voyage, bien sur.
Vuitton's Marc Jacobs-envisioned showstopping extravaganza closed out the week and won rave reviews for celebrating the golden age of train travel, the "romance of another time, the silhouette of another time." Now that train is rolling on, from Paris all the way to Shanghai.
Louis Vuitton is bringing that show to Shanghai this month, with Todd Selby along for the ride to shoot the whole affair as the models get into character (and Vuitton's fall collection) on an actual train journey in the brand's most important market. WWD reported that this "is the first time the brand has sought to evoke the exact ambiance of its Paris show" at a subsequent event:
"When it chugs into the show site on Shanghai’s famous Bund at 9 p.m. on (July) 19th, models are to disembark in the fall collection and circle the train, just as they did in Paris. The event coincides with an exhibition of travel articles and the opening of Vuitton’s first maison in China — a four-level unit at the Plaza 66 complex."
The Louis Vuitton brand could certainly use more steam in China.
"In China, Louis Vuitton is seen as the brand that even your ai-yi [sic], or domestic helper, can afford." That brutal assessment of Louis Vuitton's current position in China's luxury was given to Reuters just last month by "a retail consultant who declined to be named."
While Louis Vuitton is far from wrecked in China's booming luxury market, the profile painted a bleak future for the brand (as well as Gucci), up against fast-rising competitors Chanel and Hermes. Indeed, at the recent Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and National People’s Congress, Hermes was a brand much on display by both men and women VIPs.
In response, a Vuitton spokesperson told Reuters that the July event at its new Shanghai flagship "will confirm Vuitton as the trendsetting brand in China."
There is a fine line between "trendsetting" and "desirable." While Hermes is certainly the rising star of Chinese luxury, Louis Vuitton is the market's eminence grise. As part of the brand's 20th anniversary celebration in China this year, it sponsored a special exhibit at the National Museum of China, called "Louis Vuitton Voyages."
Plus, Vuitton can always count on a little help from fate. When a massive Birkin bag counterfeiting ring — run by Hermes employees no less — was busted in Paris last month, many Chinese consumers fretted that they had been goosed.
Then, just a couple weeks later, online Hermes bag counterfeiters were found to be using a loophole in Hong Kong law to issue receipts from Hong Kong Hermes stores.
In the end, train or no train, Vuitton really can't lose in China; LVMH, after all, owns 22 percent of Hermes. And if the Paris-to-China marketing stunt attracts half as much attention as Vuitton's "The Art of Packing" viral video, the brand can call this a success.