Luxury fashion brand Louis Vuitton often conflates the worlds of art and fashion – a tradition that goes back almost a century. Marc Jacobs, the brand’s former creative director who has now been replaced by Nicolas Ghesquiere, thrived on this tradition, often commissioning well-known artists to build spectacular sets for his runway shows.
In the 1930s, Gaston-Louis Vuitton, who inherited what was then a luxury luggage business from his father, set in motion this long-lasting relationship between the LV brand and the arts. An art collector, Gaston-Louis is said to have had a penchant for the conception and creation of window displays.
“The art of creating a window display falls both within a sharp sense of architecture and the skill of a stage director,” he once wrote in an essay, adding that the age of curious boutiques on picturesque streets had come to an end.
“While the 19th-century street was dull, a wind of change seems to be blowing in this new century: the shopkeeper transformed his window into a magnificent and modern façade … By our daily renewed effort, let’s draw the passer-by. Let’s give him a reason to dawdle, to stroll.”
At the brand’s flagship Champs-Elysées store in Paris, which sets the tone for the brand’s global image, the work of artist Athi-Patra Ruga will soon become one of the reasons for passers-by to linger.
The 30-year-old Ruga, who was born in the Eastern Cape, is the first artist from the African continent to have been commissioned to create original artwork for a window of the store on one of the world’s most famous streets.
Having just returned from a trip to Paris to meet with the brand’s head honchos, Ruga is now back at his Cape Town studio working on the 4x4m tapestry he says will be shipped to Paris for display later this year. Those who are familiar with the artist’s work will know that he, like the brand, has often merged art and fashion through his arresting performances.
This is something that can perhaps be traced back to Ruga’s fashion school education when the evolution of his many eccentric ideas began.
In 2004, Ruga was living in Johannesburg as a student at the now defunct Gordon Flack-Davidson Academy of Design. He would often party in Braamfontein’s Juta Street, which was, at the time, as he recalls, known as “the gay heartland” of Jo’burg.
“I think the gentrification of the area was still new and things were happening in isolation,” he says. “I think it was still rejecting the gentrification. City spaces can do that in the beginning.”
Ruga had recently been a finalist in the Elle New Talent competition, which pitted young fashion designers against each other. Although he was short-listed twice, in 2004 and in 2005, neither of his entries won him the prize. But what he designed then became part of the initial stages of his interventions as a performance artist. This occurred in the context of a Braamfontein that was a far cry from its current incarnation as a hipster haven.
“I would go to these places. These places that come with stories and stereotypes like: ‘I don’t want to go there because it’s too dangerous,'” Ruga says. The club scene in Braamfontein sparked his interest in the human body in relation to society, culture and expression.
“It was on the precipice of what I now call the ‘youth revolution’, with kwaito and the emergence of Afro-chic,” he says. “There was this very DIY, claim-your-identity spirit going on and the club kids were using tick-tacky, boutique floor bits to make their outfits. You’d get to Rissik Street and find these mounds of old clothing. You’d take from them and cut things up to make something new. You’d take the utility that is expected of clothes and make something out of it that speaks to a new identity.”
It was then that Ruga became interested in the power of costume and its ability to shift perception.
“I saw the power it has in hiding identity and bringing it out. One dressed up with the idea of repelling people and also attracting people and, within that, your identity becomes hidden or an invented image comes out. It’s about what you want to project, what perceptions you want to play with.”
Ruga would soon start experimenting with these ideas by going out on the streets dressed up in costume. “I’d go there dressed in the clothes that I made, which were beginning to take a more sculptural form. Their utility as clothes was left behind and they became these wearable sculptures.”
In subsequent years these “wearable sculptures” have become an integral part of the alternative identities the artist has created, with his interest in the politics of the body as the foundation. Most recently, one of these characters, known only as the Future White Woman of Azania, wore fishnet stockings with heels and inflated multicoloured balloons filled with liquid, covering the entire upper body.
Ruga has taken this character on a series of processions, including on the streets of Johannesburg – moving through the busiest areas in the central business district, from the Drill Hall next to the Noord Street minibus taxi rank to the Standard Bank Art Gallery in Marshalltown at the other end of the city.
Prior to this, in Grahamstown during the 2012 edition of the annual arts festival, Ruga took on this alternative identity, the White Woman of Azania, and marched through the town.
The narrative that unfolds concerns itself with the myth of the apartheid-era ideological utopia that is Azania. It is a reimagining of Azania that simultaneously questions the black consciousness ideal of a decolonised African state. The procession, like those carried out in Jo’burg and Grahamstown, is in itself symbolic of revolution, such as the youth march against Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in 1976 or the women’s march to the Union Buildings in 1956.
The Azania of the artist’s creation is not short of the complexities of identity and nationhood. “It’s the story of the founding of Azania, the nation not being the historical one but the Azania of my own creation. It could be post-colonial. It’s the future of this imagined world.”
At present the artist is creating the idea of exile and what exile could have been for this imagined futuristic nation’s suggested freedom fighters. “What happens after the revolution?” he asks.
Although he is still at the very beginning of constructing the idea for the giant tapestry destined for the Louis Vuitton Champs-Elysées window, Ruga will be exploring further and seeking to depict the empirical scene initiated by his exploration of the Azania saga.
The characters that are central to that imagined utopian state, which, for the purposes of his own construct, is ruled by the Versatile Queen Ivy who rides a zebra, will also feature in the artwork that will cement Ruga’s name in the history books alongside the many artists who have either been commissioned or asked to collaborate with Louis Vuitton.
These include the likes of Rachel Feinstein, the acclaimed New York artist who created a set for an LV show under Marc Jacobs, Indian art star Subodh Gupta and Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.
Ruga’s work will also be exhibited at the Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton, a space on the top floor of the Champs-Elysees store created with the aim of promoting emerging artistic talent from all over the world.