“Guess what, Max? Mommy is going to take you to see a great big sculpture!” “Emma, don’t bother the nice elevator lady!” “No, Caitlin, we are not going to see any more art unless you get back in your stroller right now!” This cacophony of fake enthusiasm, finger-wagging, and veiled threats follows me as I make my way through the day-care center that is the Brooklyn Museum on a spring Sunday.
Like the hundred thousand toddlers all around me, I am here to take in the Takashi Murakami exhibit. OK, so I never heard of this guy until he started collaborating with Marc Jacobs on a series of cutesy-poo Louis Vuitton handbags—now I want to see for myself the in-museum Vuitton boutique, much maligned in its previous incarnation at MOCA in L.A., where you can actually buy $2,000 handbags, not the usual boring books and scarves that dominate gallery shops.
As it turns out, I missed the real retail action, which took place at the opening-night gala a few days earlier, where attendees entered the show through a mock Canal Street. According to a spokesperson for the museum: “[Vuitton] created it in our sculpture garden at the rear of the museum. It resembled Canal Street, with shops that appeared to be selling bootlegged goods, some with their gates down, or with signs that said something like ‘Closed by order of . . .’ They were selling what at first glance appeared to be knockoffs, except the bags were real—the vendors were actors, and so were the buyers.”
Actors impersonating impoverished illegal immigrants trying to make a living? Who came up with this swell idea? Not since Marie Antoinette dressed as a shepherdess has such blatant bad taste, such revolting hauteur infected a social gathering. (Maybe it’s a French thing?) In any case, this grotesque Potemkin Village is torn down by the time I visit, so instead of expressing my outrage at fake fake-bag booths, I’m battling toddlers to get a look at Murakami’s cartoon films.
No dice—the rug rats rule the screening room. So I wander over to a trio of the artist’s lascivious pixies, who remind me of the talking animatronics (hey, they’re sculptures, too) at Caesars Palace in Vegas. These creepy fairies pale in comparison to the larger-than-life nude wrangler entitled My Lonesome Cowboy, who has some kind of disgusting gray effluvia shooting out of his wiener. The same repulsive substance is emanating from the engorged titty of his companion. Stand and stare as long as you like, but don’t attempt to take these wastrels home—”No pictures!” a guard says sharply. Well, maybe they’re in the show’s $65 catalog, if you must own a photo of them.
As for me, I’d rather own a handbag. In fact, as I pass a huge mural of mushrooms covered with eyes and realize I am approaching the Vuitton shop, my heart begins to flutter with excitement, an involuntary reflex that in this case is accompanied by just a little shame.
It’s not like I don’t have a long history with Murakami Vuittons, a sad saga that I have chronicled many times in print and in person to anyone who would listen. Because I am a pathetic victim, when these bags were first introduced several years ago, I put myself on a list for a stupid overpriced satchel decorated with pink smiley-face flowers. Just the fact that you couldn’t buy the damn thing made me—and thousands of other suckers around the world—troop to their local LV outlet and give not just our names but an imprint of our credit cards to a snotty salesperson who promised to call the very day the bag arrived, which in my case was the 12th. Of never.
In the end, I went down to Canal Street, the same ratty Canal Street that Vuitton thought was so witty to make fun of. And there I found a wonderful fake flowered satchel for $35, which I thought a cool guy like Murakami would probably get a kick out of, since the nameless third-world artisan who made it added some flourishes that LV hadn’t thought of, like silver faux-snakeskin trim and mirror studs. But it turns out I am wrong about Murakami, as I am about so many things. A wall text at the museum announces that “the concept of copyright itself holds an exalted position within Murakami’s practice, rooted in the acknowledgement of his work as simultaneously interweaving deeply personal expression, high art, mass culture and commerce.”
What care I about the concept of copyright? All I know is, it’s a good thing I got this Murakami-bag business out of my system before I visit the museum Vuitton store, where the whole panoply of Murakami-Vuitton collaborations over the years—the cheery cherries, the inane flowers—are ensconced in glass showcases. I point to a jewelry box with a Murakami spaceman painted on it and ask the salesman, who is wearing a white suit and white loafers with little gold LVs on them, how much it costs. In a repetition of my humiliation at the Vuitton store years ago, Mr. White Suit tells me the stuff in the case is not for sale, it’s part of the exhibit.
Not for sale? Isn’t this a store? I skulk away and eavesdrop on another White Suiter who is explaining to a well-heeled customer that the three canvases on the wall, all printed with LVs, are in fact up for grabs, at around $6,000 for three, though the price varies according to whether the canvases are signed, or bear a particular number, or some such. “It’s the same denim that Vuitton uses for their clothes,” the salesman says reverently, and I want to yell: “So?” But instead I wander over to the cashier’s counter, where there are some purses you can actually buy, including one hideously glommed-up gold number called the Marilyn. (I like to think that that poor girl, with her deep inferiority complex, her famous vulnerability, her longing to be taken seriously as an actress, would never have spent $1,500 on a bag, even one that bears her name.)
The spirit of Marilyn, and of all the working girls trying to make a buck and look nice and have everything the rich girls have, is with me a few days later, when I decide to return to Canal Street to see what kind of fake Vuittons are on tap. The company has become famous for cracking down on fakes, and it certainly got results: I walk from the Bowery to West Broadway, and though I see lots of derivative Dolce & Gabbana, false Fendis, bad Balenciagas, and even a convincing replica of that impossible-to-find chopped-off Hermès Birkin bag, there is a nary a Vuitton in sight. The guys who used to hang around the subway stops holding cards with pix of Vuittons (you’d point to the one you wanted and they’d dispense a runner to get it for you) are nowhere to be seen. I try eBay, just for research purposes (I already have my fake bag), and that’s pretty dire, too—there are only three or four suspiciously low-priced items.
You’d think this would be enough to satisfy Vuitton, but no. Just by chance, the same week that I go to Brooklyn, the students at NYU’s Stern School of Business are staging a Vuitton-funded event with the lame name “Knowledge Is Change” that is part of something called the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition’s College Initiative.
“Is this where the free shit is?” a student asks, lining up for the sandwiches and Doritos provided to entice callow youth to boycott the bogus bags. On a wall behind the food, there’s a blue cardboard sign on which an earnest business student has written in pink Magic Marker, “Facts on Fake,” which includes: “Counterfeiters do not pay their employees fair wages or benefits.” (Like every other business does?) A coed who is the spitting image of Paris Geller on Gilmore Girls is bossing everyone around, unloading a raft of the saddest, least convincing knockoffs I have ever seen—a cheesy NBA cap, a pair of flimsy Chanel earrings, a pitiful pink metallic Gucci card case. At the end of the sandwich line, next to a heap of Hershey’s Kisses, students are asked to sign a wishy-washy form that says: “By signing this petition I pledge to think twice before buying a counterfeit good.”
OK, I thought twice. I’m going back to Canal for that Hermès bag.