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When Dr. Jonas Salk, the American virologist behind the first effective Polio vaccine, set out to found the Salk Institute, he tapped architect Louis Kahn to design the biomedical research facilities. Poised on the cliffs above the Pacific Ocean in La Jolla, San Diego, the site completed in 1965 is a shining example of Brutalist principles—unfinished surfaces, straight lines, massive forms, and expression of structure.
Still housing the groundbreaking biomedical institute focused on research in the fields of cancer, neuroscience, immunology, and climate change, the Salk Institute boasts parallel six-story buildings that border a travertine courtyard. Running the full length between, extending to the horizon and picturesque ocean views, is a linear fountain, the sound of its flowing water echoing the waves just beyond.
Concrete, teak, lead, glass, and steel were employed to create unobstructed laboratories that can adapt to ever-evolving scientific needs. The materials were not just cornerstones of Brutalist architecture, they were chosen for their durability, keeping maintenance over time to a minimum. Imagining a “concrete monastery for enlightened souls,” Kahn designed angular, symmetrical structures that at once frame, absorb, and reflect the California sun.
This paragon of American architecture was the setting for Louis Vuitton’s Cruise 2023 collection last week in San Diego. “Having spent a lot of time in California, I was drawn to the idea of showing there again. The Salk Institute has been a place of wonder for me over the years and Louis Kahn’s stunning Brutalist architecture against this extraordinary setting of the Pacific Ocean and the California sunset provides me with endless inspiration. It also celebrates intelligence, knowledge and the belief in the power of science,” said Nicolas Ghesquière, Artistic Director of Women's collections at Louis Vuitton. The Salk Institute joins a growing list of iconic sites of architecture acting as staging grounds for Louis Vuitton’s cruise collections, including TWA Flight Center by Eero Saarinen at JFK Airport in New York (2019), the Miho Museum by Ieoh Ming Pei outside Kyoto (2017), the MAC by Oscar Niemeyer in Niteroi (2016), and the Bob and Delores Hope Estate by John Lautner in Palm Springs (2015).
“Louis Vuitton has a long and valued relationship with the US, dating back to the Chicago World Fair of 1893. Since then, our presence has expanded across the country, and notably California. A spectacular feat of architectural design, enhanced by the surrounding landscape, the Salk Institute is a fitting choice for this year’s Cruise show,” said Michael Burke, Chairman and CEO of Louis Vuitton.
Sunlight served as an inspiration not just for Kahn, but for Ghesquière, too, with this collection. Timed precisely for dusk when the sun set perfectly between the blocks of buildings, the show began to a pulsating, synth-filled soundtrack with a 1980s edge. The first three looks set a striking tone, emanating a planetary regality through voluminous dresses first seen silhouetted against the gradient sky. The film Dune (more David Lynch than Denis Villeneuve) immediately came to mind, further complemented by the accompanying music and setting. Rich and complicated textiles, metallic tones, chrome detailing, silvery grommets, glittering fringe, mirrored mosaics, and tasseled beading were boldly imagined by Ghesquier into garments that glittered in the sun. At once royalty, gladiator, and space invader, the subsequent layered looks called to another futuristic throwback, Blade Runner (more Ridley Scott, there, too). Midriffs were laid bare (sometimes cinched with an ultra-long belt) thanks to low-rise cargo pants, hip-draped mini skirts, and parachute pants. Armor-like crop tops and vests covered the chest and shoulders, in super-structured materials, accented with piping, grooves, frayed knits, and more.
The palette was rich in silver, copper, and gold, paired with sand-like neutrals, deep teal, black, and shocks of red, blue, orange, and neon graphic prints. Accessories exuded strength and durability, echoing the brutalist surroundings, oftentimes heard, as well as seen. Substantial chains and beaded scarves made their presence known audibly, as did the rhythmic thump of well-soled boots, sneakers, and knee-highs. Eyes were often protected with narrow, wrap-around shades, and heads were sometimes covered around, or at least the back of, the neck. And this being Louis Vuitton, of course, bags like a tubular structured duffle and bookish clutch caught our eye.
The show closed as the sky darkened and seagulls cried overhead (perhaps startled by the drone work), the models marching in line, stride for stride, shoulder to shoulder along the courtyard’s horizontal fountain, before Ghesquière took his much-deserved bow. His vision for a female-ruled, nomadic, celestial future was appropriately celebrated in a reception at the San Diego Museum of Art, where guests danced to our reigning, radiant cosmic queen Grimes performing a DJ set that had the full crowd dancing well into the star-filled evening.