Takashi Murakami & Louis Vuitton: Superflat meets Superfashion

When these two giants met, things went wild. The first collection of bags Murakami designed for the fashion house (at the order of creative director, Marc Jacobs) rejuvenated the brand–Louis Vuitton wasn’t just high-end French couture anymore, it was kawaii!3lvmurbags460 Everyone loved the collection, and the West took notice–suddenly, Murakami and his Superflatness became a big name, and not just for those in the Art scene. In fact, Murakami was worried that his initial association with LV would mislead his new found fans into thinking he was simply a hand bag designer. In a TIME Magazine article, he said that he was going to take a break from the commercial and re-establish himself as a fine artist. This reaction is strange, considering that Murakami widely promotes his art as commercial–as only commercial–as if there was no difference between the two. He even included a mini Louis Vuitton boutique in his traveling  ©Murakami show, which toured around the US. It’s this idea of superflat and commercial consumption as indistinguishable that seems, well, a little more complicated than that.

Superflat & Superfashion

Superflat & Superfashion

Truly, there are darker meanings behind much of Murakami’s work, along with the artists he’s recruited to be a part of his superflat movement. Though his art, and this collaboration with Louis Vuitton, seem like Warholian simulacrum (a meaningless, fun copy of something that isn’t good or bad)it really isn’t ambiguous at all, and that’s what makes the art complicated. Either it’s subversive, or it’s some kind of unfunny perpetuation of Japan-as-empty, because, well, it’s the cuteness, not the meaning, that sells—and boy, does it sell!

Empty or Full?

What appears to be especially troubling about this Murakami/Vuitton collaboration is this idea  (proposed by Marc Jacobs) that Louis Vuitton provides the “history” and Murakami provides the image that’s overlaid. Indeed, Murakami didn’t design a new LV logo—as that would misplace (or entirely remove) what is signified by the logo—“classic”, “French”, “cultured”, “wealthy” etc. Murakami’s addition, one could argue, is so successfully connected with such a loaded logo because it fails to signify anything other than “cute!”murakami_opening_bk_10 We’ve encountered cultural oderlessness before, and this certainly fits into that pattern of things that are vaguely Japanese; and while Jacobs and the brand didn’t try to undermine Murakami’s Japanese-ness, it’s not a big part of the collaboration. This is like superflat gone way, way too flat—there’s nothing political left, nothing serious left. To return to that TIME magazine article, perhaps Murakami was concerned that the West cannot recognize the politics behind his superflat movement as easily as, say, a Japanese audience can—and that this artist, who claims he doesn’t distinguish between art and commerce, well, really—he does. There is thought behind superflatness, even though most take his work as psychedelic eye candy.

Real eye candy

Real eye candy

If we look at the advertisements Murakami created to “celebrate” his six year collaboration with Louis Vuitton, there are some striking aspects that can lead you to think, well, maybe it’s subversive (on Murakami’s part) after all? Is Murakami playing a trick on all of is, is he laughing all the way to the bank? Let’s look at one: What’s really going on here? The panda physically literally consumes the girl, and then she falls into this insane fantasy of color and surface—the entire commercial perpetuates this idea of Japan-as-fantasy, this Japan-for-kids, and, much more importantly, this Japan-as-entirely-unreadable.Murakami #55 for online ONLY If we buy this Murakami-Vuitton bag, do we get to consume the girl (read: Japanese mystique, Japanese cute) entirely? By owning a Murakami bag, do we own a part of this fantasy? Yes, we do—at least, that’s what they want us to think. Is this a good thing?

Indeed, UCLA Sociologist Adrian Farell, who has spent time studying the Murakami “phenomenon”, has this to say about the idea of Murakami “tricking” or “playing a joke on” the Western consumer:

Murakami self-consciously sees his art as an inversion of Orientalism. Like others of his generation (he was born in 1963), he grew up obsessed with America’s power over Japan, and with bitter memories of the wartime experience. There is a kind of “passive aggressive” attitude to the West in the work. He is, in fact, a Japanese nationalist, and as such sees his art as a way of playing up to Western stereotypes of Japan, of fooling Western tastes. There is something quite cynical about how he talks about his art strategy to a Japanese audience.

Truly, this attitude must bleed over—there must be some of this passive-aggressive sentiment within Murakami’s work with Louis Vuitton—even though it seems like he respects the fashion house, perhaps he sees it as a double-dupe: not only is he making millions of dollars defacing this glimmering stereotype of Western wealth, he’s also acquiring millions of Western fans who cannot understand what he’s actually doing, making them, not Japan, the infantile, underdeveloped ones. Yet, how successful is this as a political comment (or really, attack) on Western attitudes towards Japan, if most of Murakami’s critiques go unnoticed? Murakami has put himself in a culturally difficult position here, and it will be interesting to see if he ever clearly positions himself against the West. murprevf547a1ef

In the end, does this (ongoing!) collaboration with Louis Vuitton undermine the artistic (political, social) “legitimacy” of superflatness, or does it work perfectly with it? Is the essence of superflat supposed to hide further meaning from the Western consumer, making the real meaning only accessible to the Japanese? These discrepancies are indeed troubling, and sooner or later Murakami either going to have to fully admit or fully deny the meaning behind his art work, or else this simulacrum will become responsible for not only flattening “art”, but also contemporary Japanese culture.

Discussion Questions:

Do people like Murakami (arguably the one of the most famous modern Japanese artists) add to the “fullness” of Japan, or is it the opposite? Is everything truly superflat? If superflat art lacks meaning (or denies meaning), what does this say about contemporary Japan? Is this culture something that can be bought and sold to any consuming–can we own “Japaneseness”–or is this all just a big joke?

Do you think there is something subversive about the Murakami Louis Vuitton advertisement? Or is it simply more of the same?


Darling, Michael. “Plumbing the Depths of Superflatness.” Art Journal 60.3 (2001): 77-89. JSTOR. Web. 8 Apr. 2010.

Chong, Jessica. “A Sociologist’s Guided Tour of © MURAKAMI.” SSRC. Ed. Mary-Lea Cox. The Social Science Research Council. Web. 28 Apr. 2010. .

Frederick, Jim. “Move Over, Andy Warhol.” www.time.com. TIME Magazine, 19 May 2003. Web. 12 Apr. 2010.

& Various Youtube Videos:

1. Murakami Vuittion Advertisment, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqaXxSBZTZc

2. New York Magazine’s Art critic Jerry Saltz on Murakami’s ©Murakami show, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cxmMxi-lelg&feature=related

3. Interview with Marc Jacobs about Murakami collaboration, done by MOCA, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8qWbt_Ao_d0

Links for further discovery:

Art collector upset over Murakami print!

A Western Louis Vuitton advertisment

Some of Murakami’s designs on the Louis Vuittion website & one of the original Murakami bags for sale (used!)

Entry contributed by Eugenia Hannon



  1. Will Gautney says:

    One of the interesting things about this collaboration is the fact of how simple the changes are, yet how loaded they can become. Yes it still holds the elegance and price tag of LV, but some of the changes Murakami did are jokeworthy at best. It seems that a majority of his changes could be accomplished by someone with a knack for sewing and some patches. These changes seem, to me at least, the same as would happen if a cell phone company started selling phones with stickers and fake diamonds pasted on (as is popular in both Japan and America)and charging twice as much. It might be worthwhile to examine if Murakami is playing a joke upon consumers and LV somehow by following this simple plan, same as how enterprising Japanese citizens would take advantage of tourists after the initial opening to the west.

  2. cdbarnewolt says:

    One of the things that I was first struck with about Murakami and his “superflat” art style – his embrace and glorification of superficial, “flat,” meaningless commercial Japanese art – was the relationship between superflat and Hello Kitty. By spreading his superflat “brand” beyond traditional niches for Japanese gross national cool and merging it with the very different aesthetic of LV, I saw Murakami as mimicking the ubiquity and universality of Hello Kitty. Murakami’s superflat becomes a brand or a sticker that can be slapped onto anything, giving it the appeal of Japan’s Gross National Cool, and like Hello Kitty, it is infinitely elastic and adaptable to any cultural niche – even the high fashion of LV. However, I thought there were some differences too – by partnering with LV Murakami seems even more bold and ambitious than Hello Kitty’s marketers, in that rather than creating new localized versions of his art to be consumed in different locales, Murakami actually joins himself with the local culture that was already there, altering it and claiming it as his own. And rather than being limited to children or juvenilized adults, Murakami’s LV targets the realms of high fashion. Nothing shall escape the superflat.

    Another difference I see is that Murakami is self-conscious of this cultural superficiality, this absence of meaning, in a way that the Hello Kitty marketers aren’t. That is the core of his superflat art style – embracing this meaningless superficiality and reveling in it as an art form in its own right, rather than having just stumbled across it as a tool for economic utility (although embracing the commercialism is part of the superflat style).

    I believe that Murakami is adding to the “fullness” of Japanese culture because no art is truly devoid of meaning or cultural relevance – even if it may seem that way to the uninitiated. However, it is clear to me that Eugenia is right – Murakami, despite his protests, does have meaning and messages that are clear in his art. In a sense, superflat parodies the cultural odorlessness and superficiality of Japan’s gross national cool. Certain works of Murakami are very obviously pregnant with meaning, portraying the trauma of Japan’s wartime experiences as well as the identity crisis of modern Japan that sparks these cultural innovations and explorations. The other presentation on Murakami clearly demonstrated the meanings that are present within Murakami’s work.

    However, Murakami’s whole art style is based on a contradiction – sure, he has something to say, but his claim to fame is in embracing the meaninglessness and crass commercialism of his art. Hence, I believe, his collaboration with JV and his aggressive and ambitious marketing of superflat. By deliberately attempting to be as superficial, Hello Kitty like, and commercial as he can in some areas, Murakami provides camouflage for the real, not-so-hidden meanings in his art. It’s all a part of his showman’s style.

    In a way, I do think there is something “subversive” about Murakami’s LV, in that he goes beyond Hello Kitty to actually join his brand with a high fashion Western art form, “superficializing” it – and then subtly replacing the meaning with his own (Japanese) messages, which are hidden behind the veil of superflatness.