Last week, at the crest of Milan Fashion Week, Louis Vuitton unveiled “White Canvas: LV Trainer in Residence,” an ambitious graffiti art/sneaker exhibition and limited-edition collaborative series of sneakers. Featured artists are -era spray paint legends Lady Pink, Lee Quiñones, and Rammellzee, all of whom cracked into the gallery realm after pioneering the New York graffiti movement by turning subway trains into moving canvases during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“White Canvas: LV Trainer in Residence” runs through March 16 at Garage Traversi. Lady Pink and Quiñones were on-hand at last Thursday’s opening for live-painting demonstrations. They also created site-specific murals for the show. A selection of past work by all artists is also on view, including two sculptures from Rammellzee (the multimedia artist died in 2010 and the brand worked directly with his estate for the exhibition). The pop-up LV art gallery doubles as a rarefied gift shop: it’s the only place where one can buy the project’s limited-edition kicks, each devoted to its artist/ designer.
Lady Pink and Quiñones each painted a pair of the house’s leather LV Trainers, and then Vuitton’s shoe artisans painstakingly reproduced them to the most minute detail in the brand’s Fiesso d’Artico factory (the originals are also on display behind glass). Rammellzee’s sneaker was based on previous work by the artist.
This is the first iteration of what is to be an ongoing collaboration series, akin to a menswear version of the ongoing Artycapcucine handbag reinterpretations. The sneaker show and collab are hitting at a fascinating period, in the preamble to Pharrell Williams’s ascension to creative director, while the concept itself has been percolating since the Virgil Abloh-era of the brand (the late designer introduced the sneaker with his debut show).
Sky Gellatly, co-founder of creative agency and artist managing firm Icnclst, was friends with Abloh for 15 years and helped curate and ideate the “White Canvas” project. “We met when we were much younger,” Gellatly explained. “The things we were into as friends really revolved around art, music, and sneakers. We were both born in 1980, about a month apart. We grew up during the same era of hip hop and electronic music and graffiti being an irreverent boundary-breaking genre.” They’d later professionally collaborate and their team-ups often radiated from graffiti art’s progenitors.
“We cared a lot about these artists, they inspired us as kids,” Gellatly says. “We thought, they’ve got to be canonized and institutionalized in the right way in terms of art history. We were both of the mind that it’s our duty as fans and people who respect them to help push and accelerate that narrative while they’re still active and making art.” The pair’s first Louis Vuitton crossover occurred when Gellatly’s longtime client, the graffiti artist Futura live-painted during Abloh’s second show (Fall 2019) for the house — a Lower East Side cityscape was intricately recreated (and tagged) for the Paris runway.
For this project’s curation, Abloh and Gellatly knew they had to return to the source. “We figured that this would be a way for younger people to gain entry into these artists, with sneakers being a vehicle,” Gellatly says. “It’s an exhibition with artwork conceivably for an older audience that might be more of the mind of collecting artwork.” So is the art in the gallery for sale? “Um, not overtly,” he says. “But, yes it is.”
For Gellatly, it was an emotional yet rewarding experience to enact this collaboration and realize Abloh’s vision. “This project feels almost entirely personal, like not professional,” Gellaltly says. “As my friend, I know how much these artists meant to him. He saw them as superheroes growing up.”
He continued, “I owe Virgil a lot, and I’m trying to do right by what he wanted to happen, just holding it down and following through.”