During the time of COVID-19, celebrating vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk’s research institution and his contribution to helping eradicate the last pandemic seems particularly fitting.
But it was the world-famous architecture of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies that persuaded designer Nicolas Ghesquière to bring the Louis Vuitton resort show back to California on Thursday night, to the coastal enclave of La Jolla, where biotech meets sun-and-surf.
“I’d seen pictures of the Salk, it was on the cover of the Louis Vuitton magazine in 2019, and I was always curious to see it for real,” Ghesquière said during a preview. “I was curious about the architecture and environment. So I came down to San Diego a couple of years ago and I didn’t get a chance to see it, but I saw La Jolla and the beach and I enjoyed the atmosphere.”
After posing the idea of a La Jolla resort show to Vuitton, Ghesquière returned with a team to scout the Salk at golden hour. “The sun was going down and there was a dryness but also a mist, and the surfers were coming out in the ocean below the cliff. All of it was so inspiring in its serenity, and it was a place with so much meaning,” he said. “I knew I could work with it.”
The institute, which has been used before for concerts, commercials and movie shoots — and a Dior ad campaign that came out just last month —agreed.
For architecture lovers, the Salk — closed to the public since the beginning of the pandemic — is a bucket list visit.
The Brutalist landmark opened in 1963 was designed by Salk and architect Louis Kahn. Salk wanted an open and inviting space that could be adapted to the changing needs of science and Kahn came up with two mirror-image, six-story blocky structures that flank a grand courtyard overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Constructed of poured-in-place “pozzolanic” concrete, the structures have a pinkish cast that changes with the sunlight throughout the day. With windows flooding the interior with light, all the labs are open to allow for collaboration on the institute’s work on finding cures for everything from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease.
During the show, in front of 650 guests, models walked the courtyard between the two buildings with the famous “River of Life” water feature flowing through the center.
That courtyard was conceived neither by Salk nor by Kahn, but by Mexican architect Luis Barragán, who called it “a facade in the sky,” and the river is meant to represent the trickle of discoveries spilling into the greater body of knowledge, symbolized by the ocean. Twice a year during the spring and fall equinoxes, the sun sets along the axis of the “River of Life,” attracting photographers and spiritual thinkers.
“From fashion, it’s a complete other world that’s fascinating,” said Ghesquière, who admitted to getting more in touch with his spiritual side while spending COVID-19 lockdown in Malibu, California.
“California has always been very visionary with healing, therapy and wellness and the landscape from the coast to the desert, which is not that far. It’s a rich proposition on which to meditate,” he said.
The designer has been so taken with it, he recently bought a house in the Hollywood Hills, paying $11 million for a 1961 John Lautner previously owned by Amanda Hearst and Joachim Rønning.
“I’m almost a local,” he laughed. “I don’t know how much time I will be able to spend there, but just to know I will have this place, and hopefully I will be able to spend more time in California in the future.”
The California landscape inspired the collection, a mix of a desert-natural and water sports-technical wardrobe. There were touches of the ceremonial in the opening goddess robes that gave way to more sporty looks, including graphic bomber jackets, cool metallic pants in gold, copper and silver, and lava-like jacquard or reflective sequined tops paired with nomadic-looking draped linen pants. SoCal extras included surf-inspired sneaker boots and an LV Vernis skateboard.
On a more conceptual note, Ghesquière ended with a trio of sculpted boleros resembling gliders, ready to take flight over the cliff.
“We decided to write in the text that the guest of honor is the sun — we went at two or three different times of the day, and I wanted the clothes to interact with the light. It’s a very simple principle, but also so important how you protect yourself in this day of global warming,” Ghesquière said, pointing out some of the graphic prints in the collection were created by taking images of the Salk building using a thermal camera to capture the feeling of being warm and sunny.
The Salk campus was in disarray for a week-plus for the show prep, which had scientists sharing corridors with runway stylists, and camera drones doing practice runs with seagulls flying around them in the sky.
“I like having people visit the Salk whose interests are outside the world of science to see what we’re all about,” said Greg Lemke, professor of molecular neurobiology and Francoise Gilot-Salk chair.
“I want people to appreciate the uniqueness and beauty of the building and I want them to think about the science going on here. We study all the basic problems in biology, the complete spectrum, from computational neuroscience, to cancer to neurodegenerative disease to plant biology, we try to do it all in a small space. We have a little over 50 scientists and there’s a lot of biology packed into these very small buildings,” said Lemke, dressed in a hoodie with “Lemkenoids” spelled across it, which is what he calls the members of his lab.
“Like architecture and beauty, science is a universal human preoccupation. Trying to figure things out is something that unites humanity.…You can travel around the world, you can see people of different cultures, backgrounds and interests, but if they are scientists they all have a common curiosity. For me, that’s always been one of the most hopeful things about science.”
One of the institute’s plant projects involves studying the idea of how to sequester more carbon from the atmosphere into the roots of crop plants, which could be a game changer for the fight against global warming. Louis Vuitton has outlined ambitious environmental goals of its own, which already include reusing or recycling 93 percent of event materials, and having a dedicated sustainability officer on site to ensure follow-through.
The last time the brand held a resort show in California was in 2015 at the futuristic Bob and Dolores Hope Palm Springs estate. On the question of why La Jolla, and the greater San Diego area — where Louis Vuitton hosted out-of-town guests at the Pendry Hotel in the Gaslamp Quarter, threw a dinner party at the posh Born & Raised restaurant and hosted a show after party at the renovated Museum of Contemporary Art La Jolla — the region is one of California’s wealthiest and a biotech hub.
San Diego has also been in the headlines after hosting the “Top Gun: Maverick” premiere last week. The film is set in the area and stars Vuitton ambassador Jennifer Connelly, who was unable to make the resort show because she is still globetrotting with the film’s premieres.
To cater to the region’s growing luxury class, Louis Vuitton opened its second store in the area on April 15 at the Westfield UTC outdoor mall in La Jolla, where a new high-end retail row is emerging with Tiffany, Hermès and a soon-to-open Chanel Beauté store.
“Having worked here in the early ’90s, it’s night and day from there to now, and a lot of the change is due to the maturation of the university,” Museum of Contemporary Art director Kathryn Kanjo explained of the University of California San Diego La Jolla campus. “It’s a research university and the support it’s given to the biotech industry has helped shift our economy from military, tourism and retirement.”
For an international brand like Louis Vuitton to touch down “is a point of maturation for the city” she said during a tour of the spectacular oceanfront museum hosting a Niki de Saint Phalle exhibition. “The connection of nature and the coast, science, innovation and architecture…it taps [into] the San Diego myth I find appealing.”