Going Brutalist: Louis Vuitton debuts latest collection at Salk Institute

The Salk Institute served as the perfect setting for Louis Vuitton’s annual Cruise show, held Thursday, May 12, 2022.
(Courtesy of Giovanni Gianonni / Louis Vuitton)

The French luxury house brought its annual Cruise show to San Diego’s architectural landmark in La Jolla, designed in the 1960s by the great Louis Kahn

Louis Vuitton — one of fashion’s most revered houses — visited San Diego’s most revered architectural house Thursday evening. The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, sitting on a cliff overlooking a gleaming Pacific Ocean, was the perfect host, serving up an idyllic setting for the French brand to showcase its 2023 Cruise collection.

While it’s not the Cruise show’s first time in California — exhibit A: the 2015 show at the Bob and Dolores Hope Estate in Palm Springs — it wasthe envelope-pushing event’s San Diego debut, and what a spectacular debut it was.

It was the first fashion show to be hosted at the Salk Institute, an architectural wonder designed by Louis Kahn. Considered to be Kahn’s masterpiece, the building was completed in 1965 for virologist and medical researcher Jonas Salk, and it’s been praised for its “reverential approach to architectural design, showcasing the symbiotic relationship between site and light and space,” according to a 2016 Union-Tribune article on Kahn.

(Courtesy of Giovanni Gianonni / Louis Vuitton)

On the day of the show, it quickly became evident why Louis Vuitton and Nicolas Ghesquière, the brand’s artistic director of women’s collections, chose the Salk Institute.

“Having spent a lot of time in California, I was drawn to the idea of showing there again,” Ghesquière said. “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.”

Past venues for Louis Vuitton’s Cruise show have run the gamut both geographically and aesthetically, from the MAC by Oscar Niemeyer in Niteroi, Brazil to the Miho Museum by Ieoh Ming Pei outside Kyoto, Japan. But what they all have in common — stunning architecture and design — made the San Diego landmark an obvious, and perfect, choice.

(Emma McIntyre / Getty Images)

On Thursday, fashion-forward celebrities and common folk stepped onto the Salk Institute’s courtyard and sauntered to their assigned seats, gray concrete slabs that gave them prime views of the models, and for almost all, the best view of the evening’s star: the San Diego sunset.

As the sun-soaked crowd awaited for the collection’s arrival to the runway, eyes that weren’t glued to Apple watches or Instagram stories drifted upward. Up in the sky, a drone noisily buzzed overhead — blending in both auditorily and visually with the squawking seagulls — that was set up to capture the Brutalist setting and stunning Pacific Ocean views.


Christina Binkley — a longtime business and culture reporter based in Los Angeles, who regularly contributes to the likes of The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker — wasn’t surprised by the Louis Vuitton Cruise show’s choice of venue.

“For (Ghesquière) to choose a spot, it’s got to have a moment for the people who are here, and it’s got to have a big moment for the photography that’s going to be sprayed around the world from this show,” Binkley said as she marveled at the towering buildings that surrounded the courtyard. “There’s all these angular, organic (lines) and the ocean is right over there — it’s spectacular.”

“I think it matches (Ghesquière’s) design personality, in terms of the shapes and character of this place,” added River Richie, a fashion intern who flew in from New York City for the show.

(Courtesy of Giovanni Gianonni / Louis Vuitton)

The Salk Institute’s design takes special care of blending the old with the new. Just ask Ariel Plotek, former curator of modern and contemporary art at the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park, which hosted the exhibit “Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture” back in 2016.

“There is in the Salk Institute this sense of majesty and an austerity,” Plotek previously told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Kahn’s work, here in La Jolla and elsewhere, harken back to the past with a strong connection to the present. In a sense, they remind you of the pyramids, the great buildings in Rome, but they’re here now for us to experience. I think Kahn’s architecture was, quite deliberately, backward looking. ... The influence of antiquity, whether Greek or Roman or Egyptian, even medieval. That kind of monumentality.”

Among the more than 200 objects in the exhibit “Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture,” currently at the San Diego Museum of Art, is one that’s easy to miss — not only because of its placement but also because of what it is.

Kahn’s juxtaposition of old and new, of hard angles with nature’s soft edges was honored — make that celebrated — in Louis Vuitton’s 2023 Cruise collection. Models walked in designs boasting sharp lines (mirroring the Salk Institute) and flowing silhouettes (mimicking ocean waves). Billowing, cloak- and robe-like pieces were paired with metallic leather pants, clunky platforms swimming in chains, and space-age shoulder pads reminiscent of “The Jetsons” and, in some cases, the post-apocalyptic aesthetic of “Mad Max.” With the early aughts back in fashion again, many ‘00s trends were on full display: the low rise jeans; the wraparound sunglasses; the black belts and leather boots featuring eye-catching cut outs. The collection evoked an aura of medieval meets millennial. (Or, in slightly nerdier terms, RuneScape meets Matrix.)

Then, in what felt like a blink of an eye, the models slipped behind the Salk Institute’s concrete walls. With the Pacific as the backdrop, Ghesquière, dressed simply in all black, walked into the courtyard for a farewell wave after his 20-minute show — giving attendees enough time to capture their perfect shot for social media before the San Diego sun disappeared into the horizon.

(Courtesy of Giovanni Gianonni / Louis Vuitton)

(Courtesy of Giovanni Gianonni / Louis Vuitton)