“The best things in life are free. The second best are very expensive,” Coco Chanel once affirmed. Combining both schools of thought, the Louvre Abu Dhabi creates the first immersive exhibition in the Middle East on the history of luxury through the lens of different eras, cultures, and mediums. Featuring 350 pieces of fashion, jewelry, furniture, and design from 30 countries, 10,000 Years of Luxury highlights the ever-changing meaning of luxury over several centuries, leaving guests musing on their personal definitions of the almost indefinable term.
“Our winter exhibition explores the fascinating concept of luxury through a long lens, contextualizing objects across time and culture to illuminate evolving notions of beauty, wealth, and value,” remarks Manuel Rabaté, director of Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Organized in tandem by Louvre Abu Dhabi and Musée des Arts Décoratifs and Agence France-Museums in Paris, and sponsored by the Abu Dhabi luxury department store Tryano, the exhibition displays antique treasures from the institutions’ prestigious collections as well as vintage and modern-day couture from famed Maisons including Chanel, Christian Dior, Hermès, Alaïa, and Elie Saab. Reflective of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s current season Changing Societies, the exhibition examines how the idea of luxury manifests through the influence of social, economic, and political situations of the times.
“Never in the history of humanity has the word ‘luxury’ been used with such frequency as in these first decades of the 21st century,” remarks Olivier Gabet, director of Musée des Arts Décoratifs and curator of the exhibition. “It is a concept that evolves within a complex, often subtle, sometimes contradictory melting pot of influences. The very identity of Louvre Abu Dhabi, a universal museum, shaped by the dialogue between civilizations, is an invitation to embrace luxury’s one thousand and one faces, extending from the earliest times to its most recent manifestations. The project was conceived in line with this unique approach, offering visitors a vision of this pan-millennial phenomenon.”
Developed chronologically across 12 rooms, the exhibition invites guests to wander through each major time period. Their exploration begins with the ancient civilizations of the Middle East, where luxury was determined by skilled craftsmanship and precious materials, including one instrumental to the history of Abu Dhabi itself – the pearl. An emirate built on the traditions and successes of the illustrious pearl trade industry, the UAE capital claims the oldest pearl in the world dating back nearly 8 000 years, displaying the timeless treasure at the exhibition’s opening along with a pearl necklace once owned by Egyptian icon Umm Kulthum.
New trade routes brought further globalization, weaving the cultures of the East and West to idealize opulence in new ways, from intricate silk and gold threads from 15th century Italy to lavish home decor masterpieces crafted during 18th century France. The Industrial Revolution democratized luxury, mass-producing elegant fashion to the far-reaching elite while still maintaining an air of exclusivity with its envy-inducing haute couture designs.
“Luxury is a multifaceted idea and defining what makes an object precious is an intriguing task,” explains Dr Souraya Noujaim, scientific, curatorial, and collections management director at Louvre Abu Dhabi. “This exhibition challenges preconceived notions with a scientific approach that goes beyond the tangible materials, techniques, or value of objects and considers luxury as a feeling, a desire, or a freedom to enjoy.”
Supporting the exhibition is a varied cultural program featuring intimate performances from local and international artists, musicians, and dancers alongside a series of films portraying luxury through the realms of fashion and art, such as the 1966 film How to Steal A Million featuring Audrey Hepburn and the 2018 Academy Award Winner for Best Costume Design, Phantom Thread. Delving into an unconventional beauty of luxury is the interactive olfactory art installation USO – The Perfumed Cloud (USO = Unidentified Scented Object) created by Cartier’s perfumer Mathilde Laurent and Transsolar Klima. It is engineered to engage visitors with a sensorial experience “designed to restore perfume to its full nature and arouse reflection, debate, and curiosity” so that olfaction “regains its rightful central place,” says Laurent.
Although 10,000 Years of Luxury aims to uncover the paradox of luxury through a collection of lavish items, visitors find the true essence of luxury lies in its freedom – freedom to transcend borders and time, to pique curiosity and inspire hope, and to map not only personal but also collective stories of individuals. Unlike beauty, luxury is not in the eye of the beholder, but in the very fabric and soul of each society.
10,000 Years of Luxury is on at the Louvre Abu Dhabi until 18 February 2020. Louvreabudhabi.ae