September 2009

Buzz Aldrin + Daniel LalondeRocket Men

The moonwalker and the Vuitton visionary talk
passion, perseverence and the pitfalls of life at the tip-top
photograph by Eric Ogden / coordinated by Mary Murphy

Buzz Aldrin, Daniel Lalonde, louis vuitton, apollo, moon landing

They stand on what looks like a skyway to the stars. It is an appropri­ately magical landing place for Buzz Aldrin, one of two to first set foot on the moon, and Daniel Lalonde, president and CEO of Louis Vuitton North America—high above the VIP crowd at the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

They have come together to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the initial lunar landing and kick off Louis Vuitton: A Journey Beyond, the Annie Leibovitz-shot ad campaign that takes the theme of personal quest to its ultimate limits. The photo features Aldrin, Jim Lovell (commander of Apollo 13) and Sally Ride, the first woman to venture into orbit on the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983, on the hood of a beat-up pickup—fronted by the Vuitton Icare travel bag—while the video for the campaign has the three recalling what it was that led them to become pioneers (watch below). To add to the “It” factor, Vuitton created the custom-order-only Malle Mars, a conceptual trunk for the anni­versary, done in space-age silver.

The Vuitton Campaign Ad

We’ve come a long way since July 20, 1969, when the world watched with respect and awe as Aldrin and Neil Armstrong hopscotched along the lunar surface in their otherworldly space suits.

In this sit-down, Aldrin and Lalonde explore their mutual journeys, and as Aldrin—who has a new memoir, Magnificent Desolation: The Long Road Home from the Moon—reminisces, we see that, for this complicated man, getting to the moon was the easy part. It was adjusting to post-lunar life that was tough, as he struggled with alcohol, depression and the glare of fame. Lalonde has had his share of triumphs and challenges, too, and the elegant Canadian master retailer is clearly enthralled by the man who walked on the moon. And so are we.

Daniel Lalonde: What does it really feel like to bounce around on the moon? Everyone wants to know.
Buzz Aldrin: It’s a surreal environment, you know—the reality of being there. The gravity, the scenery, the experience, the aloneness, the separation, and yet everybody’s paying attention to what you’re doing right then. It’s the novelty and total visibility of what you see—the horizon curving away, the dust behaving in a different way from any dust you’ve ever seen. What you’re looking at is something that hasn’t changed in hundreds of thousands of years.

DL: You actually walked on the moon for two hours. But how long did it feel to you at the time—did it feel shorter?
BA: Well, I was limited to about two hours outside the spacecraft, but I knew how many things there were to do. It went by pretty fast—I felt like we were jumping from one thing to another without getting into anything in depth.

DL: What were the two most important memories you took away?
BA: One was having a career in one direction—being a pilot in combat—and then also having a career open up that was even more enticing than that. To be in such a great historical position was amazing. All the people who were even close to being selected were so fortunate at that particular time.

DL: Was there ever a time you felt in danger, that you might not get back?
BA: The most threatening instance occurred when Neil and I returned to the Eagle lunar module. After we took off our bulky life-support backpacks and repressurized the module, I noticed something on the floor. It was a broken switch from one of the circuit breakers on our instrument panel. I gulped hard when I realized it was from the engine arm breaker—the one we needed to ignite our engines for liftoff to rejoin Mike [Michael Collins], who was orbiting in the command module. I didn’t want to use a metal object or my finger, but I found a felt-tipped pen in the pocket of my space suit, and when the time came to engage the ascent engine, I pushed the breaker in with the pen, and it held! In those kinds of situations, you just work at it until you find the answer.

DL: Were you ever afraid?
BA: If anyone exhibited a bit of a fear, he’d just be on the outside. It was not an accepted part of relating with other people. Maybe that’s not so good, but you do learn to suppress it. You’re leading a huge empire here.

DL: Well, I certainly wouldn’t compare it to what you have gone through, but I think any leader needs to have a strong vision and show confidence. You need to display conviction and a sense of purpose. People look to you. Sometimes you just have to suppress any fears.
BA: Anybody who goes through pilot training learns that fast. You’re not specifically thinking about what happens if the tail comes off or the landing gear won’t come down, but you have to be ahead of what is happening.

DL: What we try to do at Vuitton is always think ahead. The brand’s been in existence since 1854—more than 150 years of rich history, heritage, a focus on quality and craftsmanship. The company was founded on the spirit and value of travel, and our job throughout the economic cycles continues to be consistent with those values. We also own our distribution: Louis Vuitton products are sold only in Louis Vuitton stores, and we manufacture everything. We’re always thinking about the long term.
BA: You don’t want to crash land.

DL: No. We like a consistent flight, shall we say. In great economic times, we’ll have the same philos­ophy about our brand as in more challenging times.
BA: I learned early about a kind of friendly, competitive spirit. Measure your performance, see how you’re doing, and there’s an opportunity to show your progress.

DL: I always had a very strong passion for travel—for discovery of my country, Canada. And I made it a point to give myself different experiences. I was a forest ranger—I spent whole summers away from my family experiencing new cultures.
BA: One of the most profound experiences I had in maturing was at West Point. I was 17. They were taking 25 percent into the Air Force, and that’s where, of course, I wanted to go. I graduated near the top of my class, got my commission and went through pilot training. But then I found that this is a challenging business and began to see that maybe I wasn’t the natural pilot—I was good, but I had to concentrate on it. It was the beginning of the realization that no matter who you are, where you are or what you’re in, you have to fit in the best way you can. I accepted the limits I felt I had. From there, I got into combat [in the Korean War] and found that perseverance, aggressiveness and alertness can pay off—you can’t be somebody who hides.

DL: What have been your biggest challenges? I mean, personally.
BA: I guess as I had the tendency to excel, I woke up sort of an unconscious, subconscious degree of expectation. And as those expectations played out and I succeeded, it reinforced that. When they didn’t play, I began to lose a level of confidence and success. It wasn’t clear what I could do after the service. There was security in the military, but that didn’t seem to be enough. They had a position to offer me to be the head person in the school for test pilots, but I had a sense of not quite being a person who wanted to hone the precision skills needed for test-pilot operation—and here I was, put in charge of the instructors. I did it with great discipline, but it still didn’t leave me with a good sense of, Where is this going to take me? That tempted me to get professional advice by consulting psychiatrists, which was not going to enhance my Air Force career.

DL: How old were you at that point?
BA: Oh, 41, 42? And right when I was trying to transition to a new career. So I retired from the Air Force. I met with a writer, and we did a piece about an astronaut who feels depression coming on.

DL: Was that the first time you talked about depression?
BA: Yeah. How could somebody who’s been up to the moon acknowl­edge he needs some help? But it was received so well we did a whole book. Well, if you write about your career, it’s going to be noticed by different people, including the Mental Health Association. That piece put me on the board of directors of the National Mental Health Association—not exactly the career goal I had in mind.

DL: And you were mentally ill then?
BA: Well, one of things that troubled me so much about even being on the first mission was the publicity—all the celebrity and the nuisance of what goes along with it. There were three of us, and as we went around the world, I felt the audience was comparing how well we each gave interesting, fascinating remarks. So I was caught up in this competition and not feeling comfortable. And then to be the [spokesman for] mental health, which means telling my story about depression and how I’m seeking treatment and trying to put on an air of positiveness. That didn’t work, because there was more—my grandfather, before I was born, committed suicide; my mother committed suicide before I went to the moon. Why? In reflection, she didn’t like the attention—and there I was, dealing with the same kind of situation. I called the first book Return to Earth, not Journey to the Moon, because clearly that was the challenge for me—a whole series of readjustment problems. Alcohol is there, family life begins to deteriorate, and you kind of have the benefits of celebrity, but you don’t get the money. NASA retirement is zero for military people. I got divorced and lost half of my accumulated retirement. And yet, in people’s minds I was the epitome of success, and it was really kind of devastating trying to live those two lives.

DL: What does it feel like to be Buzz Aldrin at this point in his life?
BA: I guess I’m searching for utilization of what I have and where I can really make use of my experiences. To look at what is going on and identify a way, a challenge, of doing it a little bit better.

DL: What’s the next frontier in your view, and why is that important to Earth? Or to man? What was the purpose of going to the moon?
BA: Well, there were a lot of reasons that propelled us, and I think it’s the pride as a nation. During the Cold War, it was about a commitment to do something that seemed impossible. Most expeditions are carried out for the acquisition of something that pays off—you cross the Atlantic because you’re searching for the spices and gold of the Far East, and then you develop things because of the trade. There are great benefits derived from a very competitive world. Daniel, would you like to go to the moon?

DL: I certainly would.
BA: Well, to get there is to achieve things few humans are given. So it’s an epitome of a wonderful achievement, but it’s a contrast of the magnificence of being there and the desolation of, Where is the return for this? So it became the title of my book—it went from magni­ficent to desolation and back into some positive way, contributing.

DL: How did it feel when Vuitton approached you for this campaign in the desert with Jim and Sally?
BA: Well, I looked upon it initially as an opportunity to get together. I also thought it’d be a fantastic platform to continue the dream of space travel and make it accessible to the public.

DL: And travel could be in the physical sense of the trip, discovering other cultures or the journeys people have had in their lives. This latest ad campaign was fitting because we wanted to focus on icons, individuals who’d had extraor­dinary journeys. So we started the campaign with the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev, Catherine Deneuve, Keith Richards, Sean Connery. And then we thought, What is the ultimate journey man can have? Outer space. It made so much sense.
BA: Have you approached Richard Branson? Now there’s a collision of empires. It’s one thing to have the elite be able to do things like space tours, but I’m trying to open it up so average people get a sense of what it is about. The people who will see the ad will not only get the Vuitton message but the message of travel. How would you say Louis Vuitton is able to convey that message so well?

DL: What we have is an obsession for innovation. We keep relevant in many ways. A campaign like this surprises people. I think what’s really important for us to keep relevant as a brand is having sources of inspiration like this from Marc Jacobs, our creative director.
BA: That’s why I’m trying to reach young people with rap music.

DL: Oh yes, you did rap with Snoop Dogg? And what’s your song called?
BA: “The Rocket Experience”—so people understand what the progressive experiences are as described in rap melody and phrases. “All you need is the rocket experience / Get ready to put on your space suit / Strap in for the high G liftoff.”

DL: You’ve rapped with Snoop. Would you sing with Madonna?
BA: [Laughs.] No, I’m not the one who carries a tune. But I did “Rocket Man” with Elton John.

DL: We actually have Madonna in our fall collection—and then we have Buzz Aldrin. The fashion dimension is Marc Jacobs led. We have two sides to our brand. When you can say, “Madonna and Buzz Aldrin are in the Louis Vuitton campaign,” I think it adds depth.
BA: It broadens the spectrum of coverage tremendously.

DL: The night before meeting you, I watched a series of Discovery Channel DVDs on almost every single mission. It was very emotional for me and my wife, but what surprised me was my kids, who are 13, 10 and 8. I realized your message is relevant to 8- to 80-year-olds—all walks and all demographics.
BA: It’s from the experience of reaching different segments of society in terms of the advertising and marketing for what we do.

DL: So then what would have happened—you land on the moon, it’s time to go back, you try to turn the engine...and it doesn’t start. What would you do?
BA: You keep workin’ on it.

DL: [Laughs.] There you go.
BA: Keep workin’ till you run out of oxygen.

DL: And then you fall asleep.
BA: Pleasant dreams.