200 years of Louis Vuitton: From trunk-maker to the one of the world’s biggest luxury house

If it weren’t for an adolescent Louis Vuitton’s life-changing decision to traverse a long 2-year journey to Paris to become a trunk-maker, the world today would be absent of his namesake luxury brand. It would have been a world without high-quality luggage, fashion and high-end jewellery that bear the iconic LV Monogram. 

The Louis Vuitton Paris Store at 1 rue Scribe, circa 1872.

In commemoration of Vuitton’s 200th birthday, let us take a moment to retrace his steps from a mere teenage boy looking to better his life to a successful man who founded what is now among the top luxury fashion brands in the world. 

Born on 4 August 1821 in the Jura region of France, young Vuitton decided in 1835 to leave his hometown of Anchay and head to Paris to apprentice under the master trunk-maker and packer Romain Maréchal. Armed with his skills as a carpenter that’s passed down through a family line of craftsmen, he travelled on foot and did odd jobs along the way, until he finally reached his destination in 1837. He quickly mastered the ways of trunk-making during his 17-year apprenticeship, even becoming the favourite “packer” for Empress Eugénie. The latter experience, coupled with his close relationship with Charles Frederick Worth, the founder of Parisian Haute Couture, gave Vuitton an insight into the revolution that was taking place in transport and unerringly envisioned its beneficial aftermath on luggage. 

Original portrait of a young Louis Vuitton.

Vuitton founded his own Maison in 1854, located at 4 Rue Neuve-des-Capucines, Paris. It was at this Place Vendôme neighbourhood that major fashion houses were established in the 19th century’s second half. Vuitton’s early advertising promised that his luggage “securely packs the most fragile of objects.” He also declared himself a “packer” of fashions, as ingenious containers and skilled hands were required to pack and import the 1850s style choices of opulent dresses, crinolines and wide skirts. 

Coming to the realisation that a “flat” trunk would be more practical and efficient as opposed to the dome shaped stream trunks that were the most popular style of luggage available at the time, Vuitton began reinventing fashion packing. Towards the end of the 1850s, he created Gris Trianon, a coated canvas that made luggage waterproof and transformed the shape of the trunk by endowing it with a flat lid. His fabrication of the easily stackable square luggage, which also enabled garments to be hung upright, led to the birth of the flat-top luggage that revolutionised the art of packing.  

The canvas would continue to evolve over the decades, not only for the sake of aesthetics and technical improvements, but to deter the many counterfeiters and rival manufacturers who were copying his innovations as well. Its designs grew more complicated, moving from grey cloth to the striped canvas that was launched in 1876, which, due to being excessively imitated, was later replaced by the Damier canvas in 1888. This checked design was the first to bear the name of Vuitton in its outer signature. 

Le Voyage en train.

Georges-Louis, Vuitton’s eldest son, created the now legendary Monogram in 1896 in honour of his late father. A major icon of the House was born through the blending of Vuitton’s initials with the distinctive floral and geometrical patterns. Its unique attribute – the interlaced initials, encircled, rounded flower and four-petal flower encased in a concaved diamond – made the revolutionary Monogram highly recognisable, as well as earned it instant recognition as a universal symbol of modernity. Numerous prizes were won by the brand at Paris’s World Fairs in late 19th century and early 20th century for its forward-thinking designs. 

Many of the House’s trunks and luggage are born in Vuitton’s ateliers in Asnières, a village located to the northwest of Paris. Opened in 1859 to cope with the demands of his rapidly developing business, the bright, airy ateliers were constructed in the futuristic Eiffel style of the time, their design a welcome contrast to the dark workshops of the city. Accessibility was the key aspect in Vuitton’s selection of Asnières for his ateliers. Its location on the banks of the Seine meant easy delivery of raw materials, including the poplar wood used for the making of the famous Vuitton trunks, and Asnières was also one of the stops of the very first railway lines in France.  

Close to two centuries now, the Asnières workshop continues to thrive, still churning out iconic creations that include not only leather goods and hard-sided designs, but also the unique requests for special orders for dispatch across the globe. Since customisation has long been part of the House’s services, some of the legendary bespoke creations that have come from the luxury brand are Maharajah of Baroda’s tea trunk, explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza’s Bed Trunk, and a DJ’s musical trunk. These iconic pieces, all conceived and created by hand in Asnières, span past, present and future, ranging from a classic flat trunk to a custom order container for digital recording equipment, each showcases heritage to fit the contemporary age. 

The four historic canvases of Louis Vuitton.

At the ateliers, workstations are manned by men and women of all ages and origins, all forming a perfect harmony of workmanship as they carefully apply glue to Monogram canvas in order to stretch it across the wood structure, nail the rigid lozine to the edges and corners of a trunk to ensure solidity, and so on. Even as time passes, many of the manual gestures repeated day-to-day by the master artisans here have not changed.  

Located on the top floor of the ateliers was Vuitton’s own family home, giving him the advantage of staying close to his centre of production while not forgoing his duties as a family man. Before even entering into the business, the Vuitton children could learn the family trade in the workshops while spending their leisure time playing in the garden and rowing on the nearby Seine river. The family home was renovated by Georges-Louis Vuitton in the late 19th century in a French Art Nouveau style that remains to this day, with stained glass windows and wall decorations that still echo with the many memories that family had there, celebrating many remarkable occasions and achievements. 

Those who seek to further understand and appreciate the brand’s creation are given the chance to do so with the instalment of Time Capsule within La Galerie Louis Vuitton in Asnières. It invites guests to journey through the House’s history from the beginning to present day, revisiting its landmark moments of innovations in design and technology via a visual timeline. Rare and celebrated objects from the archive are utilised in the story-telling. As guests roam free in Time Capsule, they will see numerous heirloom designs living alongside some of the House’s most contemporary pieces, a testament to its ongoing commitment to constant innovation.  

Louis Vuitton died in 1892, but his legacy lives on. What started as a trusted brand for luggage and bags have developed over the years to include ready-to-wear, shoes, accessories, watches, jewellery and fragrance. Coveted the world over and renowned for its quality and exclusivity, the carefully created products are testament to Louis Vuitton’s commitment to fine craftsmanship and the House will for certain continue to revolutionise the high fashion world.

(All images: Louis Vuitton)

This story first appeared in Prestige Malaysia.

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