French fancies: Louis Vuitton

Often hailed as the world’s most valuable luxury brand, Louis Vuitton needs no introduction. Yet, its hallowed stature in the world of fashion and humongous business enterprise demands a retelling of the glorious history of Louis Vuitton. It is, after all, built on the dreams and aspirations of a teenager some 200 years ago — one that has and will continue to inspire countless generations.

The company  is a French luxury fashion house and company founded in 1854 by Louis Vuitton.The label’s LV monogram appears on most of its products, ranging from luxury bags and leather goods to ready-to-wear, shoes, perfumes, watches, jewelry, accessories, sunglasses, chocolates and books. Louis Vuitton is one of the world’s leading international fashion houses. It sells its products through standalone boutiques, high-end departmental stores, and through the e-commerce section of its website.


How it all began

The story of Louis Vuitton began with the dream of its namesake founder. Louis Vuitton was only 16 years old in 1837 when he began his apprenticeship with trunk maker Monsieur Maréchal in Paris, France. His arrival in the city is something immensely inspiring; Vuitton, who was born in Anchay, walked 450 km from his birthplace to the city of light to fulfil his dream of becoming a malletier, or trunk maker.,h_1187,c_limit/Portrait%20de%20Louis%20Vuitton.jpg

Vuitton’s talent helped him get noticed at the Parisian atelier during a time when clients had their trunks custom-made. After sharpening his skills for 17 years at Monsieur Maréchal’s atelier, Vuitton opened his own workshop at 4 Rue Neuve-des-Capucines, near the Place Vendome, in Paris in 1854.

This was an opportune moment for Vuitton as only a year before, he had been appointed by Eugénie de Montijo, as her official trunk maker and packer.

In 1859, Vuitton moved his workshop to Asnières-sur-Seine when the label had just 20 employees. By 1914, 225 workers were employed at the Louis Vuitton atelier. Around 170 craftspeople still work there, which functioned as the brand’s only workshop until 1977.

history of Louis Vuitton

Today, the site is like a pilgrimage for the brand’s patrons. Besides being an active workshop, where the design and production of Louis Vuitton products for global markets continue, the Asnières-sur-Seine grounds have an Art Nouveau–style private museum as well, which once served as the Vuitton family residence.

The Asnières-sur-Seine atelier is extremely significant in the history of the Louis Vuitton brand. This is where the brand’s flat-top grey trunk, also known as the Trianon trunk, was produced.

The first custom Louis Vuitton trunk was designed for banker Albert Kahn. However, one of the greatest products ever produced by Louis Vuitton was perhaps a customised bed trunk for French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza in 1874. The bed trunk was basically a customised trunk that would convert into a bed — an ideal accessory for someone like Brazza. The illustrious explorer would remain a loyal customer of the brand till his death in 1905.

The bed trunk was revolutionary, as its flat top made it more transportable and stackable than rounded top trunks. As it was also a period when people travelled primarily in horse-drawn carriages, ships or steam locomotives, flat tops ensured that the bags could be stacked easily, resulting in better baggage handling.

Although the trunk became instantly famous, there was still a major problem haunting founder Louis Vuitton — theft. In those days, belongings were often stolen from trunks by ingenious thieves.

Thus, Georges Vuitton, Louis Vuitton’s only son, worked with his father to design a lock mechanism in 1886 which completely revolutionised baggage safety. The system, which came with two spring buckles, was renowned for being pick-proof. Later patented by Georges, the lock has been so effective that Louis Vuitton bags continue to feature it.

Louis Vuitton logo history

Georges took over the reins of the brand, which was still known as a luxury luggage maker, after Louis Vuitton passed away at the age of 70 in 1892. A year later, he presented the brand for the first time outside of France at the Chicago World Fair.

In fact, Georges’ ingenuity was key to the expansion of his father’s eponymous brand into a globe-trotting giant in the world of luxury living.

Louis Vuitton Ornament

One of the most famous things that Georges did during his time as the head of the luxury fashion house was to give it an enduring symbol — the world-renowned Louis Vuitton Monogram.

The brand had been struggling with counterfeits of its products even when its founder was alive. He started using Damier print canvas and hand-painted striped patterns on future Louis Vuitton trunks in 1876 to distinguish Louis Vuitton authentic products from cheap copies. The Damier print canvas was especially noteworthy, for it was marked “marque L. Vuitton déposée” on the inside.

Louis Vuitton suitcases (Alamy/PA)

In 1896, Georges designed the brand’s beige-on-brown signature monogram canvas, showcasing graphic flowers and quatrefoil with his father’s initials “LV.” The classic monogram has featured prominently on nearly every product that the luxury label has since produced. Though its design underwent minor modifications, the monogram has remained the defining symbol of the brand, making its creations easily distinguishable in the world of luxury lifestyle.

Vivienne Westwood

Louis Vuitton celebrated the 100th anniversary of the monogram in 1996 by inviting six fashion designers — Vivienne Westwood, Romeo Gigli, Sybilla, Manolo Blahnik, Isaac Mazrahi and Helmut Lang — to create unique Louis Vuitton luggage pieces while incorporating the iconic print. The collection, which included a vinyl record box, a backpack with a built-in umbrella and an oval-shaped shoe trunk, was then exhibited across the world.

Gaston Louis Vuitton, Georges’ eldest son, took up the brand’s reins following the death of his father in 1936. As Europe plunged into World War II, Gaston steered the brand through the turmoil while ensuring that it remained relevant and innovation continued unhindered.

However, this period may have stained the brand. The Guardian in 2004 reported that a book titled Louis Vuitton, A French Saga by French author Stephanie Bonvicini alleged that members of the Vuitton family supported the Vichy regime under Marshal Philippe Pétain and made money from business deals with the Germans during World War II.

Bonvicini told the media house that when she asked for details of the brand’s wartime activities, the company told her that documents from the years 1930 to 1945 had been destroyed in a fire.

Following the revelation, an LVMH spokesperson told The Guardian:

This is ancient history. The book covers a period when it was family run and long before it became part of LVMH. We are diverse, tolerant and all the things a modern company should be.

Besides the controversy, Gaston’s time as the head of the family legacy was instrumental in building upon the foundations and pillars laid by his father and grandfather.

He introduced leather into Louis Vuitton creations and in 1966, unveiled the cylindrical Papillon bag, which continues to be one of the most famous products of the Louis Vuitton label.

During the 1960s, with its growing renown, Louis Vuitton bags were being spotted on celebrities, including French singer and actress Juliette Greco and French actress Catherine Deneuve, as well as the latter’s fashion photographer husband David Bailey.

Following Gaston’s death, Henry Racamier, who had married Odile Vuitton, became the successor in 1977.

Despite its popularity among the French elite, there were only two Louis Vuitton stores in France and sales volume was less than USD 10 million. Racamier, who was a self-made steel tycoon, is credited with firmly placing Louis Vuitton on the world stage.

Under him, the luxury fashion house started expanding with more stores in major cities outside France. Within 10 years of Racamier assuming charge, the Maison had opened over 100 stores globally.

In 1984, the business ceased to be family-owned and went public before merging with the luxury champagne brand Moët et Chandon and cognac brand Hennessy three years later to form, what is today, LVMH.

Racamier was in charge of LVMH until a legal tussle led to his ousting and Bernard Arnault taking control in 1990.

Interestingly, while Louis Vuitton was a phenomenon in luxury bags, its gargantuan rise in the world of fashion did not begin until the 1990s under Arnault.

As a brand, Louis Vuitton embarked on its new exploration of the luxury fashion world and the contemporary dressing of an elite clientele, primarily after becoming part of LVMH.

The seed of this new orientation towards fashion was planted after Yves Carcelle became the brand’s president in 1990 — the same year the Vuitton family’s managerial control over the brand effectively ended.

Seven years later, Louis Vuitton would get on board a young New York-based fashion designer who would not only elevate the brand as a label but also transform the world of fashion; he was Marc Jacobs.

Graffiti Speedy

Jacobs, an American, arrived at Louis Vuitton as its creative director in 1997 and the following year, he launched the brand’s first-ever ready-to-wear line.

During his 16 years at Louis Vuitton, Jacobs gave a new identity to the classic monogram canvas by using them liberally on everything — from hats to fans and tights to jackets — as a print pattern. Many of the creations were available for sale in Louis Vuitton stores, helping the brand reach out to an even wider set of high-net-worth patrons who wanted to be seen in Louis Vuitton fashion.

The immensely creative mind of the maverick fashion designer was also instrumental in the brand’s collaborations with some of the finest contemporary artists of the world. This redefined Louis Vuitton’s iconic bags and was marked for the artists’ personal styles.

best louis vuitton bags lv speedy luxe digital

One of the most noteworthy collaborations was with Stephen Sprouse in 2001, three years before the American artist’s death from cancer. The product — Graffiti Speedy — is to date considered a landmark among Louis Vuitton bags.

It was a megahit among all Louis Vuitton fans, so much so that Sprouse’s graffiti style was reused by Jacobs multiple times. One of them was a special tribute to the artist in 2009 in which Jacobs used a rose drawn by Sprouse on Louis Vuitton bags.

Another famous collaboration of Jacobs was with Takashi Murakami. The legendary Japanese contemporary artist gave his own spin to the LV monogram, releasing bags bearing the iconic brand symbol in playful colours, including hot pink, turquoise and Kelly green.

Dubbed the Monogram Multicolore collection, its design has been a major hit with younger fans of Louis Vuitton ever since.

Jacobs remained at the helm of at Louis Vuitton until 2014. He left his position to completely focus on his eponymous label, which he had founded years before joining the French luxury brand.

French fashion designer Nicolas Ghesquière was appointed artistic director of women’s collections in November 2013, a month after it was revealed in the press that Jacobs was planning to leave the brand.

Ghesquière, formerly the creative director of Balenciaga, immediately got down to business and released the Petite Malle bag at the Fall 2014 fashion show. The Petite Malle, whose name means “small trunk,” is universally hailed as one of the best Louis Vuitton products.

While Ghesquière continued getting the brand the attention it deserved in the women’s line, the men’s line was being handled by Kim Jones.

As the men’s artistic director since 2011, Jones was instrumental in bringing streetwear style to the house and made headlines for the brand’s collaboration with American clothing company Supreme.

Jones, however, left Louis Vuitton for Dior Homme. In 2018, his vacant position was filled by one of the greatest names in the world of fashion — Virgil Abloh, the first person of colour to hold the position in Louis Vuitton.

Abloh’s association with Louis Vuitton was, however, cut short by his untimely demise in November 2021. He had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in 2019. Louis Vuitton released his final collection in April 2022, for which Abloh partnered with Milan-based tattoo artist Ghusto Leon.

The French fashion house is one of the earliest brands which took a deep interest in the future of fashion in the metaverse — a concept that is loosely understood as a platform where people can interact with each other and their environment virtually.

As part of it, the brand launched an adventure-based game, known as Louis the Game, in August 2021 to commemorate the 200th birth anniversary year of founder Louis Vuitton.

Playing as Louis Vuitton’s mascot, Vivienne, gamers need to collect 200 candles by dressing their avatars in the digital versions of Louis Vuitton fashion wear. The primary attraction of the game is non-fungible tokens (NFTs) — digital assets that are integral to the metaverse. Acclaimed digital artist Beeple created 30 NFTs for Louis the Game.

By April 2022, the game had been downloaded over two million times. New NFTs have been added, and players get a chance to collect more through special events like the NFT raffle, the last of which ended on 4 August 2022.

Louis Vuitton picks Pharrell Williams to lead men's designs - BBC News

On 14 February 2023, Pharrell Williams was named artistic director of men’s wear. To be continued………

All images courtesy of Louis Vuitton

17 Comments on “French fancies: Louis Vuitton

  1. Hi Sheree! This is such a cool post. I had no idea the spring lock could be attributed to Vuitton! Thank you for such a fun look at this fashion house. Adore this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed this history, Sheree, but would argue that the premier French brand remains Hermès, established in 1837 and still in private hands.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: French Fancies: LVMH – View from the Back

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