Louis Vuitton: A Brief History

Louis Vuitton: A Brief History







       Louis Vuitton was not always the indomitable global fashion house it it today. Behind the glamorous flagship stores, ready-to-wear collections and glossy ads lies a story of humble beginnings. A heritage brand established in 1854, the house traces its roots to the small town of Anchay, France where Louis Vuitton was born to parents Xavier and Coronne, a farmer and Milliner respectively. At the age of 16, the young Vuitton set off to apprentice under master malletier Monsieur Maréchal. As an apprentice, Vuitton learned the craft of the trunk maker; joining aged poplar wood, applying canvas and leather, affixing lozine and brass hardware, fabricating trunks to exacting client specifications. The young Vuitton would go on to hone his craft over the next 17 years before embarking on his own journey.


     Louis Vuitton established his first eponymous store in 1854 at 4 Rue Neuve-des-Capucines in Paris (since renamed to Rue des Capucines). Vuitton advertised his skills with a simple banner that read: “Securely packs the most fragile objects. Specializing in packing fashions.” Trunks of the time were most commonly composed of wood and clad in pigskin with a domed lid. 1858, Vuitton introduced the flat-topped Trianon trunk, a departure from the domed trunks which were prevalent at the time. Clad in grey, waterproof canvas with iron reinforcement, beechwood slats, and black trim as standard, the trunk was technologically superior and aesthetically revolutionary. Although not the first to develop the flat trunk, the Trianon was well received, owing its popularity to its durability and ability to be stacked. Over the coming years, the Maison’s trunks began to gain in popularity. With this popularity came imitation. Vuitton countered this imitation by introducing the “Rayée” (striped) canvas of red and beige to replace the former simpler grey Trianon canvas, paving the way for many iconic canvas designs to come. With the Rayée trunks came a more luxurious padded and compartmentalized interior and leather trim. The luxury trunk was born.


     The Trianon trunk proved to be the seed of the House, commanding orders from across the globe, providing the malletier the impetus to expand. The expansion of steam travel during the mid-nineteenth century accelerated demand for luggage. His workshops, having already expanded across the street, still struggled to meet demand. Contemporaneous with the explosive growth of his business was the birth of his son Georges. In 1859, Vuitton moved his workshops to Asnières, a village just north of Paris, across the Seine. A strategic location, Louis purchased a plot of 48,5001 square feet to develop his new workshop with easy access to raw materials via the River and access to the City via road. It was also at this location that Vuitton established his family residence. Vuitton received a bronze medal for his innovation at the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Despite the disruption of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 which ravaged the area and workshops, the family business proved resilient—rebuilding immediately and moving the storefront to 1 Rue Scribe1. In 1875, Louis Vuitton debuted his first wardrobe trunk, a vertical, two-part trunk equipped with drawers, compartments and hangers, intended to carry and organize one’s entire wardrobe.



     Over the remainder of the 19th century, The workshop at Asnières expanded dramatically, growing from twenty to one hundred employees. During this time, the family lived and worked in Asnières, overseeing the growth of the company. Louis Vuitton died in 1892, leaving Georges to carry on the legacy of the House.





     Managing the Rue Scribe store since 1878, Georges was well-equipped to manage as the heir of the House. English travel goods dominated the market in the late 19th century. In order to gain market share, Georges opened a London location in 1885 at 289 Oxford Street. Georges split his time among the Asnières, Rue Scribe and Oxford Street locations, overseeing the operations of the business. Disappointed with poor sales in London, Georges relocated twice, finally opening shop at 149 New Bond Street, the luxury shopping hub of the city. The House maintains a location on the street to this day.


     With the continued growth of the House came the ceaseless imitations of counterfeiters. In an effort to defeat the imitators, Louis Vuitton introduced the Damier canvas in 1888. The checkered canvas of dark and light brown was the first to bear “L. VUITTON MARQUE DEPOSÉE” (L. Vuitton registered trademark) on the canvas. This first Damier canvas is very much akin to the Damier Ebène canvas of today.




     The innovation of his father Louis was also present in his son. In 1890, the tumbler lock was developed to thwart thieves attempting to rob the now recognizable trunks of their contents. The patented system (which is still in use today) consists of a distinctive brass latched closure secured by a key unique to the piece.




     Unable to deter counterfeiters with the Damier canvas, Georges created the now famous Monogram pattern. The design consists of four individual motifs — The initials of the company “LV”, and three quatrefoil icons. One concave-sided diamond with a four-petal flower at its centre, one positive image of the aforementioned flower, and a circle containing a four-lobed flower in the negative. Each quatrefoil contains a small circle in the centre. This distinctive pattern was trademarked by the House to be used on any substrate in any colour. The Monogram canvas was first woven rather than printed, a similar process to the recent “Mini Lin” Monogram collection.





     The rise of steam travel brought demand not only for trunks, but also soft travel luggage. Most notably, the Steamer bag was created circa 1900 to meet the demands of steam ship travellers. The spacious, soft sided bag could be folded and placed into a wardrobe trunk or be hung on the wall of a ship.




     During the genesis of personal automobiles at the turn of the 19th century, Georges developed luggage specifically designed for personal motor travel — prototypes of the auto trunk and driver’s bag were created to serve the changing market.


     In 1914, Georges opened the largest store for travel articles in the world at 70 Champs Élysées—The Vuitton Building. The daring expansion was conducted to meet the strong and growing international demand. It was at this location that Louis Vuitton began the tradition of dazzling window displays.



     Georges Vuitton died in 1936 in Asnières, survived only by one of his five children — Gaston-Louis Vuitton. He was an aesthete, businessman and financier able to build upon the work of his forefathers. Gaston focused his efforts to expand the business internationally. He, in collaboration with artists and designers created a range of goods in the prevailing Art Deco style of the time. Atypical of the House’s normal output, Gaston created objects for the home, perfumes, bags and purses, greatly widening the array of products Vuitton offered. The Roaring Twenties drove Gaston to experiment heavily with soft bags, fashion items and perfume. This experimentation resulted in several iconic creations including the Keepall bag. The canvas bag with leather trim and straps was the ideal luggage item for the automobile traveller’s weekend adventures. A flag bearing his tricoloured Gaston-Louis Vuitton insignia still flies at the Champs Élysées location today.


     The early 20th century was a time of great expansion for the House, leveraging connections with American businessmen to expand into the North American market. In the decade between 1919 and 1929, stores were opened in Los Angeles, Toronto, Detroit, Rochester, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Among early adopters of the brand were the Fords, Kennedys, Chaplin and Hemingway.


     No stranger to adversity, the House weathered the economic turmoil of the 1930s. By the end of this period, an even greater storm was brewing much closer to home. The outbreak of the Second World War disrupted the business. Demand faltered. Supply chains broke down. The workshops were unable to supply the stores. The period of hardship would last the duration of the War.


     1946 marked the rebound for luxury goods sales. Supplies of materials returned to normal and operations resumed. Gaston employed his three sons to kick-start the revival — placing Henry-Louis in charge of sales and the Paris store, Claude-Louis in charge of manufacturing in Asnières, and Jacques-Louis as head of administration and finance.




     To mark the hundredth anniversary of the House in 1954, the flagship location was moved from the now unfitting Champs Élysées location to a more subdued private mansion at 78 bis Avenue Marceau in the eighth arrondissement. The now bustling “Champs” location was crowded by entertainment and restaurants.


     The sixties brought a technological revolution that would forever transform the products of the House. Up until this point, Monogram canvas, sealed in pegamoid, was reserved for use on hard-sided luggage. Much akin to an oil painting, the canvas was stiff and brittle, not lending itself well to the manufacturing of soft articles. Louis Vuitton had only been able to use a blank cotton canvas to create these bags until the invention of PVC. This material could be coated on canvas and printed with the Monogram motif — producing a supple, durable and replicable fabric with nearly infinite applications in luxury goods. Never ceasing to innovate and adapt to the wants and needs of clientele, Louis Vuitton began to produce bags in the new coated canvas material. This was the genesis of the classic Speedy, Keepall, Noé and Steamer bags in production to this day.



     Following the death of Gaston-Louis Vuitton in 1970, the House was challenged with a period of stagnation. Hard-sided luggage became less popular. The family operated only two exclusive locations; Paris and Nice. The sons of Gaston took it upon themselves to reinvent the House once more. Executive roles were delegated, and international growth via subsidiaries was prioritized. Before the end of the 1980s, two stores had grown to 125 and revenue had increased 54-fold. The House went on to diversify its holdings, acquiring Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin, Givenchy, and Loewe, expanding its portfolio to include ready-to-wear, Champagne, perfume and cosmetics. In 1984, the company was publicly listed on the Bourse in Paris and the New York Stock Exchange. Three years later, the company merged with Moët Hennessey to form LVMH. In the span of twenty years, Louis Vuitton transitioned to generating the vast majority of sales outside of France. The brand had now become a global icon.



     The complex transition to global conglomerate was not taken lightly by the head of LVMH Bernard Arnault. The challenge was to rejuvenate the product line to meet the changing times without compromising the standards and values of the House. The Epi leather line was introduced in 1985, Taiga leather in 1993. Just over a century after its creation, the Damier canvas was reintroduced as Damier Ebène in 1996. The following year marked Louis Vuitton’s entrance into fashion, with a Marc Jacobs designed ready-to-wear collection of 1998. During the same year, Monogram Vernis, a patent leather, was first introduced.



     The pivotal year of 1998 catapulted the House to the forefront of luxury goods. The coming years would bring collaborative relationships with the likes of Takashi Murakami, Yahoo Kusama, Stephen Sprouse, Kanye West, Kim Jones, Nicolas Ghesquière, Supreme, and Nigo.




     Louis Vuitton now stands at the cusp of its next evolution — a shift towards the younger, online, streetwear culture. The stewardship of the House lies in the hands of its current Creative Director Virgil Abloh and Chief Executive Bernard Arnault.




Pasols Paul-Gérard. Louis Vuitton: the Birth of Modern Luxury. Harry N. Abrams, 2005.


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