Incorporated: 1854 as Louis Vuitton SA
Sales: FF 7.2 billion
Stock Exchanges: Paris
SICs: SIC 5099 Durable Goods, NEC; SIC 3161 Luggage; SIC 2396 Automotive Trimmings, Apparel Findings, and Related Products; SIC 3429 Hardware, NEC; SIC 2211 Broadwove Fabric Mills, Cotton
Louis Vuitton has been the supplier of luggage to the wealthy and powerful for well over 100 years and is known for combining quality fabrication with innovative designs to reflect the needs of customers and the ever-changing modes of world travel. In 1987, the company became part of Moet-Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH), the world’s largest luxury goods conglomerate.
Louis Vuitton left Anchay, his birthplace in the Jura, for Paris in 1835 at age fourteen. After one year of traveling on foot, he reached the capital and soon became an apprentice packer and trunkmaker. The son of a carpenter, Vuitton mastered the skill of woodworking and designing trunks and, within ten years, had become an expert. During his apprenticeship, Vuitton gained experience in packing by traveling to the homes of wealthy women, where he was employed to pack their clothes before they embarked on long voyages. With his master, Monsieur Marechal, Vuitton went regularly to the Tuileries Palace, as the exclusive packers to the Empress Eugenie and her ladies-in-waiting.
In 1854, Vuitton opened his own business at 4 rue Neuve des Capucines, very close to the couture houses around Place Vendome. Due to his familiarity with wood, silk, and satin, he became well respected by the couturiers, who hired him to pack their creations. His invention of flat-topped trunks, which were more easily stacked for travel than the traditional domed trunks, established his reputation as a master luggage-maker. Vuitton began covering his trunks in grey Trianon canvas, which was both elegant and waterproof when varnished.
As the business grew increasingly successful, Vuitton built workshops outside Paris in Asnieres, where transportation of wood from the south was convenient. When his original store became too small, business was transferred to 1 Rue Scribe, and Vuitton began focusing on trunk-making rather than packing. Vuitton became the supplier of luggage to many of the most famous people of the era, from King Alfonso XII of Spain to the future Czar Nicholas II of Russia. He created special trunks for Ismail Pacha, the viceroy of Egypt, for the inauguration of the Suez Canal as well as a trunk-bed for Savorgnan de Brazza, who discovered the source of the Congo in 1876. The quality of the materials, the arrangement of interiors, and the finishings made Vuitton’s deluxe trunks far superior to anything that had previously been produced.
In an attempt to discourage copying of the Trianon grey canvas in 1876, Vuitton introduced new designs featuring red and beige stripes and brown and beige stripes to cover his trunks. By 1888, these striped canvases were imitated, and a patented checkered material was implemented. A large part of the company’s success was its ability to respond to the changing modes of travel which emerged at an astonishing rate in the second half of the nineteenth century. Vuitton designed classic wardrobe trunks for sleeping cars and lighter versions of the suitcase traditionally used by the English aristocracy. His son Georges played an important role in the managing of the business, opening the first Vuitton branch abroad in London in 1885.
In 1890, Georges invented the theft-proof five tumbler lock, which provided each customer with a personal combination to secure all his luggage. Two years later, the company’s first catalog presented a wide range of products, from very specialized trunks for transporting particular objects to simple bags with the typical traveler in mind. Four years after the death of Louis Vuitton in 1892, Georges introduced a new canvas design in another attempt to thwart counterfeiters. In memory of his father, Georges’ new design featured Louis Vuitton’s initials against a background of stars and flowers; it was patented and became an immediate success.
Travelling to America for the Chicago Exposition of 1893, Georges became convinced of the importance of a sales network abroad. By the end of the century, John Wanamaker began representing Louis Vuitton in New York and Philadelphia, and the London store was transferred to New Bond Street, in the heart of London’s luxury commerce. The company also expanded its distribution to Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Nice, Bangkok, and Montreal in the early twentieth century.
Georges also foresaw the importance of the automobile as a form of transport and began designing automobile trunks, which imitated the lines of the car, to protect travelers’ effects from rain and dust. Contending that one should be able to take in a car what one could take on a boat or train, he created iceboxes, canteens, and light and flexible steamer bags. Other efforts to adapt to the changes in the travel industry included the manufacture of airplane and hot air balloon trunks and cases for spare tires. In 1914, the company erected a new building on the Champs-Elysees as the center for its growing network of distribution; this store became the world’s largest retailer of travel goods.
During World War I, production was modified to the needs of the war effort, as simple and solid military trunks replaced delicate and luxurious models. Part of the factory in Asnieres produced folding stretchers which were loaded directly into ambulances leaving for the front. With the 1918 German offensive 60 kilometers from Paris, Georges had difficulty supplying his factory with materials and assuring the safety of his workers. After the war, the Vuittons struggled to supply their stores with what remained of the factory. Although the company supplied Prince Youssoupov with a jewel case to transport precious stones to America before the Bolshevik revolution, such personal orders were less common after the war, and the factory devoted more time to producing showcases for traveling salesmen.
As economic times improved, and Louis Vuitton regained its stylish clientele, special orders increased. The workshop at Asnieres worked to produce orders for Coco Chanel, the Aga Khan, Mary Pickford, the Vanderbilts, and the president of the French Republic, among others. Charles Lindbergh ordered two suitcases from Vuitton for his return trip to America after his famous flight to France. During this time, the company provided some packing services for foreigners who came to buy garments from the Paris couture collections. In the early 1930s, exoticism was in vogue, and Vuitton used tortoise shell, lizard skin, ebony, and unusual woods in its fabrications.
As economic conditions deteriorated worldwide, however, the Vuittons realized the necessity of increasing the company’s profitability. Georges’s son, Gaston, worked with his father to increase efficiency. An advertising agency was set up and a design office was created to make detailed sketches of products to show customers before fabrication. By the time Georges Vuitton died in 1936, special orders had dramatically declined, and the company’s sales depended more than ever upon its catalog offerings, which were expanded to include trunks for typewriters, radios, books, rifles, and wine bottles.
During World War II, when delivery of Vuitton products was curtailed, overseas contracts were terminated, and the Vuitton factory and stores closed. The post-war period involved resup-plying the stores, rebuilding business to pre-war levels, and restructuring operations. Three of Gaston’s sons played important roles, Henry in commercial management, Jacques in financial administration, and Claude in factory management. The first important post-war order at the company was for the President of the Republic, Vincent Auriol, who made an official visit to the United States.
In 1954, the company’s 100th anniversary, Louis Vuitton moved from the Champs-Elysees to Avenue Marceau. As travel times were cut with the development of trains, cars, and airplanes, the company created and improved its soft-sided luggage. In 1959, Gaston perfected a system of coating his motif canvases, making them more durable, waterproof, and suitable for shorter journeys. These lightweight, practical bags signified a new standard in luggage. Gaston invited well known artists to take part in the design of accessories. From 1959 to 1965, an average of 25 new models of Vuitton luggage were created each year.
With the company’s success and reputation for luxury came a vast wave of counterfeit Louis Vuitton products. One year before his death in 1970, Gaston Vuitton decided to take action against the counterfeiters by opening a store in Tokyo; by offering the real Vuitton product in the Asian market, he hoped to better inform customers and discourage the purchase and manufacture of imitations. The company also undertook a successful advertising campaign to battle the increase in counterfeiting.
Henry Racamier, the husband of Gaston Vuitton’s daughter Odile, took over management of the company in 1977. Racamier had founded Stinox, a steel manufacturing business, after the Second World War and had sold it at a huge profit before coming to Louis Vuitton. Under Racamier, the company’s sales soared from $20 million in 1977 to nearly $1 billion in 1987. Racamier recognized that the major profits were in retail and that to succeed on an international level, Louis Vuitton had to expand its presence in stores and distributors in France. As a result, Louis Vuitton stores were opened all over the world between 1977 and 1987, and Asia became the company’s principal export market. Moreover, product diversification ensued, and in 1984, at the urging of financial director Joseph Lafont, the company sold stock to the public through exchanges in Paris and New York.
The 1980s were profitable years for Louis Vuitton, as the Vuitton name was prodigiously promoted. In 1983, Louis Vuitton became the sponsor of the America’s Cup preliminaries. Three years later, the company created the Louis Vuitton Foundation for opera and music. Also in 1986, the central Paris store moved from avenue Marceau to the posh avenue Montaigne. Production at the factory at Asnieres incorporated the use of lasers and other modern technology during this time, and a distribution center was opened at Cergy-Pontoise, north of Paris. The company allocated two percent of annual sales revenue to the unending battle against counterfeiters.
Under Racamier, Louis Vuitton began to acquire companies with a reputation for high quality, purchasing interests in the couturier Givenchy and the champagne house Veuve Cliquot. Louis Vuitton’s takeover philosophy was personal, courteous, and discreet, rather than systematically aggressive. In June 1987, Racamier signed a $4 billion merger of Louis Vuitton with Moet-Hennessy, a conglomerate with interests in the production of champagne, cognac, wine, and perfume. The merger allowed Louis Vuitton to expand its investments in the luxury business, while saving Moet-Hennessy from the threat of takeover. Moreover, the merger respected the autonomy of each company over its own management and subsidiaries.
As Moet-Hennessy was three times the size of Louis Vuitton, its president, Alain Chevalier, was named chairperson of the new holding company, Moet-Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH), and Racamier became executive vice-president. Massive disagreements and feuding followed, however, as management at Louis Vuitton believed that Moet-Hennessy was trying to absorb its operations. The 60 percent ownership that Racamier and the Vuitton family had held in Louis Vuitton became a mere 17 percent share of LVMH.
After several disputes and legal battles between Racamier and Chevalier over the running of the conglomerate, Racamier invited the young property developer and financial engineer Bernard Arnault to acquire stock in the company. Hoping to consolidate his position within LVMH with the help of Arnault, Racamier soon saw, however, that Arnault had ambitions of his own. With the help of the French investment bank Lazard Freres and the British liquor giant Guinness PLC, Arnault secured a 45 percent controlling interest of LVMH stock for himself.
An 18-month legal battle ensued between Racamier and Arnault, after Chevalier had stepped down. Despite Louis Vuitton’s strong performance, accounting for 32 percent of LVMH sales, Racamier could not hold onto his stake in LVMH against Arnault, who had the support of the Moet and Hennessy families. The courts eventually favored Arnault, and Racamier stepped down to create another luxury goods conglomerate, Orcofi, with the backing of French investors such as Paribas and L’Oreal. Arnault weeded out Vuitton’s top executives and began to bring together his fragmented luxury empire.
Guinness had originally been brought into LVMH by Alain Chevalier, who had hoped to find an ally in his feuding with Racamier, in a deal to exchange one-fifth of the two companies’ equity capital. Guinness then united with Arnault to control LVMH. In 1990, when Racamier left, Arnault increased his interest in Guinness from 12 to 24 percent, fueling rumors that Guinness would be his next target. Takeover speculation was also encouraged by the fact that Guinness directors had little power in LVMH, while Arnault had by far the largest shareholder vote in Guinness. However, Arnault’s percentage in Guinness was proportionately equal to the 24 percent Guinness controlled of LVMH. In the early 1990s, Arnault controlled the world’s largest luxury empire, with about $5 billion in worldwide sales. His holdings were structured as a pyramid of interconnected companies with control of LVMH central to his power, as it had a market capitalization of $10 billion in 1990.
The ubiquity of the Louis Vuitton monogram in the mid-1980s had damaged its reputation as a status symbol, and both profits and sales declined in the early 1990s. However, demand for luxury goods was expected to rise again, especially in Japan, Korea, and Chiana, where buying power was growing rapidly. However, the American market, which accounted for 17 percent of LVMH sales, was not expected to remain strong as an upheaval in upscale retail outlets was hurting sales. Arnault planned to create data processing and advertising sharing among his luxury retailers, including Louis Vuitton, Dior, Givenchy, Lacroix, and Loewe.
In the early 1990s, Yves Carcelle, a former textile executive, became president of Louis Vuitton and broadened the range of products distributed to the company’s 150 stores in an attempt to increase sales. Rampant counterfeiting, a difficult world economy, and its own flagging image were Louis Vuitton’s nemeses in the early 1990s. The company’s success in the twenty-first century seemed to depend on its ability to exploit the enormous capital of its holding company and the dynamism of Bernard Arnault, while maintaining the high quality of construction and materials which had established the company’s reputation in the past.
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In 1854 a humble Frenchman named Louis Vuitton (1821-1892) founded his own luggage-making company in Paris, specializing in trunks. Due to Vuitton's eye for detail, exquisite craftsmanship and innovative designs, his luggage became a favorite among European aristocrats. More than 150 years later, the company remains a leading producer of luxury leather goods and ready-to-wear fashions and accessories. Louis Vuitton handbags, with the famed beige-on-chestnut LV monogram, remain a staple among the status-conscious crowd the world over.
Start as Luggage Packer
The son of a poor carpenter, Vuitton was born in 1821 in Anchay, France. At the age of 14, Vuitton, unable to find employment in the provinces, left home and walked more than 275 miles to Paris. Along the way, he picked up odd jobs to finance the trip, working as a stable hand and as a kitchen helper. By 1837 Vuitton had settled in Paris, becoming an apprentice to a Parisian trunkmaker named Maréchal.
Besides building trunks, Vuitton worked as a layetier, or luggage packer. During this time, when the wealthy traveled on extensive trips, it was common for them to hire an expert to pack their suits and dresses so they would not wrinkle. Vuitton became a well-respected layetier among Paris's upper echelons. By 1853, Vuitton was the personal packer for Empress Eugénie, wife of French Emperor Napoleon III. Besides packing clothes for the empress, Vuitton also created personal luggage for her.
Invented the Modern, Flat-Topped Trunk
Vuitton liked creating custom luggage, and in 1854 he opened his own workshop in downtown Paris. It did not take long for Vuitton to establish himself as an innovative designer of sturdily built luggage. As stagecoach travel gave way to railways and ocean liners, Vuitton modernized the trunk. In the days of stagecoach travel, trunks were toted on top of the coaches and made with domed lids so the water would slide off during rainstorms. To endure the rugged ride and elements, they were made with iron frames and covered with hog skin.
With the advent of railway and ocean liner travel, luggage needs changed and Vuitton was the first to respond. The luggage needed to be durable, yet space-saving, since most travelers would keep it with them. Vuitton hit upon the idea of making flat-topped, stackable trunks, allowing travelers to take more luggage with them. Vuitton built his flatlidded trunks using a wood frame, which he covered with a canvas he called “Trianon Grey.” The trunks were durable, reinforced with strips of wood and brass rivets. They were also waterproof, which impressed clients who were traveling by ocean liner.
An astute businessman, Vuitton coaxed a steamship builder into giving him the designs for the cargo holds. Vuitton then built trunks to fit. He also made sure his trunks would fit under the beds of ocean liner cabins to give travelers more space. For select travelers, he created trunks with interior drawers and hanging space. With an extensive base of clients from his luggage-packing days, Vuitton had a ready market for his new, innovative trunks.
By 1859 sales were steady, and Vuitton decided to move his workshop out of the city and into the countryside north of Paris, near the Seine River. Being close to the river allowed wood for the trunks to be delivered with ease—by water. The Louis Vuitton workshop remains at this site today. In time, Vuitton relocated his family to the area, building an eye-catching mansion with stained-glass windows next to the factory in Asnières-sur-Seine. His family moved into the home in 1878.
Gained Worldwide Fame for Custom Creations
Vuitton first gained international notoriety for his designs in 1869, when the Empress Eugénie took some Vuitton luggage to Egypt for the inauguration of the Suez Canal, which opened a direct water route between Europe and Asia. The pasha—or leader—of Egypt liked the handcrafted luggage and ordered some for himself.
In time, Vuitton discovered a niche in creating custommade trunks for specialized purposes. French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza ordered a specialized “trunkbed” for an 1876 trip to the Congo during which he hoped to discover opportunities for commerce. When the trunk— covered with zinc and lined with lead to make it waterproof—opened, out popped a cot on legs, complete with a horse-hair mattress.
Vuitton's luggage became so popular that other trunkmakers began copying the Vuitton styles and designs. To combat counterfeiting, in 1876 Vuitton replaced the “Trianon Grey” canvas with a more distinguishing beige and brownstriped design. In time, that pattern was copied, too, so in 1888 Vuitton unveiled a new checkerboard canvas with the words “Marque deposée Louis Vuitton” appearing in the material.
As the Louis Vuitton name became more popular, the company extended its reach with more stores. Its first London store opened in 1885. By 1898 the company had opened an outlet inside a John Wanamaker department store, making it one of the first European companies to hit the United States.
Continued Innovative Designs
Vuitton's son, Georges, proved instrumental in helping the company stay ahead of the competition. In 1890 he invented a special lock with five pick-proof tumblers. When Vuitton died in 1892, Georges took over and in 1896 created the now-famous monogram canvas in an effort to combat counterfeiting. Georges Vuitton took his father's initials and incorporated them in a design with abstract geometric flowers to create what remains today one of the most distinctive—and prestigious—luggage patterns ever invented. It is also one of the most copied.
After Vuitton's death, the company continued to prosper by following its founder's vision of offering custommade, distinct trunks to fit the demands of the day. Vuitton's descendants created another hallmark design in 1926 when they made a special tea trunk for a maharaja of India for use on tiger-hunting expeditions. This moderate-sized leather trunk contained specialized inner compartments to store tea boxes and cakes, a silver tea pot, china tea cups and a silver water jug. A work of art, the case was featured in Vogue.
Over the next few decades, Vuitton snapped up a client base that included 1920s American silent movie star Douglas Fairbanks; Japanese Emperor Hirohito, who reigned during World War II; legendary French fashion designer Coco Chanel; and aviator Charles Lindbergh. In the 1960s, the popular English supermodel Twiggy posed with the round-bodied, monogrammed “Papillon” handbag, sending sales surging.
Company Enjoyed Global Success
Although 150 years have passed since Vuitton opened his shop, the company has remained true to its roots. As of 2007, Patrick-Louis Vuitton, a fifth-generation Vuitton, continued to supervise production of special order pieces. Patrick-Louis Vuitton oversees a department of 185 craftsmiths who churn out about 450 unique special order pieces a year. Many things are still done the way Louis Vuitton did them in the 1850s. Specialized pieces are constructed by one crafter from start to finish. The leather handles are stitched by hand and the brass studs are also nailed by hand.
Special requests to meet the demands of twenty-first century travelers keep the workshop busy. One of the company's more recent custom designs was made for a client who wanted a traveling entertainment center—with solar panels—so the client could play DVDs anytime, anywhere. Speaking to Harper's Bazaar writer Jamie Huckbody, Jade Hantouche, head of the Louis Vuitton special orders department, described how the designs must adhere to the founder's original vision. “Today, people know exactly what they want and how it should look,” Hantouche said. “But at the same time we have to make sure that the piece is Louis Vuitton. Our rule is that if it is not for travelling then it is not a Louis Vuitton product. Another rule is that if two men cannot carry it then it is also not appropriate.”
In 1987 Louis Vuitton merged with Moët-Hennessy, a French maker of fine wines, spirits and perfume, to create a new luxury goods conglomerate called LVMH MoëtHennessy Louis Vuitton. In 2004, as Louis Vuitton celebrated 150 years, it opened its 318th boutique, this one on New York's famed Fifth Avenue, bringing the number of U.S. outlets to 85. From Argentina to China to Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, Louis Vuitton stores dot the globe. In 2007, LVMH reported a net income of $2.9 billion, buoyed by sales of goods bearing the Vuitton label. It all happened because Louis Vuitton decided to build a better trunk.
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French luxury retailer and part of LVMH
Founded: by Louis Vuitton (1811-92) in Paris, 1854. Company History: Vuitton was apprenticed to several luggage makers; began designing flat luggage for use on new railways, diverging from traditional iron hooped trunks used on horse-drawn coaches; LV monogram introduced, 1896; opened stores in England, then in the U.S., 1897-1900; Henry Racamier became director, 1977; merged with Moët-Hennessey to become LVMH, 1987; LVMH bought Givenchy, 1988; Bernard Arnault acquired firm and became chairman, 1989; Recamier departed and started Orcofi SA, 1990; acquired many design houses and brands, from 1993; Marc Jacobs signed as artistic director, 1997; ready-to-wear line launched, 1997; introduced menswear, and opened megastores in New York, Paris, and London, 1998; opened second Hong Kong flagship, 2000. Company Address: 2 Rue du Pont Neuf, Paris 75001, France. Company Website: www.vuitton.com; www.lvmh.com.
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The French firm of Louis Vuitton, making prestigious luggage and leather accessories since the middle of the 19th century, has been much overshadowed by its merger with Moët-Hennessey to become Moët-Hennessey Louis Vuitton (LVMH). Yet long before the merging of like-minded luxury companies, Louis Vuitton had established itself as an enduring purveyor of quality goods for the most discerning clientéle.
Young Louis Vuitton first came to Paris in 1837, in the year in which stage and mail coach travel was to be transformed by the opening of the first railway line in France, from Paris to St. Germain, to passenger traffic. Vuitton became an apprentice layetier, or luggage packer, to the prominent households of Paris at a time when journeys could take many months and require endless changes of wardrobe. He established such a reputation in this work that he was appointed by the Emperor of France, Napoleon III, as official layetier to his wife, the Empress Eugenie.
Vuitton acquired expert knowledge of what made a good traveling case and started to design luggage, opening his workshops to the general public in 1854 to provide luggage suitable for a new age of travel. Vuitton designed the first flat trunks that could be easily stacked in railway carriages and in the holds of ocean liners. Made of wood and covered in a new distinctive canvas called "Trianon Grey," this particular traveling trunk superseded the dome-shaped, cumbersome trunks originally designed for the stage coach.
So successful and prestigious was this luggage that other trunk makers began to copy Vuitton's style and designs, a problem the firm bearing his name was still dealing with over a century later. In 1876 Vuitton responded to the imitators by changing the Trianon Grey canvas to a striped design in beige and brown. The problem, however, persisted and in 1888, Vuitton adopted another canvas—a checkerboard pattern with the words "Marque deposée Louis Vuitton" interwoven through the material.
When George Vuitton took over the family firm on his father's death in 1892, imitation of company products was still a major problem, and four years later he designed and took out worldwide patents on the now legendary Louis Vuitton canvas featuring his father's initials against background motifs of stars and flowers. This innovative design had the effect of stopping all imitations until the 1960s, when counterfeiting became a serious problem once again. The firm launched an offensive, employing a team of lawyers and special investigation agencies to actively pursue offenders through law courts all over the world, which continues to this day.
Methods of manufacture have changed little since the 19th century. Suitcases are still made by hand; the craftsmen line up the leather and canvas, tapping in the tiny nails one by one and securing the five-lever solid pick-proof brass locks with an individual handmade key, designed to allow the traveler to have only one key for all his or her luggage. The wooden frames of each trunk are made of 30-year-old poplar dried for at least four years. Each trunk has a serial number and can take up to 60 hours to make, and a suitcase as many as 15 hours.
Although the luggage collection has always offered extensive choice, Louis Vuitton has been creating special made-to-order hard-sided luggage since 1854. Congo explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza (1852-1905) commissioned a combined trunk and bed from the company, and in 1936 for American conductor Leopold Stokowski's travels, Gaston Vuitton designed a traveling secrétaire. When opened, the extraordinary design revealed two shelves for books, three drawers for documents and musical scores, and a vertical compartment to store a typewriter. The gate-legged table which completed the instant workstation folded into the door.
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Louis Vuitton logo, the founder's son George invited a who's who of designers to create items from its trademarked striped fabric. Azzedine Alaïa, Manolo Blahnik, Helmut Lang, Isaac Mizrahi, Romeo Gigli, Vivienne Westwood, and Sybilla all fashioned limited edition carry-alls, from small cases to large bags for sale at select Vuitton stores, as well as other items.
In the 21st century some 200 Louis Vuitton boutiques in the major cities of Europe, the U.S., and Far East supplied prestigious luggage, elegant apparel, and a wide range of accessories to its distinguished clientéle. As part of the LVMH empire, the Vuitton brand was nestled among an ever-expanding number of design houses including Christian Lacroix, Givenchy, Emilio Pucci, Kenzo, Fendi, Michael Kors, and Donna Karan.
Born in 1821 in Anchay, France, Louis Vuitton worked as an apprentice for the packing-case maker M. Maréchal, where he created personal luggage for Empress Eugénie before setting up his own business in 1854. Vuitton's career as a craftsman trunk maker quickly brought him an ever-expanding roster of clients, requiring him to move to workshops at Asnières, on the outskirts of Paris, in 1859. The workshops remain at the original site, and this is where all the luggage and accessories are still made. Annexed to the workshops is the family home, which is now a museum.
Vuitton's first innovation was to pioneer a gray, waterproof canvas (Trianon), which was stretched across the poplar wood structure of the trunk, eliminating the need for a dome-shaped lid, which had been essential for repelling rain from the trunk during transit atop a horse-drawn carriage. This innovation enabled porters to stack trunks one on top of the other, allowing travelers to take more luggage with them on trips.
Vuitton's success in the luxury luggage market was due to his willingness to modify and custom-build luggage that was adaptable to new forms of transportation. For example, cabin trunks for ocean liners were designed to fit under daybeds so as to maximize use of space. Yet what the luggage contained was never a secondary concern, but of equal value in the definition of first-class travel. To meet the needs of these elite travelers, Vuitton devised the wardrobe trunk with interior drawers and hanging space with the advice of the couturier Charles Frederick Worth.
As the company prospered, its products were widely imitated, forcing Vuitton to change the canvas design from a striped to a checkerboard (or Daumier) design. His son Georges created the famous monogram canvas in 1896. The design was intended primarily to combat commercial piracy, although its orientalist, decorative design also reflected the fashion for all things Japanese at the end of the nineteenth century. Beyond the initials that feature as a tribute to his father, Georges's design bears three abstracted flowers, based upon a Japanese mon or family crest that, not unlike a coat of arms, was traditionally used to identify items made for and owned by a particular family.
International stature was assured for the company by the opening of a London store in 1885, a French store opposite the Grand Hotel in 1871, and distribution in America through Wanamaker's department store in 1898. Design awards at the Exposition International d'Industrie et des Arts Decoratives of 1925 secured the company's reputation for grand luxe in the art deco style.
Later in the twentieth century, handbags, wallets, and other small leather goods became increasingly important parts of the company's product line, as luxe travel with numerous trunks and suitcases became largely a thing of the past. In 1997, the company hired the American fashion designer Marc Jacobs to design accessories and clothing. A commercial and critical success, the ready-to-wear collections have been central to the continued success of Louis Vuitton. Limited edition pieces produced in collaboration with other creative artists have resulted in some of the wittiest and shrewdest reworkings of brand identity. Fashion designer Stephen Sprouse (2001), British fashion illustrator Julie Verhoeven (2002), and Japanese artist Hideo Murakami (2003) have created some of the most popular designs.
The Stephen Sprouse collaboration was inspired by a visit Marc Jacobs made to Charlotte Gainsbourg's apartment, where he noticed a Louis Vuitton trunk that had once belonged to her father, the French singer Serge Gainsbourg. Gainsbourg had so disliked the status implied by the canvas design that he had tried to erase the symbols with black paint. Yet as the design is produced as a woven jacquard, he only made the design appear subtler, and in turn, more sophisticated. Sprouse was inspired to add graffiti over the monogram canvas in fluorescent colors as an ironic act of defilement. Yet the graffiti design only served to reinforce the status of the brand and its association with street credibility.
The consumption of luxury brands by American hiphop performers, termed bling-bling, created a new and younger market for Louis Vuitton. This new market was memorably represented by the performing artist Lil' Kim, who posed on the cover of the November 1999 issue of Interview magazine naked, her body painted with the Louis Vuitton monogram.
Because they are such desirable status symbols, Louis Vuitton products are subject to intense counterfeiting, which the company vigorously combats. Vuitton remains the most prestigious and easily recognized brand of luggage.
Forestier, Nadege, and Nazanine Ravai. The Taste of Luxury: Bernard Arnault and the Moët-Hennessy Louis Vuitton Story. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1993.