Around the world, few brands have established ultimate mastery in what they do in the way Louis Vuitton has. When it comes to luggage, the Louis Vuitton monogram stands for unsurpassed quality, unique pedigree and also cutting-edge design. LV is a brand that is both traditional and contemporary. How do they do it? Sidin Vadukut went to Asnieres, where it all began, to find out.
This looks nothing at all like the epicentre of the luxury luggage world. In fact, the corner of Asnieres where Louis Vuitton has its offices looks like one of any number of patrician neighbourhoods that ring major capital cities in western Europe. There are houses behind high walls with spotless, well greased gates that open only occasionally to let an Audi in or out. In fact, in sharp contrast to many of the brand’s iconic products, there is nothing obvious that says that this or that particular compound houses the original home and workshop of the Vuitton family.
For many minutes, I have no idea which gate-side buzzer to press till Claudia Labati arrives and escorts me to the gate of one of the larger compounds. Labati handles press relations for the company in the south Europe region and will be my guide for the afternoon. She swipes and buzzes both of us through a set of very large rolling gates into a delightful garden lined on one side by a large, stately home and on the other by a slightly more businesslike array of workshops. “Welcome to the Vuitton house,” Labati says.
Louis Vuitton, the entrepreneur and the company, moved into this location for the first time in 1859. This was just five years after Monsieur Vuitton established his eponymous brand on the Rue Neuve des Capucines in Paris’ 1st arrondissement. Today, much like Asnieres itself, the road is a quiet, narrow affair lined by old houses and unremarkable except, perhaps, for a Church of Scientology. But in 1854, this is where Louis Vuitton, after many years of making trunks and cases for French nobility, decided to establish his own workshop and warehouse. In that age, when travel was a long, ponderous process powered by ship, steam and horse, the trunk was the traveller’s essential piece of luggage. Monsieur Vuitton’s established credentials and royal patronage meant that business boomed.
And then it boomed again when, in 1858, the company launched its first flat-bottomed trunk made of trianon canvas. This was a revolution in luggage. Up till then, trunks were designed with domed tops. This let water drain off quickly. But it also meant that trunks could never be stacked one on top of the other. Vuitton’s designed solved both problems. The canvas kept the water out. And the flat tops and strong construction meant that trunks could now be stacked one on top of the other. With the company swamped with orders, Monsieur Vuitton soon ran out of space in his workshop in Paris.
The new workshop in the suburbs of Asnieres opened the next year with 20 workmen. It has remained the most important Louis Vuitton workshop ever since.
Labati escorts me first into the living room of the old Vuitton home. The room is a magnificent melange of architectural styles, luggage, furniture and knick knacks. Everything looks randomly, effortlessly arranged. But, of course, it is not. The Vuitton family no longer lives in this house and it now serves as a venue for corporate events and houses a small museum on the first floor. But it is taken care of by a fastidious housekeeper who, I am told, is not to be trifled with.
The house itself is unmistakably Art Nouveau. This, Labati tells me pointing at the heavy decoration on the walls, is the legacy of Georges Vuitton, Louis Vuitton’s son, who took over the business after his father’s death in 1892. Georges Vuitton is also responsible for the most iconic aspect of the brand, the Monogram canvas with the LV initials, stars, diamond points and flowers. Georges launched the canvas in 1896 as part of an ongoing struggle to thwart imitators.
Ironically, this Monogram, designed to deter copycats, would eventually become one of the most imitated trademarks in the history of branded goods.
After some tea, Labati takes me on a tour of the workshops next door. For 118 years, between 1859 and 1977, every single Louis Vuitton product in the world was made in this workshop. Today the company manufactures in several other locations. The Asnieres workshop, however, is reserved for the most exclusive products: hard-frame luggage; astonishing, often outlandish special orders; exotic leather bags, and limited-edition bags.
It all begins with the most exquisite raw materials. Labati shows me a storeroom full of the finest leather I have ever seen. Some of the sheets of material in bright colours seem almost too smooth and flawless to be organic.
What immediately strikes as you walk through the workshop is the sheer quantities of intricate manual work involved in crafting Louis Vuitton luggage. But then, making the world’s best luggage has always been a labour-intensive process. When the Asnieres workshop first opened in 1859, it had just 20 craftsmen. By 1914, it had 225. A century later, the workshop does use several state-of-the-art machines. For instance, precise CNC machines are used to cut fabrics and components. Other machines are used to project the outlines of parts onto leather sheets, crowding them together as much as possible so that craftsmen can keep wastage to a minimum while cutting the outlines. This is much like, say, how major watch manufacturing works today. While some machines are involved in the early stages of the manufacturing process, the assembly, fine-tuning and finishing are all done almost entirely by hand. For instance, just finishing the seams and edges on Louis Vuitton handles and straps take several stages, a number of substances and several artisans. And even then, they are subject to relentless quality checks.
Nothing is more intricate than the stitching of seams and the finishing of some of Louis Vuitton exclusive, and expensive, bags and trunks. Labati tells me that it takes years of apprenticeship and training before some of the craftsmen and women are even allowed to touch some of the more high-end products and special orders.
While Louis Vuitton’s ready-to-own and made-to-order collections are exceptional products, the company really shines when it comes to special orders. This is where all those years of experience and provenance and innovation comes to fruition. Louis Vuitton’s back catalogue of special orders is mind-bogglingly diverse. There are suitcases for bicycles, and many-chambered trunks to keep hats, medicines and even jewellery. And my favourite, a trunk that opens out into a thin mattress on a tubular framed bed.
The next morning, before I leave Paris, I drop in at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs located in the western wing of the Louvre complex in Paris’s 1st arrondissement. There is an ongoing exhibition at the Musée that looks at the life and works of both Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs, the current artistic director of the company. It is a dissonant yet harmonious experience. On the one hand, you have the man who transformed luggage and gave it the formal shapes that we recognize today. And, on the other hand, you have Marc Jacobs, a serial breaker of boundaries and norms.
Seeing the works of both these artists, the past and future of Louis Vuitton if you will, gives you a panoramic sense of what this brand is really about. And that sense is not one of millions of dollars worth of monogrammed products. But of a maison that continues to explore and experiment.
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