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The Louis Vitton Story

With Fine Craftsmanship and Steep Prices, Louis Vuitton's Leather Goods Are De Rigueur for the Status Conscious
Stewart Toy
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

With his jacket slung over a chair beside the lush, sun-drenched garden, Yves Carcelle bobs through the crowd in his shirtsleeves, pumping hands and pecking cheeks. The exuberant, cherub-faced Frenchman spots a new arrival at his garden party, being held at the suburban Paris workshop of Louis Vuitton, of which he is president. "Ah, here's the most important man in the company," says Carcelle, beaming. He wraps a chummy arm around Kyo Hata, head of Vuitton's operations in Japan.

It's the 100th birthday party of Louis Vuitton--the hugely successful French luggage maker, whose pricey handbags and snooty suitcases have become a global icon of quality and good taste. As he works the garden-party crowd on a muggy summer day, Carcelle has strong reason to celebrate.

A few years ago, many marketing gurus figured Vuitton's phenomenal rise to the pinnacle of the luxury goods business would soon peter out. Conspicuous consumption--that child of the go-go 1980s--was giving way to the downscale understatement of the 1990s. Recession stalked Japan, whose status-seeking consumers account for half of Vuitton's worldwide sales. Worst of all, Vuitton's monogrammed canvas products had become so ubiquitous and so widely imitated--both legally and illegally--that the French brand's image seemed to be veering from cachet to cliché.

Such worries have proved wrong. The world's well-heeled shoppers continue to crave Vuitton's stylish goods. From Beijing to Wichita, Vuitton's nubby brown canvas printed with geometric flowers and the "LV" monogram may symbolize material success in the late twentieth century more than almost any other product design.

On a recent weekday, the company's main Paris store on swank Avenue Montaigne bustled with foreign tourists, nearly all of them Japanese. Miki Tsujimoto, a stewardess for Japan Air Lines, has bought a monogrammed canvas handbag as a gift for her mother. "Their products are very beautiful," she says, "and there are so many different things."

Indeed there are--and all of them with stiff price tags. A nice leather weekend-sized suitcase costs $3,800. A modest-sized steamer trunk is $7,100. The store's best-seller is the Noé handbag in monogrammed canvas, at a mere $490.

To keep customers coming back, Carcelle and his colleagues have managed a marketing tour de force. They have broadened Vuitton's cachet by gradually bringing out new product lines--principally Epi and Taiga leather goods. Even more important, they have spread this French symbol of luxury into virgin markets, by aggressively expanding their chain of elegant stores in exclusive locations. (A glossy new one in Paris, next door to the fabled Cafe les Deux Magots on the Left Bank, has outraged lovers of old-Paris charm.)

Ground was broken recently for the fanciest Vuitton outlet of them all: a U.S. flagship store in New York. A 23-story glass building, opening like a flower toward the top, will also house the U.S. headquarters of Vuitton's French parent company, LVMH. That company owns the world's biggest stable of luxury brands, including Christian Dior, Hennessy Cognac, and Moet & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot Champagnes.

The new Manhattan digs are on 57th Street between Fifth and Madison avenues. Vuitton already has a store on 57th, one block east, which will close when the new one opens late next year. Carcelle says his goal is to have the ultimate image-building location, and "we decided this was a better block," he says.

Yet Vuitton's real growth is in emerging markets, where the nouveaux riches are falling in love with conspicuous consumption. China already has two Vuitton stores--in Beijing and Shanghai--and a third will open this year in Canton. Sales in China are brisk: "People with money are eager to show it," says Carcelle. Indonesia and Colombia now have Vuitton shops. Carcelle is even negotiating to build a store in Hanoi, Vietnam--a stunning development only a generation after the Domino Theory and the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

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