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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

(continued from page 1)

On top of the 194 stores Vuitton now operates, Carcelle plans to open 10 to 12 new shops a year for at least the next five years. He expects to enter a new country almost every month.

Such high global ambitions are a fairly recent phenomenon for this venerable French firm. Up until the late 1970s, Vuitton was a sleepy family-owned business, content to supply customized luggage and leather goods to a tiny, select clientele--just as it had done since the nineteenth century. As late as 1977, Vuitton's sales totaled $13 million. That's small change for a leather coin purse, compared to the $1.4 billion that the company's cash registers rang up last year. For the family, tradition counted more than size.

That tradition dates back to 1854, when founder Louis Vuitton opened his first store in Paris. Although this year's celebration is a centennial, it actually commemorates the birth in 1896 of the famed monogram design. The design was inspired by Japanese flower prints, reflecting that era's fascination with Japan. Perhaps this helps explain why consumers in Japan can't get enough of Vuitton's products. There, every schoolgirl's ambition is to own a Vuitton bag. The company now has 35 stores in Japan and will open another at the end of this year.

To mark the monogram's birth, Vuitton commissioned seven noted designers to produce a range of seven limited-edition products, which went on sale early this year. Another limited-edition collection is based on the predecessor design that directly preceded the monogram, a brown-and-tan checkerboard pattern. Ten items will hit stores on Sept. 1, including an update of an old steamer bag and a modern woman's backpack.

Vuitton's original business was travel software, not hardware. When European aristocrats of the nineteenth century traveled, they called in specialists to pack their suits and gowns--protecting them against wrinkles--in traditional domed trunks. In 1837, Louis Vuitton, a 16-year-old country lad who couldn't find work in the provinces, went to Paris and became an apprentice to a master packer. By age 30, Vuitton was the exclusive wrinkle-free dress packer for Empress Eugenie, the wife of French Emperor Napoleon III.

Then Vuitton had an epiphany. It was a pretty obvious one, in retrospect. Those old domed trunks were fine for horse-drawn carriages, but they weren't very practical for the new transportation world of trains and ships because you couldn't stack them. So Vuitton built the world's first flat-topped trunks. He got the founder of The French Line, whose steamships sailed between France and the United States, to give him new designs for cargo holds, and built trunks to fit.

Vuitton's newfangled trunks caught on quickly. The empress took some with her to Egypt when she attended the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. There, the Pasha of Egypt saw them, and ordered some for himself. Vuitton became established as the leading luggage maker to the aristocracy of the Western world. The business grew as ships, trains and, later, cars greatly expanded leisure travel.

Much of Vuitton's output was custom-made for picky customers, or for special uses. French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza had Vuitton whip him up a trunk that opened into a bed. Covered with zinc and lined with lead to make it waterproof, this weighty monster must have been pretty tough on native bearers. But it helped the explorer get a sound night's sleep as he grabbed territory in equatorial Africa for France in the 1870s.

Later, Vuitton's descendants produced custom-made luggage for such celebrities as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Charles Lindbergh, the Aga Khan and Ernest Hemingway. Douglas Fairbanks commissioned a brown leather suitcase with toiletries bottles hung inside. That led to a standard model in the Vuitton line that's still available.

Conductor Leopold Stokowski had Vuitton build an intriguing trunk that opens into a work station where the conductor studied musical scores while preparing for concerts on the road. It includes a writing desk that folds out of the lid, three drawers, and a compartment to store a typewriter. Then there was the Indian Majarajah who had Vuitton design a tea case for traveling. It included a silver container to carry water fit for making good tea, unlike the water he could find on the road. The leather used for this case is the precursor of Vuitton's Epi design, a rugged cowhide embossed with randomly spaced ridges.

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