With Fine Craftsmanship and Steep Prices, Louis Vuitton's Leather Goods Are De Rigueur for the Status Conscious
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Warning: If you should buy a fake Vuitton on your travels, don't take it with you to France. The company, in concert with other French makers of luxury goods, has successfully lobbied the French parliament to make the import of even one counterfeit article a criminal offense. No tourist has been jailed yet, but one importer caught with 10 bogus Vuitton products is doing time in a Gallic cell.
Vuitton employs agents who comb the world looking for counterfeiters' factories and export operations, and then report these sites to local authorities. "Almost every month, we get a government somewhere in the world to destroy canvas, or finished products," says Carcelle. Late last year, Vuitton scored a coup in the United States: it helped the U.S. Customs Service seize 100,000 Vuitton fakes that were being imported from South Korea.
Maintaining Louis Vuitton's special cachet in the years ahead will take considerable marketing flair. During the 1989 takeover battle for Vuitton, Racamier was convinced that Arnault of LVMH would end up destroying the brand by milking the new-product possibilities too quickly, thereby watering down the posh image.
Thus far that hasn't happened. Carcelle and his colleagues have cooked up new lines at a sedate pace. Three years ago, Vuitton introduced its Taiga collection, the company's first full line for men. Briefcases, suitcases and desk accessories are made of forest-green cowhide embossed with a cross-hatch design. Vuitton's stores are slowly adding scarves and other accessories. Toward the end of the year, they'll start selling pens. However, "we're in no hurry," says Carcelle.
Carcelle is wary of broadening the product line too much. Clothes, for example, have been ruled out. He sees specialization as a way to preserve cachet. "Our competitors are trying to do everything," he says. "Leather companies are doing fashion, and vice versa." He believes that causes confusion in customers' minds.
Yet Vuitton executives see plenty of potential left in their original luggage business. Visit the company museum in Asnières, and you'll see a stunning set of polished aluminum suitcases that Vuitton designed last year for a futuristic "concept car" built by France's Renault. Production would be expensive, even by Vuitton standards, so there are no plans to market it yet. But the design is so fetching that it would clearly sell. Museum guides say visitors besiege them with offers to buy the cases.
A ball gown of Empress Eugenie's would barely fit in these aluminum masterpieces. Yet the heirs of Louis Vuitton are designing their travel goods for the times, just like their founder. A century from now, the old monogram design may have finally graced its last attaché case. But there seems a strong chance that this famous brand will still be around, selling style and prestige--at lofty prices--to status-conscious consumers.
Stewart Toy is the Paris bureau chief for Business Week.
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