Handbags and luggages

Louis Vuitton: from suitcases to high fashion | Culture | Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW

In 1835, a 14-year-old boy named Louis Vuitton left his village in the Jura Mountains in eastern France against his father’s wishes and set off for Paris — on foot. Hailing from a humble background, Vuitton took on odd jobs along the way before finally arriving in the French capital aged 16.

Born on August 4, 1821, little could this teen have imagined then that the journey would herald the start of a stellar career, and a global empire that endures two centuries later.

He first worked as an apprentice to the respected suitcase-maker Romain Marechal. Vuitton quickly proved his talent, was appreciated for his exceptional craftsmanship, and was even hired by the Empress Eugenie as her box-maker and suitcase-packer. In 1854, at the age of 33, he set up his own business: the brand “Louis Vuitton Malletier” was born.

From the start, he did not create unassuming standard goods, but luxury articles that kept to the spirit of the times. While still a suitcase packer at the court of Napoleon III, he had witnessed how dresses and hats were stowed in dome shaped, heavy boxes. Instead, Vuitton designed elegant, stackable suitcases in his own atelier.

A black and white picture of a man in a suit with a bushy moustache

The master craftsman of luggage would have been 200 today

Unique selling point: robust and stackable

It was not just a question of design.With the switch from horse-drawn carriages to trains and the growing desire to travel, people wanted functional luggage that didn’t take up too much space. And since travelers’ belongings weren’t exactly treated properly on the road, Vuitton, a skilled craftsman, created sturdy and airtight suitcases — a unique selling point at the time.

He constructed the frames from wood and metal, but instead of using leather for the body, he used linen impregnated with rye flour, thus making it water-repellent. Later, he embellished the body with striped outer fabrics — that would eventually evolve into the famed checkerboard pattern, the “Louis Vuitton Damier Canvas.”

The suitcases were in such high demand that the Frenchman invested in a factory in Asnieres, a suburb of Paris, just five years after founding his brand. Initially, he hired 20 employees, but their number eventually grew to 225. Nevertheless, suitcase production remained in the family’s hands. Together with his son Georges, he developed and patented a pickproof suitcase lock that is still used today. At that time, this was an important and innovative development, as well-heeled customers wanted even more security for their expensive luggage.

Four Louis Vuitton suitcases stacked atop each each

The locks and frames that made an LV indispensible for the discerning traveller

Unsinkable suitcases

The cult suitcase is the stuff of legend. After the sinking of the Titanic, for example, the luxury luggage from the House of Vuitton purportedly floated on the waters for days. The suitcases also proved to be indestructible in the 1907 car rally from Paris to Beijing. They apparently survived crossing bodies of water better than many an engine.

When Louis Vuitton died at the age of 70 at his company and family headquarters in Asnieres, his son Georges took over the suitcase business. In memory of his father, he developed the legendary “canvas monogram”: his father’s intertwined initials with a stylized floral pattern in 1896. He triggered a label cult that has lasted to this day. Discreet yet highly visible, it has adorned the accessories of “LV” customers, including stars such as Audrey Hepburn, Scarlett Johansson, and Rihanna.

The fashion group has long since diversified and sells more than just suitcases. It began with handbags and purses, with clothing, jewelry, watches and perfumes following later. In 1987, the family-owned company merged with the spirits manufacturer Moët Hennessy to form the listed luxury goods group “LVMH.” With a current stock market value of more than €340 billion ($403 billion), it is one of the most valuable European companies.

And the foundation was laid by a young, talented master suitcase maker who was particularly sensitive to aesthetics and functionality. Products are still made by hand in the Asnieres workshops, and a private museum dedicated to Vuitton forms part of the family estate. 

A woman puts the finishing touches to a handmade bag

LV luggage – painstakingly handmade to this day

This text was translated from German.