Louis Vuitton’s 200-Year Legacy: The Story of the Man Who Started It All
All brands have an origin story. For Louis Vuitton, the biggest luxury goods house in the world, theirs began nearly 200 years ago, in the French village of Anchay, with an audacious 13-year-old boy and a family fallout.
Louis Vuitton was born on August 4, 1821 into a family of farmers, artisans and carpenters. His mother, a hat-maker, died when he was 10. His father remarried but died soon afterwards, leaving young Louis in the care of his strict stepmother. He clashed with her and wanted to break free. Eager to make his own way in the world, he hatched a plan to leave his home in rural eastern France and make his fortune in Paris. Lyon and Geneva were closer, but something compelled young Louis Vuitton to aim for the bigger prize of the French capital.
Vuitton’s rags-to-riches story has a Dick Whittington ring to it, but his early life was no pantomime. Can you imagine what it must have been like to set out for Paris alone at the age of 13? Armed with a strong survival instinct and the carpentry skills passed down to him by his family, he travelled on foot, sleeping in the woods and taking odd jobs along the way. The 290-mile journey took Vuitton more than two years to complete. When the savvy and resourceful teenager arrived in Paris, his instinct was to aim high. He headed to the upmarket district near the rue Saint-Honoré, where he impressed the renowned trunk maker and packer Romain Maréchal with his carpentry skills and a flair for handwork inherited from his mother. Vuitton was taken on as an apprentice.
At this time, horse-drawn carriages, boats and trains were the main modes of transport, and baggage was often handled roughly. Travellers relied on craftsmen like Maréchal to pack and protect their possessions in bespoke trunks and cases. Vuitton excelled at this specialised craft, gaining a reputation for his skilled, innovative approach. He was held in such esteem that the Empress Eugénie of France hired him as her personal trunk maker. It was his job to ensure that her precious clothes and personal effects were safely transported between the Tuileries Palace, the Château de Saint-Cloud, her villa in Biarritz and other imperial residences.
Vuitton’s origin story gives us an insight into the mindset and personality it takes to start a luxury house with lasting relevance. He was a man blessed with determination, vision, know-how and creativity along with a talent for reading the desires of the times. In a few short years, he had gone from being the destitute son of a farmer to one of the most in-demand craftsmen in Paris, with an elite clientele clamouring for his skills. From this vantage point, he observed the social, political, economic and technological changes of the 19th century, but what gave Vuitton his edge was his ability to respond with finely tuned products.
1854 was a big year for Vuitton. Finally feeling successful enough to take a wife, he married 17-year-old Clemence-Emilie Parriaux who gave birth to their only child, a son named Georges, in 1857. He also left Maréchal and set up his own business on rue Neuve-des-Capucines, advertising his new firm with a sign that boasted: “Securely packs the most fragile objects. Specialising in packing fashions.”
In 1859, Vuitton moved his young family to an apartment above his busy workshop in the northern Paris suburb of Asnières-sur-Seine and in the following years, his entrepreneurial skills and flair for innovation came to the fore. He introduced lightweight, canvas rectangular trunks, which quickly replaced the heavy, round-top leather trunks as the gold-standard for stylish travellers. Other Vuitton innovations included the distinctive “Damier” pattern on canvas, introduced to protect against counterfeiters, and the world’s first pick-proof lock, which Louis developed with his son, Georges.
Louis died in 1892, and was succeeded by Georges who continued his father’s flair for innovation and entrepreneurship. His love of motor cars inspired him to create space-saving, stackable trunks for the automobile age and he was a pioneer of luxury branding, introducing the brand’s famous LV quatrefoil and flower monogram in 1896. As well as keeping pace with technology, he brought Vuitton to an international audience, opening a London store in 1885 and taking the brand to the Chicago World Fair in 1893.
Vuitton’s business boomed in the 20th century. The Asnières workshop, which started with 20 employees, had grown to 100 people by 1900 and 225 by 1914. To this day, it remains the heart of the brand. The family home is now a museum and 170 artisans are based in the workshops next door, producing special commissions, iconic creations and bespoke trunks for Vuitton’s 21st-century clients. When Georges died in 1936 he was in turn succeeded by his eldest son, Gaston Louis Vuitton, who led the company into the aviation age and died in 1970.
Louis Vuitton became part of LVMH in 1987 but remains rooted in travel and shaped by Louis’ values – particularly his ability to bring craft and technology together to create something new. The brand is celebrating the 200th birthday of its founder with several thoroughly modern activations, including a video game with embedded NFTs, an Apple TV documentary entitled Looking for Louis and a specially commissioned Alex Katz triptych. It has also commissioned 200 unique trunks each made in Asniéres and reimagined by names as diverse as acclaimed architect Peter Marino and Paralympic swimmer Théo Curin. Add to that a fictional novel, Louis Vuitton, L’Audacieux, based on Louis Vuitton’s life by French writer Caroline Brognard and a “cuvée spéciale” from the LVMH-owned champagne brand Veuve Clicquot, and the birthday celebrations should go with a bang.
Taken from Issue 67 of 10 Magazine – BOLD & BEAUTIFUL – order your copy here.