Creating the Louis Vuitton Brand in the 1800s

The same year that Napoleon Bonaparte died was the same year that Louis Vuitton Malletier was born. His birth happened on 4 August 1821, in Anchay, a small village in eastern France. His father was Xavier Vuitton, a farmer, and his mother, Coronne Gaillard, was a milliner. Louis Vuitton left home at age 14 and headed for Paris. There he became apprenticed as packer and trunkmaker, having learned the skills of carpentry from his father. Within ten years, Vuitton gathered enough experience to make himself an expert box and luggage builder, and, in addition, he learned how to expertly pack clothing for well-to-do women traveling on long voyages. This helped him to become the exclusive packer to Napoleon III’s wife, the Empress Eugenie.

Louis Vuitton, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Louis Vuitton. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1854, he met 17-year-old Clemence-Emilie Parriaux and married her that spring on 22 April. A few months after his marriage, with all his expertise in packing and trunkmaking, Louis Vuitton opened his own shop in Paris in 1854 on Rue Neuve des Capucines with a shop sign that read: “Securely packs the most fragile objects. Specializing in packing fashions.”[1] In 1858, he noticed that a London based company, H.J. Cave, had an Osilite trunk (a strong light trunk) that could be stacked. This was important because at the time traveling trunks were designed with rounded tops to help with water runoff and could not be stacked. Seeing the Osilite trunk inspired Louis Vuitton to create a stackable trunk, which became such a hit, it inspired other luggage makers to copy his design and style.

Over the next few years, Vuitton’s products continued to rise in popularity, and, in 1867, the Paris Universal Exhibition was held. It included displays of such things as heating and lighting, railway apparatus, navigation and lighthouses, mining, and travel articles. The object of the exhibition was to help make people aware of the “useful novelties exhibited by various nations.”[2] Among the travel articles exhibited were Vuitton’s “boxes or trunks of light wood covered externally with zinc to render them water-tight and insect-proof.”[3] They were said to be the only “practical examples of equipment adapted to rough work in the French department.”[4]

Louis Vuitton Advertisement From 1886, Author's Collection

Louis Vuitton advertisement from 1886. Author’s collection.

People fell in love with Vuitton’s luxury trunks, and he won several awards for his “Patent Trunks.” Despite the expense of purchasing a Vuitton trunk, one American Victorian magazine noted that “people who go to Paris come home with Vuitton trunks.”[5] Moreover, Louis Vuitton quickly garnered a reputation as the “master builder of trunks,” with on description of them stating:

“Vuitton Trunks are made in a great many different forms, to suit the wardrobes of different people. They are constructed with an intelligence that seems to have exhaustive knowledge of the needs of travellers. Then the traveller who has any pride in the appearance of his luggage is always pleased with the attention that a Vuitton Trunk receives wherever it goes. It marks its owner as a man or woman of discrimination, and gives more character to the traveller than fine clothes.”[6]

It was also said that Louis Vuitton trunks were the best for four reasons:

“First, they are the strongest trunks that can be built; second, they are the lightest weight; third, they are the most conveniently arranged; and lastly they are the handsomest trunks ever designed and finished in the most beautiful manner.”[7]

Louis Vuitton advertisement from July 1898. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although the Louis Vuitton trunks were regularly lauded for their quality and the trunks were said to have a “luxurious life” they had at least one problem:

“The loss of the key of a Vuitton trunk is something of a vexatious matter. The locks have six or seven tumblers, and to make another key it is necessary to take the lock apart, and go to a great deal of trouble, and some expense. But the number can be taken from the trunk, and by writing to Paris a new key for the identical trunk comes back by the next mail.”[8]

Vuitton’s success eventually resulted in Louis’s son, Georges, patenting an “ingenious contrivance” in June of 1885. It was a military bed touted as beneficial to anyone involved with the “Egyptian campaign” — officers, correspondents, etc. — as it could be “easily carried by one camel … unpacked and put up, or the reverse, in three minutes.”[9] This lightweight bed came in two sizes: twenty nine one-half inches or thirty-two inches broad with a length of six feet four or six feet six inches. It also consisted of a “hair mattrass, pair of blankets, and two pairs of sheets, and … poles which can be easily fixed to support a frame for mosquito curtains.”[10]

Louis Vuitton camp trunk bed advertisement from 18815. Author’s collection.

Because of Vuitton’s success, it was hard to prevent others from duplicating his ideas, which regularly resulted in counterfeiting of his products. To protect his products, Louis Vuitton tried several things. First, in 1876, he changed the Trianon design to a beige and brown striped design. But that did not stop the imitators. In 1888, three years after he opened his first store in London on Oxford Street, he created the Damier (Checkerboard) Canvas pattern that also bore the logo “marque L. Vuitton déposée,” which translated means “L. Vuitton registered trademark.” But once again people continued to counterfeit his products.

In 1892, after Louis Vuitton died, the company’s management fell to his son Georges. He then began a campaign to take the Vuitton brand international. One way he did this was by exhibiting Vuitton’s luxury products at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. In 1896, in honor of his father, Georges also launched the signature Monogram Canvas — its graphic symbols included the quatrefoils and flowers based on Japanese and Oriental designs, as well as the LV monogram — and he patented it worldwide. This patent was the key, and Georges’ actions finally stopped most of the counterfeiting of Vuitton products.

Louis Vuitton Monogram, Courtesy Louis Vuitton

Louis Vuitton Monogram. Courtesy Louis Vuitton.

Georges actions also skyrocketed the Louis Vuitton name to international fame. Even today, the Louis Vuitton brand continues to maintain a reputation for sturdiness, luxury, and quality. Part of the reason for its good reputation has to do with Georges’ willingness to demonstrate the brand’s quality. For instance:

“[Once he] jumped on several trunks, jammed his heels into them, stamped from the top of one to the top of another, and opened the defenceless trunks to show inside as well as outside, that [they] borne not the slightest mark of violence.”[11]

However, the luxury trunks doubtlessly did not always undergo such rough treatment as they received “much more careful handling from the awe stricken porters and baggage smashers than the ordinary trunk.”[12]

References:

  • [1] Mason, Fergus, Vuitton: A Biography of Louis Vuitton, 2015.
  • [2] Reports on the Paris Universal Exhibition, 1867, Vol. 4, 1868, p. iii.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 251.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Shoe and Leather Journal, Volume 17, 1904, p. 55.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Luggage and Leather Goods, Volumes 14-15, 1904, p. 146.
  • [9] Illustrated Naval and Military Magazine, Volume 2, 1885, p. 286.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Luggage and Leather Goods, p. 146.
  • [12] Ibid.

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2 Comments

  1. Hels on January 30, 2016 at 5:27 am

    You will be very interested in the Louis Vuitton Foundation which started in 2006 in Bois de Boulogne Paris, and La Galerie which opened in 2015 in Asnières Paris.

    Thanks for the great link
    Hels

    http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com.au/2015/10/louis-vuitton-gallery-in-paris-opened.html

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