Louis Vuitton Malletier, 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.
With all his expertise in packing and trunkmaking, Vuitton opened his own shop in Paris in 1854 on Rue Neuve des Capucines. In 1858, Vuitton 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 run off and could not be stacked. Seeing the Osilite trunk inspired Vuitton to create a stackable trunk, which became such a hit, it inspired other luggage makers to copy Vuitton’s 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 exhibitions 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.” 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.” They were said to be the only “practical examples of equipment adapted to rough work in the French department.”
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.” Vuitton quickly garnered a reputation as the “master builder of trunks.” It was said his 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.”
Vuitton’s success also 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.” This lightweight bed came in two sizes: twenty nine inches or thirty-two inches broad with a length of six feet four 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.”
Because of Louis Vuitton’s success, it was hard to prevent others from duplicating his ideas and look, 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. Georges 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’s actions finally stopped most of the counterfeiting of Vuitton products.
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’s willingness to demonstrate the brand’s quality: 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.” 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.”
- Alford, Holly Price and Anne Stegemeyer, Who’s Who in Fashion, 2014
- Illustrated Naval and Military Magazine, Volume 2, 1885
- Illustrated Naval and Military Magazine, Volume 3, 1885
- Luggage and Leather Goods, Volumes 14-15, 1904
- Reports on the Paris Universal Exhibition, 1867, Vol. 4, 1868
- Shoe and Leather Journal, Volume 17, 1904