Louis Vuitton was born in 1821 in the mountain town of Anchay, in eastern France. At around age 13, he set off on foot to find his fortune in Paris. It was a journey of some 300 miles, and it took him more than two years.
Arriving in Paris at age 16, Vuitton became an apprentice to a box manufacturer. In his early 30s he designed a flat-topped trunk that could be stacked — a radical innovation, as hitherto trunks had featured curved lids. Hired as the personal box-maker and packer to Eugenie, Empress of France, Vuitton became the travel goods manufacturer of choice among the aristocracy.
Passed from father to son, Vuitton’s business grew to include clothing, shoes, jewellery and, of course, handbags. Its iconic offerings have included the Keepall, released in 1930; the Noé, from 1932; the Alma, from 1934; Stephen Sprouse’s 2001 Graffiti bag; Takashi Murakami’s 2003 Monogram Mulitcolore; the Neverfull tote, released in 2007; and the Capucines, from 2013.
Loyal customers have ranged from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to Kim Kardashian; design collaborators have included Marc Newson, Frank Gehry and Cindy Sherman.
One of the reasons Louis Vuitton has so many followers is the house makes pieces that are highly functional. Thoughtful design and durable materials are the hallmarks of a Louis Vuitton bag. The Keepall, for example, is completely waterproof, while the Boreal briefcase in Taiga leather — made from smooth calfskin — is one of the most durable on the market.
Twice a year, Louis Vuitton releases its runway collection handbags. Known as show bags, these pieces are produced in extremely limited quantities and only made available to VIP clients and in the largest Vuitton stores worldwide.
Often more exaggerated and complicated than the collection pieces, show bags stand out for their intricate materials and craftsmanship. They are generally numbered and always marked with the season and collection in which they were produced. Perhaps the most important of these is the 2001 Graffiti, followed by the 2003 Multicolore.
A brand’s lead director not only guides its artistic vision, but can also steer the brand’s identity. Marc Jacobs, one of the architects of the collectible runway handbag market, arrived at Louis Vuitton in 1997 and transformed the storied luggage brand into the blockbuster fashion house it is today.
Jacobs introduced the brand’s first-ever ready-to-wear collection and also launched collaborations with the likes of fashion designer Stephen Sprouse and artist Yayoi Kusama. While staying true to Louis Vuitton’s heritage, he reinvigorated the brand for a younger generation.
Louis Vuitton’s collaborations with contemporary artists have included projects with Takashi Murakami in 2003 and 2008, and Richard Prince in 2007, who created paint-splattered bags adorned with quotations. In 2013, Louis Vuitton’s menswear designer Kim Jones enlisted Jake and Dinos Chapman to develop a capsule collection known as the ‘Garden in Hell’.
Louis Vuitton constantly reinvents classic models and looks to the brand’s archive for inspiration. Some models have been produced for over 100 years, while new styles incorporate traditional models and motifs to show the evolution of the brand. The Trunk clutch is a miniaturised version of the piece which first made Monsieur Vuitton a famous, household name.
As technology and social media have amplified Vuitton’s reach, the lines between art, fashion and street culture have become blurred. The trunkmaker for European aristocracy now collaborates with the hip skateboard brand Supreme, a mainstay of New York City streetwear and one of the most coveted brands in the world.
The latest Supreme x Louis Vuitton trunk is the perfect blend of New York’s street style and French savoir-faire. Louis Vuitton first partnered with Supreme in 2017 and dropped their collection in a few selected pop-up shops. Due to the popularity of the collection, a number of these pop-up shops had to close early because their stock sold out faster than expected.
Crafted in limited quantities from the finest materials and finished in rich, deep colours, Louis Vuitton Exotics are rarely seen on the auction market. These crocodile, alligator, ostrich and snakeskin pieces represent the pinnacle of the Vuitton collector market. The shine on a crocodile bag — such as the example shown above — surpasses anything that can be crafted in leather.
The brand boasts one of the world’s most exceptional collections of antique trunks. Some sleep in attics, others are in museums, others are still travelling and many are displayed in its stores around the world. While trunks might not have the same use today as they did in the past, they still make a stylish accessory and highlight the traditional skills and excellence that remain as relevant today as it has for the past century. Travel items, such as the Keepall travel bag and the Pégase suitcase remain some of Vuitton’s best-selling pieces.
The 19th century belonged to explorers and adventurers, who wanted luggage which would safeguard their most precious possessions. To this end, Louis Vuitton created the Explorer collection, featuring hardwearing zinc, copper, aluminium and brass pieces. A rare, aluminium bound Explorer trunk sold at Christie's London in 2018 for £162,500, a record-breaking price.
A few years ago, Louis Vuitton introduced the Haute Maroquinerie service. The service offers the brand’s top clients the opportunity to design their own bag based on pre-selected shapes, leathers and colours. Customers are invited in special design rooms to create the bag almost entirely to their specifications.