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Louis Vuitton: The History Behind the Purse

Debbie Harry, Fashion History, Louis Vuitton, Vuitton

The Louis Vuitton logo, a Japanese-inspired flower motif, has been synonymous with luxury since it was first introduced in 1896. The famous monogram logo was created as a way to prevent counterfeiting of the Parisian company’s designer luggage. This marks the appearance of the very first ‘designer label’ as we have come to understand it in the contemporary marketplace. Ironically, Louis Vuitton has since become the most heavily counterfeited brand in fashion history, with only 1% of all Louis Vuitton-branded items in circulation considered authentic.

Louis Vuitton history has its roots in the excitement of the mid-Nineteenth Century, the extraordinary time when interest in travel was spreading throughout the world. New technologies made longer distances within reach of those who could afford them, and paintings and photographs of far-away cities and exotic places were in vogue around the world. The world wanted to travel, and Louis Vuitton began to etch its place in history as one of the first luggage companies designed to meet the needs of explorers, voyagers, and vacationers everywhere.

In today’s world, Louis Vuitton conjures thoughts of the posh, extravagant lifestyle of the celebrities and socialites who, with cult-like zeal, carry purses and bags emblazoned with the Vuitton logo. It also conjures up thoughts of street vendors selling counterfeit merchandise to the consumers who covet the image the brand represents. Behind it all is the history of a company built by a single man who had a vision of blending timeless elegance with innovative functionality.

The Beginning (1854-1892)

Louis Vuitton was born in Anchay, Jura, France in 1821. He moved from his hometown in 1835 at the age of fourteen. Two years later, he arrived in Paris and apprenticed for luggage- and trunk-maker Monsieur Marechal. Vuitton was trained in the art of fine-luggage creation, while working as a luggage packer for upscale Parisian families. This experience gave him insight into the world of luggage and the needs of travelers, serving him well when he launched his own luggage design business to serve wealthy, traveling Parisians.

In 1854, he opened his first store in Paris, creating Louis Vuitton Malletier (“Louis Vuitton Trunk-Maker”). Vuitton began by designing the first flat-topped trunks that were lightweight and airtight. At the time, all other trunks had rounded tops for water to run off, and thus could not be stacked in railway cars. But perhaps more important than the configuration of the flat trunk was it’s cover, Louis Vuitton’s signature grey “Trianon” canvas. The “Trianon” trunk quickly became popular as a symbol of cosmopolitan living and elegant traveling. The same year, Vuitton created innovative trunks to accommodate the voluminous crinolines worn by France’s Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III. The Empress could be considered the beginning of Vuitton’s carefully crafted image as a brand of luxury and celebrity. By1860, Vuitton was already successful enough to open a larger factory in Asnières-sur-Seine to accommodate the increased demand for his goods.

During the next decade, Vuitton created many innovative designs, including the first Vuitton wardrobe trunk, which contained a rail for hanging clothing and small drawers. Vuitton’s son Georges developed the unique five-number combination lock that has since been found on all Vuitton trunks. Rival luggage manufacturers began imitating his popular luggage designs, which lead him to the creation of distinctive stripes and checkerboard patterns. In 1888, Louis and Georges collaborated on the “Damier Canvas” pattern, containing the first Vuitton trademark, a logo that reads “marque L. Vuitton déposée” (“mark L. Vuitton deposited” or roughly “L. Vuitton trademark”). Surprisingly contemporary, the “Damier Canvas” paired a lively geometric pattern with subdued hues. The result was a quiet elegance that has withstood the test of time for three centuries.

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Golden Age (1893-1936)

After Louis Vuitton’s death in 1892, his son Georges spun the family business into a worldwide corporation. In the same year, the Vuitton company began designing and selling handbags, for which they would eventually become best known. Georges Vuitton traveled to the United States and displayed Vuitton products at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, introducing mainstream American audiences to the brand.

In 1896, to prevent the copying of Vuitton patterns that had already begun by counterfeiters, Georges created the Louis Vuitton logo and the classic “Monogram Canvas” design. Its staggered graphic logo symbols were inspired by the trend for Asian/Oriental designs in the late Victorian Period. Japonisme, a taste for Japanese art and crafts, was exerting a growing influence in France in the late 19th century, following Japan’s participation in international expositions with ukiyo-e woodblock prints and other items.

In 1901, Vuitton designed the popular “Steamer” bag, an ancestor of the soft luggage we carry today. Originally created as a laundry bag to be kept inside his wardrobe trunks, the “Steamer” became a cult hit in its own right.

The Louis Vuitton Building opened in Champs-Elysees in 1914. The building was the largest travel-goods store in the world at that time. Further store locations opened in New York, Bombay, Washington, London, Alexandria and Buenos Aires as World War I began. The brand continued to thrive and in 1924, eight years after the end of WWI, Vuitton invented the “Keepall” bag, a light-weight travel bag that foreran the invention of the duffel bag. In 1932, the “Noe” bag was designed for a champagne vinter to transport several bottles at once. The bag became extremely popular amongst Parisian ladies as a handbag, launching Louis Vuitton’s foray into the world of fashion accessories.

Modern Age (1937-1996)

Georges Vuitton passed away in 1936. Historians attribute Georges with designing over 700 new Vuitton designs throughout his career. His son Gaston-Louis Vuitton assumed control of the company after his death. Gaston-Louis steered the brand into its modern age.

The signature “Monogram Canvas” was revamped in 1959, what would become a significant change for the company. The company was able to perfect a new method of coating, which is still being used today. The special Louis Vuitton coating allowed the fabric beneath to maintain its suppleness and beauty, while adding strength and impermeability. By treating the canvas to make it more supple while still maintaining its durability and elegance, the material was able to be used for making purses, smaller bags, and wallets.

The late 70’s saw Vuitton opening its first stores in Japan, in Tokyo and Osaka. Vuitton-mania built in Japan and Japanese sales came to account for nearly half the company’s total revenue by the 80’s. Just a few years later, the company created Louis Vuitton Japan and opened a multi-level Ginza store. Eastern expansion continued in 1984 with a store in Seoul, South Korea and again in 1992 with the company’s first store in Beijing, China.

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The Louis Vuitton company also expanded their involvement into the world’s most prestigious sporting events. In 1983, the “Louis Vuitton Cup” challenger series was created to qualify competitors for the “America’s Cup,” the most coveted prize in international yachting. Five years later, the “Louis Vuitton Classic,” a fine auto competition, was organized in Bagatelle Park in Paris and the event has continued yearly for nearly two decades. That same year, Louis Vuitton brought back history when it organized the first international grand vintage car rally in China. The company, which had participated in the Black & Yellow Cruise of the 20’s and 30’s, resuscitated the tradition of grand scale auto events from the beginning of the century, bringing it to an excited Chinese audience with this rally from Dalian to Beijing.

In 1987, Moët et Chandon and Hennessy, leading manufacturers of champagne and of brandy, merged with Louis Vuitton to form the world’s largest luxury goods conglomerate, LVMH. This successful integration of aspirational brands inspired many other companies to do the same. By 1989, Louis Vuitton had opened 130 stores throughout the world. The following year, Yves Carcelle was named president of the company.

1996 marked the centennial of the Monogram Canvas. Seven cities across the world held extravagant parties at stores and Louis Vuitton asked seven prestigious designers to imagine new products in monogram. Azzedine Alaia, Manolo Blahnik, Romeo Gigli, Helmut Lang, Isaac Mizrahi, Syvilla and Vivienne Westwood created seven original and functional objects in limited edition series.

Millennium Age (1997-present)

In 1997, Louis Vuitton hired visionary American designer Marc Jacobs to be the label’s artistic director. Jacobs was, at the time, already a highly decorated and popular fashion designer in his own right, known for the distinct honor of being the youngest fashion designer to be awarded the industry’s highest tribute, The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Perry Ellis Award for New Fashion Talent. Jacobs became Louis Vuitton’s artistic director when the company decided to expand into shoes and ready-to-wear clothes. Jacobs guided Louis Vuitton as it ventured into the relatively new territory of high fashion and is credited with establishing Louis Vuitton as a consistent trendsetter as well as a timeless classic.

In 2001, Jacobs collaborated with Stephen Sprouse to design a limited edition line of Vuitton bags. Sprouse was already well known in art and fashion worlds for his collaborations with contemporary artists, including Andy Warhol, his designs for famous musicians, including Debbie Harry and Duran Duran, and his unique design sense, described by the New York Times as a mix of “uptown sophistication in clothing with a downtown punk and pop sensibility.” The Sprouse design featured green and white graffiti written over the monogram pattern. A few handbags featured the graffiti design in peach or black on top of a solid white or black background- these were only available to the customers on Vuitton’s V.I.P. list. All bag designs were limited edition, and have increased significantly in collectible value.

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In 2003, Takashi Murakami, a famous Japanese artist and founder of the ‘Superflat’ movement, collaborated with Marc Jacobs and designed the popular new “Monogram Multicolore” canvas range of handbags and accessories. This line included the monograms of the standard Louis Vuitton “Monogram Canvas,” but in 33 different colors, on either a white or a black background, instead of the classic gold logo against brown. The next year, Murakami created the “Cherry Blossom” pattern, in which smiling cartoon faces in the middle of pink and yellow flowers were sporadically placed atop the “Monogram Canvas.” This pattern appeared on a very limited number of pieces which sold out quickly. Murakami followed this popular and coveted line with the “Monogram Cerises” pattern, in which cherries with faces on them were placed over “Monogram Canvas.” The line was sold on LVMH’s official retail website, eLUXURY, in the spring of 2006, but was no longer available by the end of May of 2006.

Today, the LVMH group comprises some 50 luxury brands, spanning wines and spirits, including Moët et Chandon champagne and Glenmorangie whisky; perfumes and cosmetics, including Christian Dior; jewellery and watches, including Tag Heuer; and fashion and leather goods such as Givenchy, Kenzo, Fendi and Marc Jacobs. By combining forces, these aspirational brands limit their venues and maintain their exclusivity.

Louis Vuitton has carefully cultivated a celebrity following and has used famous models and actresses in its marketing campaigns. Recently, actress Uma Thurman whose “sophisticated yet unpredictable image” was a supposed reflection of the Vuitton brand, posed for a line of seductive ads. Other models and actresses who have lent their name to the Louis Vuitton line include Jennifer Lopez, Scarlett Johansson, Chloe Sevigny, and Christina Ricci, and supermodels Gisele Bundchen, Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell. Actor Hayden Christiansen and hip-hop musician Pharrell have both appeared as models for the company’s luggage and prêt-à-porter lines.

Vuitton bags and purses have a considerable list of celebrity adherents who proudly display their “Monogram Canvas” items. From teen-queens like Lindsay Lohan, Jessica and Ashlee Simpson, Paris and Nicky Hilton, and Nicole Richie, to Academy Award winner Angelina Jolie to sports star Anna Kournikova, all are often seen and photographed with multiple Vuitton accessories.

This celebrity cult of Vuitton fanatics has unfortunately led to an astonishing rise in counterfeit Vuitton bags, available anywhere from street markets in Asia, to trunks of cars in LA, to powersellers on Ebay. The Louis Vuitton company takes this counterfeiting quite seriously, and, in recent years, has begun to take stringent measures to curb this illegal practice. But it is no wonder that the Louis Vuitton brand has such a high demand for counterfeit items- fashion followers around the world desire to possess a tiny bit of the image that began with one family and has taken centuries to build, an image of class, luxury, and elegance that is forever timeless.