Louis Vuitton was a French box-maker and packer who founded the luxury brand of the same name over 150 years ago. From humble beginnings in the French countryside, Vuitton’s skill, innovation and determination quickly saw his signature trunks coveted by the world’s elite. Now, with Marc Jacobs at the helm as creative director since 1997, the house has expanded its offering to include bags, clothing, shoes, accessories and jewellery, making it one of the most valuable luxury brands in the world.
Vuitton was born on August 4, 1821 in Anchay, a small working-class settlement in the east of France. His father, Xavier Vuitton, was a farmer and his mother, Coronne Gaillard – who died when he was 10 – a miller.
At the age of 13, tired of provincial life and of his strict stepmother, Vuitton left home for Paris. The 292 mile journey took him two years on foot with stops to carry out odd jobs to support himself along the way.
Upon arrival in Paris in 1837, Vuitton became an apprentice at a successful box-making and packing workshop – a craft that was highly respected at the time. Within a few years he had gained a reputation as one of the best in his field in the city.
Vuitton’s fortunes rose again in 1853 when he was appointed the personal box-maker and packer of the Empress of France, Eugenie de Montijo – the wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. The Empress charged Vuitton with beautifully packaging her clothes for transportation between the Tuileres Palace, the Château de Saint-Cloud and various seaside resorts. The position opened the doors to a new class of elite and royal clientele.
In 1854 Vuitton married 17-year-old Clemence-Emilie Parriaux. Shortly afterwards he left the shop he had apprenticed for and opened his own box-making and packing workshop in Paris. The sign outside read: “Securely packs the most fragile objects. Specialising in packing fashions”. He also began creating his trunks in canvas instead of leather, which gave them the advantage of being hard-wearing and waterproof.
Four years later, Vuitton introduced stackable rectangular shaped trunks to a market in which they had previously been rounded. Demand for the innovative and convenient trunk, which addressed the requirements of increasingly popular travel by train, was such that he had to expand into a larger workshop outside of Paris.
In 1867 Vuitton was awarded a bronze medal at the Exposition Universelle, an international exposition organized by Napoleon and held in Paris, which further increased the popularity of his work.
During the Franco-Prussian War, from 1870-71, Vuitton’s workshop was looted and destroyed. Once the war ended he set up a new workshop in an aristocratic area of central Paris.
Vuitton introduced a trunk in a beige and red striped canvas in 1872. The design appealed to the new Parisian elite and helped secure the brand’s position as a luxury offering.
In 1889 Vuitton won a gold medal and the grand prize at the Exposition Universelle, which once again helped to bolster the popularity of his work.
Vuitton continued to work until his death at the age of 72 on February 27, 1892. He left control of the company to his son, Georges Vuitton.
In 1896, in response to widespread copying of the brand’s patterns (a problem that continues to plague the house today), Georges created the famous LV monogram canvas – featuring diamonds, circles and flowers – to distinguish the brand’s products.
The Louis Vuitton building, the largest travel-goods store in world, was opened on the Champs-Élysées in 1914 and counted Coco Chanel as a patron.
Bag shapes that remain popular fashion staples today were introduced throughout the 1900s. The Steamer bag, a smaller piece designed to be kept inside the luggage trunks, was introduced in 1901. The Keepall bag was debuted in 1930 followed by the Noé bag, which was originally designed to carry Champagne, in 1932, and, in 1966, the cylindrical Pappillon bag.
Thanks to advances in technology and a new coating process, a supple version of the monogram canvas was created in 1959. This allowed it to be used for purses, bags and wallets.
In 1997 Marc Jacobs was appointed the house’s first creative director and was charged with introducing men’s and women’s ready-to-wear collections. At the time, Jacobs told US Vogue: “What I have in mind are things that are deluxe but that you can also throw into a bag and escape town with, because Louis Vuitton has a heritage in travel.”
Jacobs collaborated with designer Stephen Sprouse in 2001 to create a limited-edition line of bags featuring “Louis Vuitton” written in graffiti over the monogram pattern.
The house has cultivated a strong celebrity following under Jacobs’ direction and many models, actors and musicians have been the face of the brand. For the Core Values campaign, introduced in 2007 and aimed at showcasing the brand’s travel roots, celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Bono, Sean Connery, Keith Richards and Catherine Deneuve have appeared. Other campaigns have included Natalia Vodianova, Christy Turlington and Kate Elson for autumn/winter 2010-11; Madonna for spring/summer 2009; Diane Kruger, Chloe Sevigny, Christina Ricci and Scarlett Johanssen for spring/summer 2007; Scarlett Johanssen for autumn/winter 2004-05; and Jennifer Lopez for autumn/winter 2003-04.
In 2012 the house won a landmark ruling in the US protecting it from large-scale international counterfeiting. The ruling helps stop the import of goods into the US that illegally bear the brand’s trademarks, and penalises companies that facilitate the trade of those goods.
In the same year Louis Vuitton was named the world’s most valuable luxury brand for the seventh year in a row in a study conducted by Millward Brown Optimor. Valued at $25.9 billion (£16.5 billion) it beat Hermes, valued at $19.1 billion (£12.1 billion) in second place and Rolex, at $7.17 billion (£4.57 billion) in third place.