The Greatest Travel Brand On Earth: A History of Louis Vuitton, Luggage and the LV Monogram
The Greatest Travel Brand On Earth: A History of Louis Vuitton, Luggage and the LV Monogram
- Words Brenden Gallagher
- Date February 21, 2018
No name in luggage is as glamorous as Louis Vuitton. The brand’s signature checkered brown leather wrapped in gold monograms evokes a form of travel that harkens back to the dawn of urban exploring. In our current era—where trunks and leather suitcases have been replaced by cheap roller bags and duffels—it seems that Louis Vuitton is the only brand that still speaks the lost language of luxury travel. Simply spotting an LV bag evokes images of first class train cars and VIP lounges filled with cocktails and cigars. Baggage fees and TSA scans are suddenly a million miles away. While other luggage houses boast lustrous histories of their own—Goyard, Moynat, Gucci, etc.—Louis Vuitton stands alone. How did the brand gain such identity, and why does the Parisian malletier seem to be our lone luggage connection to a lost way of travelling?
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The company began as a trunk making business in 1854. Like so many young men throughout history, founder Louis Vuitton (b. 1821), set out from his small village (Anchay) to the big city (Paris) in order to make his fortune.
His journey began at as an apprentice under master trunk maker Monsieur Maréchal. At just 16, Vuitton worked under one of the most famous malletier in France, the go-to craftsman for nobles and the upper class. After his apprenticeship, Vuttion branched out on his own, setting up shop in Paris. In 1858, after just four years in business, Louis Vuitton introduced his first trunk. Called the Trianon Trunk, the grey luggage carrier was the first trunk to have a flat top and bottom. While previous models featured curved ends—due to fears of waterlogging—the flat ends made the trunk stackable and more easily transported. Through sheer ingenuity, Vuitton found a way to circumvent the waterlogging problem, and in doing so made a more seamless design. As it turned out, it was just the innovation consumers were waiting for. By the early 1860s, Vuitton’s trunks were so popular that he was able to open the world’s largest store for travel items in the heart of Paris.
Napoleon III’s wife, Empress Eugenie, was the first woman of influence to spread the gospel of Vuitton. Following such a notable co-sign, his work quickly caught on amongst the Parisian elite, and shortly thereafter became a symbol of luxury throughout Continental Europe. As Vuitton customers continued to travel abroad and show off their goods, demand skyrocketed. By the end of the 19th century, the Vuitton client list read like a who’s who of the era. Industry titans and art moguls including J.P. Morgan to Henri Matisse traveled with Vuitton. Royalty both foreign and domestic—the Rothschilds, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor—swore by it.
In the years following the release and immediate popularity of his trunks, Vuitton saw many imitators. In order to differentiate his creations, Vuitton introduced the iconic two-tone brown checkered patterns (called the Damier canvas) in 1888. A lesser known, but no less luxurious, white and red checker pattern was released, however faded into obscurity. In 1892, Louis Vuitton passed away, leaving the company to his son Georges Vuitton. Immediately, Georges Vuitton sought to solidify the brand’s luxury bonafides. Between 1896 and 1897 he introduced LV’s signature monogram, an interlocking “L” and “V” with a floral pattern, which would go on to become the enduring symbol of the brand. Through the late 19th and early 20th century, the brand began to sell luggage in various colors and materials, however the two signature style elements—the monogram and check— remain at the heart of the brand to this day. The two iconic motifs are the palatte that the brand’s various collaborators utilize to tell their luxury travel story.
It was Georges who would take the company global. He ensured that the brand had a spot at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Their exhibition, and the emphatic response from those in attendance, launched the brand to new international heights. Following the success in Chicago, department store mogul John Wanamaker began selling LV luggage in his department store, Wanamaker’s, firmly establishing Louis Vuitton in America.
For Louis Vuitton, the early 20th century was an era of luggage innovation. They added several signature bag styles alongside their best-selling trunks in the first decades of the 1900s. The Steamer Bag, introduced in 1901, was designed to be kept inside of trunks, separating clean and dirty clothes. It was the precursor to today’s “Alma” bag, a custom order for Coco Chanel in the early ‘30s. In 1930, the Keepall—the iconic style akin to a luxury duffel—was introduced, with its updated descendent, the Holdall, still in production. In 1932, Vuitton released the world’s first bucket bag, the Noe. Originally intended for the naturally French need of holding numerous bottles of champagne, the Noe grew into a staple for luxury wardrobes. In 1965, Audrey Hepburn requested a keepall in a smaller size, and another LV icon, the Speedy Bag, was born. Midway through the century, the trunk was just one facet of the brands vast luggage offering.
The brands trajectory through the latter half of the 20th century is a direct reflection of the century’s major milestones. As the jet set took flight in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Vuitton trunks were a signature accessory for A-list clientele on the move. As women entered the workforce, and daywear became the norm, LV handbags made their way into workplaces across the country—a signifier of wealth and taste. When men grew jealous of their spouses plethora of options, Vuitton expanded their selection of explicitly male suitcases and wallets.
Such widespread influence, not to mention financial success, inevitably caught the attention of industry titans, in this case one Bernard Arnault. Louis Vuitton was one of many companies that was a part of the ‘80s era of corporate consolidation. In 1987, Louis Vuitton merged with Moët Chandon and Hennessy to form LVMH. Under Arnault’s control, the group is now the largest luxury conglomerate in the world.
No history of Louis Vuitton is complete without noting the brand’s many imitators. The profitable business of counterfeiting Vuitton merchandise didn’t end when Vuitton (the man) tried to make his trunks inimitable back in the 19th century. In fact, the company’s signature looks prompted more enterprising imposters to try their luck. Perhaps the best known counterfeiter in the brand’s history was Dapper Dan. The Harlem based knockoff business run by Daniel Day was hugely successful in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Day took Vuitton patterns and repurposed them into clothes that wound up on some of the coolest New Yorkers of the era. Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J, Public Enemy, and other stars wore his looks on street and stage. Day’s knockoffs, often men’s clothing, were so popular that high-end designers ended up imitating his work. With this popularity came litigation—Dapper Dan was run out of business by the end of the 1990s.
While Dapper Dan may be one of the most notable "counterfeiters" (though this charge has been under scrutiny as the public retrospectively reexamines his influence and body of work), he was by no means the only one. In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s NYC’s Canal Street was flooded with counterfeits and reproductions and while the city cracked down following the Guiliana "hard on crime" era, fake LV is still a dominant force throughout the world.
Though Vuitton’s brand has endured through the ages, it took one a ‘90s rising fashion star to reinvigorate the business. Marc Jacobs is the [primary architect] of Vuitton’s 21st century resurgence. After he was fired from Perry Ellis, Jacobs took the helm at LV in 1997. At this point the monogram had become a bit stale in the eyes of the fashion elite. Jacobs, however, gave the mark new life. Through subtle reworkings, brand partnerships, and collaborations, the monogram was suddenly hot again. Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss were seen toting monogrammed bags shortly after his takeover.
Jacobs’ arrival also marked the beginning of Vuitton’s genuine, serious foray into clothing, which would ultimately include lines for both men and women. His combined vision of expanding the line and setting up frequent collaborations defined the future for LV. Though his first collections with LV were rather minimal, the clothing he designed eventually reflected the elegant opulence present in their bags.
Jacobs introduced new and exciting collaborations throughout his tenure with LV. Takashi Murakami’s work with the brand in 2004 and 2005 resulted in multi-colored logos on a white background that became a cultural phenomenon. Similarly, the camo-print bags and belts are still highly sought after. Next came Stephen Sprouse, whose graffiti inspired take on the monogram also had a fashion moment, and whose hit bags are slowly creeping back into the fashion spectrum.
The storied reign of Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton ended in 2013. LV and Jacobs parted amicably, as Jacobs wanted to turn his full attention towards his own brand. If you dig a bit deeper, you can see why both parties agreed it was time to move on. Most of the 2000s saw unsustainable growth and by the end of the decade, profits started shrinking. Since then, the company has rebounded. Like many luxury brands, Vuitton has partnered with fresher faces like Supreme and Jeff Koons for collaborations, in order to maintain relevancy.
The string of successful creative directors at Louis Vuitton—Jacobs, Nicholas Ghesquiere, Kim Jones—view luxury the same way as the founder and his son did more than a century ago. Maintaining a luxury brand requires a fine balance. You have to sell something that is timeless while simultaneously fresh. Vuitton has understood that whether this means modifying their bags to the needs of Coco Chanel and Audrey Hepburn or allowing for the street inspiration of Stephen Sprouse or Supreme, they must preserve the essential essence of their brand even within their wildest modifications and collaborations. Over 150 years, Louis Vuitton has managed to do just that. While everyone knows exactly what a Vuitton bag looks like, we can also be certain that the brand will keep moving forward, continuing to define luxury for years to come. Even if travel becomes stale, you get the sense that Louis Vuitton—and its signature designs—will remain.