Craftsman extraordinaire by Silke Bender | 6th September, 2019 | Offices
The rise of the House of Louis Vuitton began 165 years ago with the advent of a new era of travel: The elegant trunks from the Paris workshop soon became status symbols. Patrick-Louis Vuitton is a fifth generation trunk maker whom we were lucky enough to visit at his great-great-grandfather’s house.
No, he’s not a bohemian. “I’m a craftsman, and that means you start work at half past seven,” says Patrick-Louis Vuitton. Dressed in a gray and slightly crumpled suit, he leads us into the salon of the family home: a villa in the Paris suburb of Asnières, lavishly decorated in art nouveau style. There are floral patterns on the windows, a fireplace shaped like flower stems, golden chandeliers, Chesterfield sofas, bourgeois splendor wherever you look. For 34 years of his life, the bearer of the great name was forever popping in and out of the house built by his great-great-grandfather Louis Vuitton: He lived right next door. In 1984, the villa was converted into a salon for hosting company receptions. Monsieur Vuitton sits down on a gray velvet armchair, lights his pipe and talks about the days when trains and steamships began changing the world and refined society discovered the delights of travel: “Louis Vuitton picked up on the mood of the times when he started making hardwearing luggage in 1854.” He specialized in huge trunks with compartments in which china, jewelry or hats could be transported without fear of damage.
Many of these historical items are on show in “la galerie,” a sort of private travel museum. They include the trunk that was developed for Africa pioneer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza: a fold-out camp bed that ensured a good night’s sleep even in the bush. Or the one for conductor Leopold Stokowski, complete with desk and storage compartments for books and scores. The fact that the empty trunks themselves could weigh as much as 60 kilograms didn’t really matter much to the well-heeled travelers because they wouldn’t be the ones carrying them: In those days, one had staff for things like that. Before long, Louis Vuitton invented a replacement for the heavy leather used to cover the outside of the trunks: canvas impregnated with rye flour – initially gray, then striped, and eventually checkered.
“I’ve probably done more traveling than all of my ancestors put together.” PATRICK-LOUIS VUITTON
The trunk entrepreneur made traveling easier, more convenient and more elegant. His list of clients grew rapidly, ranging from Empress Eugénie all the way to the newly wealthy. “My great-great-grandfather was a craftsman; he never traveled, but he was a good listener and a practical thinker,” says Vuitton. “In fact, I’ve probably done more traveling than all of my ancestors put together.” The company and its 20 employees moved to Asnières in 1859. Louis Vuitton, a trunk maker by trade, wanted to move to the country, where he enjoyed visiting the dance halls and rowing clubs on the Seine on weekends. Back then, Asnières was still a tranquil village. For the founder, building his villa right next door to the factory was a matter of honor. “I still say factory,” chuckles his great-great-grandson. “But according to our new language guidelines, I’m actually supposed to say ‘atelier’.” It’s many years since the former family business became part of LVMH Moët Hennessy – Louis Vuitton, the world’s biggest luxury goods group, and Louis Vuitton is the strongest brand in CEO Bernard Arnault’s portfolio. In the luxury ranking of U.S. market research institute Kantar, it has topped the list of the world’s most prestigious and valuable brands for years.
Today only three Vuittons still work in the company, which currently has production operations in 16 locations throughout France: Patrick-Louis, who runs the “atelier” in Asnières, and his two sons Benoît-Louis and Pierre-Louis. One of them is a store director in Toronto, the other is responsible for a production site in the Rhone Valley. When Patrick-Louis Vuitton learned the art of trunk making in Asnières in the early 1970s, the business employed just 115 people. Today it’s 250. He never questioned that he would follow in the footsteps of his father, Claude. “I grew up next to the factory with the smell of leather and wood in my nostrils. We five kids would make swords and arrows out of the remnants left over from production and play cowboys and Indians,” he recalls. “And on Thursdays, Great-Grandmother Joséphine would have us to lunch at the table over there.” He points to the big dining table that follows on from the salon. “My great-grandma lived to be 104; she lived through the Franco-Prussian war and both the world wars and had plenty of stories to tell. Like the one when the Prussians stole potatoes and carrots out of our front garden.”
For him, craftsmanship means dedication to the product, discipline and lifelong learning. Even today, he still masters every step in the process – from cutting the wood to operating the sewing machine. Patrick-Louis Vuitton is responsible for bespoke special orders. He built a luxurious transport box for the dogs of Louis Vuitton’s former head designer Marc Jacobs and a special trunk for celebrity chef Ferran Adrià, with space not just for aprons but for various tins – the Spaniard always collects spices on his travels. “Plus,” he smiles, “it was really important to find a safe space for his talisman, a magazine. Oh, oops, I nearly said too much there.” Discretion is important, and Vuitton doesn’t want to disclose too many names and details: “A custom-made trunk reveals all sorts of things about the person it’s made for and their idiosyncrasies.”
For a Chinese customer, he made a trunk with a DVD player, a screen and a coffee machine that can be powered entirely by solar energy if required. For a collector, he built a transport box for 120 batons that once belonged to conductors from Wagner to Karajan. And he went to London to meet artist Damien Hirst, who wanted a presentation case for his surgeon’s instruments. During their 90-minute talk Vuitton, who’s pretty good at drawing himself, kept sketching the ideal Hirst trunk until the artist nodded appreciatively.
Vuitton has only ever built one special case for himself – for his watercolors, because he loves to paint when he’s traveling privately. Otherwise, he travels with off-the-peg Louis Vuitton luggage, as he will when he next flies to Japan – even though he detests flying: “Air travel has lost all its flair – you constantly have to go through embarrassing security checks and walk through the control points without a belt, in stocking feet or even barefoot: There’s nothing glamorous about that. I remember the days when the captain used to welcome the passengers on board in person. But that’s all over – fini!” Personally, he says, he prefers the luxury of slowness. “When I drive down to the Côte d’Azur, I always allow myself more than two days for the journey and stick to country roads. As a result I’ve discovered some of the prettiest places in all of France, as well as some of the best guesthouses and hotels. To me, that’s the pleasure of traveling, that’s what people probably used to experience back in the days when my great-great-grandfather started making luggage.” For several years now, Vuitton has also been the proud owner of a yacht in Brittany, and loves sailing at a leisurely pace between the coast and the island of Belle Île. There are no prizes for guessing that he sketched the design himself – and had it custom-made by a boatyard!