Design

The idea of luxury: Louis Vuitton

Louis Vuitton was born 202 years ago today. The man who significantly changed our perception of luxury. But what constitutes luxury? And how did it come into our world? The answers lead to France, of course. And to a brand that bears his initials "LV".

  • Text
    Wiebke Brauer
  • Photos
    Louis Vuitton / Assouline

A wise woman once said that luxury is the opposite of the ordinary. This is undoubtedly true, although the definition of luxury is actually somewhat more complex than that – especially as our understanding of what is precious has changed over time. In the past, at least as far as fashion was concerned, people had a clear picture of how luxury was to be expressed, namely through precious materials such as silk, cashmere or fur. The principle of exclusivity has remained to this day, although it no longer has so much to do with the material as with the product’s uniqueness and the quality of the craftsmanship. Luxury goods today are handpicked and handmade. They are manufactured from natural materials using traditional methods of production. In this sense, what was once ordinary has become extraordinary.

Back to “Go”: Louis Vuitton opened its first shop in 1854 in the vicinity of today’s Louis Vuitton Maison Vendôme, which houses the flagship store and ateliers.

The changeable nature of luxury and of the value attached to the material becomes especially apparent when we look at companies specialising in exclusive suitcases and luggage. The notion of luxury here is informed by the demands of the traveller and the means of transport. As far as the demands are concerned, the first suitcases made by Louis Vuitton in his atelier were not coveted for their noble material but for their practicality: their rectangular shape made them easy to stack. Another feature involved something considered an innovation at the time:

the suitcases were covered with a new type of impregnated linen fabric that made the rain pearl off them; later they were also fitted with a special lock to protect the contents from theft. So luxury was not a question of material, but of technology. As horse-drawn carriages were replaced by cars, passenger ships and trains, the size of the luggage also grew; people travelled around the world with steamer trunks, hat boxes and handbags. Besides the modern means of transport and the length of the journey, the dress codes were another consideration: On ships, evening dress and dinner jackets were required to attend the captain’s dinner, and these were then an integral part of the wardrobe.

The Monogram Canvas has been a tradition since 1896, a tribute by George Vuitton to his father. The flowers were inspired by the Japonisme craze of the time.

The faster the means of transport became – and the fewer servants were taken on these travels – the more the size and number of suitcases shrank. In the 1950s, as travel became affordable for all and people increasingly boarded planes to explore foreign lands, the size of the luggage shrank even further. In the 1970s came the ultimate in acceleration – and minimisation: the supersonic Concorde. Louis Vuitton added special travel suitcases to its range that were perfectly tailored to the short flights between Paris and New York – there in the morning, back in the evening. The jet set travelled light.

Today, travel has noticeably slowed down once more, and with the advent of the digital domain and the mass production of products, the prestige of craftsmanship and individualisation is again on the rise. And when you know how many hours of work go into a Louis Vuitton handbag or a silk scarf from Hermès, the saying that “time is money” takes on a whole new meaning.

Nicholas Foulkes: Louis Vuitton Manufactures.
Assouline. 400 Seiten. 95 Euro.

One thing that has emerged as an added value in our fast-paced world is tradition. Bernard Arnault, head of the world’s largest luxury goods group LVMH, which owns not only Louis Vuitton but also the brands Christian Dior and Givenchy, once said: “In the luxury industry, you have to build on tradition.” No wonder that companies like Louis Vuitton, Bollinger, Cartier or Hermès are all names with a long history.

An important thing to know, however, is that even in its early days – in France and especially at Versailles – luxury was primarily a profit-oriented business. Certainly, the many French companies that delight the world with beautiful luxury goods today are in part the product of French culture and of the idea of “petite folie”, or little folly, that is rooted therein. In particular, however, the French luxury industry owes a debt of gratitude to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the Controller-General of Finances for Louis XIV.

Colbert’s main mission: fill the state coffers with foreign money (and finance His Majesty’s lavish lifestyle). So he paid the local workshops to not only supply the royal court with fine goods such as porcelain and fine fabrics but also to produce for export. This not only maximised profits, but also revived an artisanal tradition: Many of the leading luxury brands on the market today were founded in the 18th and 19th centuries by skilled craftsmen. Louis Vuitton, for example, made the luggage for French Empress Eugénie de Montijo, wife of Napoleon III.

In a way, our understanding of luxury today has moved back to where it once began: to the artisanal production of personalised products.
Coming soon:
Read more about the phenomenon of luxury in our new Coffee Table Book. In "Luxury", we explore all luxury-related topics and highlight the respective key items from an artistic and scientific perspective. Available here in the online shop from 12 September.

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