Home > Style > Fashion > Icons before Instagram: How Louis Vuitton pioneered travel fashion 200 years later
Icons before Instagram: How Louis Vuitton pioneered travel fashion 200 years later

At the age of sixteen, Monsieur Louis Vuitton made a decision that would not only change his own life, but the course of travel fashion in the next 200 years — he became a trunk-master who would redefined the art of voyage. Today, he is celebrated with the launch of Louis 200, a celebration of Louis Vuitton through and through.

Monsieur Louis Vuitton would be 200 years old today. Born 4th August 1821, Vuitton is the man behind the eponymous brand — a story of rags-to-riches that would find a permanent place in the history books. Two hundred years later, his bicentennial birthday will be celebrated globally with a series of creative initiatives highlighting how the visionary spirit of Louis Vuitton lives on.

Monsieur Louis Vuitton.
Copyright : COLLECTION LOUIS VUITTON

In celebration of the man himself, the House of Louis Vuitton kicks off Louis 200, an initiative that will evoke the life and legacy of Louis — adventurer, entrepreneur, designer, innovation — across various media and featuring collaboration from the world over. There will be a video game with embedded NFTs; store windows showcasing the iconic trunk reimagined by 200 exceptional contributors; a large-scale triptych of Louis painted by Alex Katz; a fictionalised novel by French writer Caroline Bongrand; as well as an unprecedented documentary that chronicles the story of the young pioneer.

Louis 200 transcends the typical tribute to the founder from humble beginnings to his enduring legacy. It will be the transmission of his journey as a public-facing, collective experience — a catalyst for endless inspiration that will undoubtedly redefine the art of fashion travel.

An extract from an advertising poster from 1887.

A 300-mile journey

Monsieur Louis Vuitton was born in 1821 in Anchay in the French Jura area to a family of artisans, carpenters and farmers. He was only 13 years old when he decided to begin his 300-mile journey on foot to Paris — arriving at the capital city some two years later in 1837, where he was apprenticed to the renowned trunk maker and packer Romain Maréchal.

He quickly became a valued craftsman at the Parisian atelier, and soon reinforced his place as a master in this highly specialised trade. Vuitton stayed for 17 years before opening his eponymous workshop at 4 rue Neuve-des-Capucines in the heart of the Place Vendome — a neighbourhood where all the major fashion houses were established in the second half of the 19th century.

At that time, horse carriages, boats, and trains were the main modes of transportation, and baggage was handled recklessly. Travellers would call upon craftsmen to design solutions to pack and protect their individual objects. Vuitton was excellent in his artistry, with skills to custom design boxes and, later, trunks according to clients’ wishes. He was soon hired as the trusted personal trunk maker and packer for the Empress Eugénie, the Empress of France at that time. It provided him with access to nobles and blue blood clients, who provided him with work for the rest of his career.

Louis, Georges, and Gaston-Louis Vuitton posing with craftsmen in the courtyard of the Asnières-sur-Seine workshops, circa 1888. Louis is pictured in the driver’s seat of a delivery vehicle, Georges is on his right, and Gaston-Louis is on top of a trunk bed. At that time, the House employed around thirty people. The Louis Vuitton archives hold many images of the specialised workshops and their craftsmen, depicting a “model factory.”

In his early days, the advertising posters promised that Louis Vuitton, ‘securely packs the most fragile of objects’. At that time, dome shaped steam trunks were the most popular style of luggage available. Vuitton upped the ante by designing square luggage that would be conveniently stackable, and would allow garments to be hung upright. It led to the birth of flat-top luggage that further revolutionised the art of packing and many other custom-made designs tailored to carry specific objects including perfumes, jewellery, dresses and more.

Horse-drawn carriages, parked in front of the Louis Vuitton store at rue Scribe opened in 1871 post-war, to deliver trunks manufactured in Asnières.

Louis Vuitton soon became a household name that is synonymous to the art of travel — then and now. Trunks were customised with transportation trends — whether it was a voyage on land, sea or in the air. Vuitton had a sense of curiosity, and boundless imagination that helped him transformed the art of travel with novel ideas including legendary creations like the Bed Trunk created for explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, a tea trunk for the Maharajah of Baroda, and more.

A pioneering artist and inventor

As a visionary, he reinvented fashion packing. At the end of the 1850s, he created Gris Trianon, a coated canvas which made luggage waterproof and radically transformed the shape of the trunk by endowing it with a flat lid. The canvas has constantly evolved, not only technically or aesthetically, but also to cope with its many counterfeiters in. In 1888 the Damier canvas, which used the name of Vuitton in its outer signature for the first time, replaced the excessively imitated striped canvas launched in 1872. It featured beige monogrammed designs with red stripe that would remain a signature for the brand long after his death in 1892.

This was also a crucial phase which led Georges-Louis Vuitton in 1896 to blend the initials of his father with the famous geometrical and floral leitmotifs. As a tribute to his father, he perpetuated the initials ‘LV’ with the quatrefoils and four-petal flowers — which was inspired by a trend of using Japanese Mon designs in the late Victorian era — to create the legendary Monogram canvas that is loved by fans and followers of the brand decades after; the Monogram remains as an iconic code for the House of Louis Vuitton.

The iconic Louis Vuitton Monogram was created as tribute to its founder, a symbol of love and respect from Georges to his father.

In sync with the times

Vuitton was a clever inventor especially in adapting materials to the function of the object. He also registered the patent of each technological or typological innovation designed in the Asnières atelier from 1859 — ensuring that every innovation remained exclusive to the House of Louis Vuitton for generations to come. In the 1890s, the canvas was used along with leather and even aluminium. At the end of the 19th century, the House created the first supple bags, ancestors of the handbag and forerunners of its Icons.

Vuitton also designed the world’s first pick-proof lock. In 1886, the father-son duo revolutionised luggage locks with an ingenious closing system that turned travel trunks into real treasure chests. They adopted a single lock system with two spring buckles, and after several years of development, George Vuitton patented this revolutionary system that would become an indisputable feature used till this day.

Petit Malle trunk bag is one of many silhouettes inspired by the House’s codes and reimagined in modern day context.

From rainproof canvas, to rectangular trunks and supple bags, it is in this very essence that consumers are enjoying the beautiful silhouettes from the House of Louis Vuitton today — recreated and reimagined through innovation and technology while maintaining craftsmanship and wearing the story of the famous trunk-maker in every creation.

Celebrating Louis Vuitton today: LV200

Starting 4th August, Louis: The Game can be downloaded through the App Store and Google Play for Android users. This comes after the house’s 16-bit Endless Runner game what was launched in 2019 in conjunction with Virgil Abloh’s FW19 collection.

Louis: The Game can be downloaded through the App Store and Google Play for Android users beginning 4th August 2021.

On top of that, 200 Louis, the celebratory windows will be unveiled across the entire store network — reflecting how 200 talents, special friends and visionaries across backgrounds and disciplines have individually interpreted Louis, a man whose name is synonymous with unparalleled quality and savoir-faire. Both these initial activations, the novel and documentary will be part of nine initiatives curated specially throughout 2021.

Louis 200 creates a bridge between the founder and all the visionaries today who strive towards the horizon of their own life’s work. Presented without any corresponding product launches, these activations become pure expressions of creativity, illumination, and generation. Louis 200 invites the Louis Vuitton audience and community to explore the Maison’s history in a contemporary context as the man we all know — Monsieur Louis Vuitton — continues to inspire the future generations with the spirit of permanent innovation, constantly at the service of travel.

All images courtesy of COLLECTION LOUIS VUITTON

Martin Teo
Editor
Martin has a bent for history and food culture, especially of the Peranakan heritage. Since the pandemic, he finds joy in plant parenting and continues to expand his collection of Philodendrons, Anthuriums, and Syngoniums. He's now on a lookout for the elusive Philodendron Florida Beauty to add to his urban garden.