Every epoch in time is defined by its icons, very much like how every storied fashion house has an emblematic signature. More than a logo, it is a particular item, an aesthetic, or in the case of Louis Vuitton, the monogram.
Down and about in Paris
Before the elaborate fashion shows, Speedy bag, and Nicolas Ghesquière, there was the original Louis Vuitton.
Prior to the self-made success, Vuitton used to be a packer and box-making apprentice to Monsieur Marechal in poverty-stricken Paris. He learned the tricks of the trade, and branched out on his own, steadily establishing his legacy as a luggage and trunk maker for the Parisian elite. He crafted each trunk with longevity, style and practicality in mind, and even won the attention of Napoleon III’s wife, Eugienie de Montijo — a Spanish countess and the Empress of France. He was praised for being an exquisite craftsman, and was nominated to be her private box-maker and packer.
Vuitton crafted the brown and black chessboard Damier leather print as a counteractive measure against frauds who sought to replicate his popular goods. The Damier remains a popular print on Louis Vuitton’s leather goods today, only surpassed by the iconic monogram. Yet it was only under the tutelage of George Vuitton, the founder’s son, and much later after the latter’s passing that the monogram first appeared on the trunks.
The rest is history
It was in 1896 that yellow quatrefoils, flowers and interlocking L’s and V’s began appearing on the brand’s leather trunks. They were popular then, but only reached international fervour during the advent of the fashion magazine. The monogrammed bags were splashed across pages of influential fashion bibles like Vogue, and grew into the luggage of choice for the chic, jet-setting celebrity crowd. Louis Vuitton’s monogram were no longer just symbols of luxury and practicality, but morphed into a coveted, fashionable beast.
In the 60s, handbags became a necessity in the feminine wardrobe. Actress and style icon Audrey Hepburn reputably loved the Keepall so much, she asked Louis Vuitton to create a version of the hand luggage for everyday use. The maison agreed, and the Speedy was born. The modified bowler bag was the purse de riguer for any sophisticated lady, and the cult of the monogrammed Speedy reigned.
Into the present
Marc Jacobs’ entrance as Louis Vuitton’s Creative Director was when the monogram received countless updates. His first update came in the form of the Monogram Vernis line, which saw the quatrefoils and flowers become embossed, instead of printed onto shiny vernis leather. Jacobs and his team introduced pop art sensibilities into the Louis Vuitton umbrella, partnering first with artist Stephen Sprouse for a neon graffitied rendition of the monogram. It was the first, but not the last time the monogram would be redefined during his 16 year tenure.
Louis Vuitton under the American designer was one where art and fashion became intertwined. As he famously commented about his own legacy there, “Louis Vuitton is… a name on the door, a name that has existed for many years but I’m a collaborator there and I bring in other people, other artists and I work with a great creative design team.”
Jacobs gave the monogram a borderline kitschy lease of life. The collaborations with Japanese pop artist, Takashi Murakami, were perhaps the most popular and memorable transfigurations. The cherry blossom and rainbow monograms became a staple for all those in top-tier celebritydom, especially Paris Hilton in her heyday. Jacobs also cultivated a youthful appeal to Louis Vuitton’s time-honoured model of luxury by reworking the label’s monogrammed leather purses with new materials, like pink denim, sported by Regina George in the now-classic high school comedy, Mean Girls.
Jacobs regarded the monogram as soft wax, moulding it any and every way possible. It even began appearing on unorthodox accessories like umbrellas and fans. But there were only so many instances where the fashion forward public could be confronted by renditions of the brown-and-gold monogram before declaring enough. According to the Wall Street Journal, analysts discovered consumers were suffering from “logo fatigue” harpooned by an over-saturation of the recognisable monogram. As much as visibility is key to widespread appeal, Louis Vuitton during Jacobs’ tenure began to sink into the waters of excess.
The future is now
After Jacobs’ departure, parent conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton appointed Nicolas Ghesquière as the new Creative Director. Previously at Balenciaga, Ghesquière kickstarted the fresh direction for the label with a new logo. He wanted “something easier and more supple, less geometric and rounder”, and so the current san serif logo came into fruition, first seen at his 2014 runway debut. It had the immediate effect of inciting public interest in Louis Vuitton again. Ghesquière also downsized the monogrammed trunk into the miniature Petite Malle, invigorating the classic into something electrifyingly contemporary.
The French designer also found fresh ways to revive the monogram. Instead of Jacobs’ in-your-face approach, Ghesquière integrated aspects of the monogram into his runways — the flower moulded into a boot heel and perforated on leather dresses, or seen in strips on the City Steamer, Alma and Pochette Plate. Beyond the monogram, he believes in capitalising on the timelessness of Louis Vuitton. One finds most of his bags staying true to familiar Louis Vuitton silhouettes like the Twist and Speedy Bandouliere, with the monogram appearing as a detail to enhance a strap or handle.
In a letter written to guests at his first show, Ghesquière waxes lyrical on the nature of a classic. “You always forget that one day the classics were new,” he wrote. “You had to find an idea that would provoke or respond to functionality in our world. In my previous role, there was always this idea of heritage and history, but I was really into the research. Now I’m more mature, so I innovate, but with this notion that the real quest is to establish great classics.”
121 years of remaining in the public’s consciousness surely accords classic status to the monogram, and Ghesquière’s term has proved how, when armed with innovation, an inch of restraint and an awareness of the current consumer mindset, one can teach (or design) an old dog new tricks.