Volez, Voguez, Voyagez
Review of the Louis Vuitton Exhibition in New York, from October 27, 2017 to January 7, 2018
In luggage, the name “Louis Vuitton” has come to represent the gold standard for travel and cutting-edge innovation. Dating back to as early as 1854 by a single-minded, hardy Frenchman from the Jura Mountains of Eastern France near the Swiss Alps, the company he founded eventually evolved its iconic look on its products with LV initials in beige imprinted on dark brown canvas. However, this was not to remain static and developed dynamically with the times—and thereby hangs a tale.
Held at the New York Stock Exchange building in New York City, the exhibit(open free to the public) and running a brief two months is designed by Robert Carsen and curated by Olivier Saillard. Its whimsical touches include a whistle-stop subway platform at the entrance, a large hall dominated by the canvas sail of a yacht and views of the sea and a desert, the moving interior of an Orient Express-like train, an early airplane replica, lavish Hollywood sets and the red carpet of a movie premiere. Interwoven with such fanciful scenes are the Louis Vuitton creations sought by a loyal elite public that was always sure that Louis Vuitton would always be able to cater to its latest demand and whim.
At the age of fourteen, in 1835 Louis Vuitton left his hometown Anchay in the Juras for Paris on foot, a journey which took him all of two years. He apprenticed himself to Romain Marechal, manufacturer of boxes and crates used to pack everyday objects and voluminous wardrobes. By 1854, Vuitton had mastered this craft enough to open his own shop on the rue Neuve-des-Capucines to cater to such exclusive clientele as the Empress Eugenie, consort of the Emperor Napoleon III. This was also the era when Paris had come onto its own as a world fashion center with such greats as Charles Frederick Worth, inventor of haute couture.
The trunk was something that had existed since the Middle Ages but it was Vuitton who gave it both ergonomic strength and supple lightness. He simplified the flat trunk, thereby laying the beginning of modern luggage and making it easy to stack one on top of the other. The introduction of canvas and the application of the monogram and distinctive patterns ensured that it would not be so easily copied(although many fakes would appear in the twentieth century). By 1875, the first vertical wardrobe trunk with two perfectly interlocking parts, made the company indispensable for travel. And voila! The invention of the tumbler lock made it possible for a customer to open each piece of luggage with a single key by 1890. 1895 immortalized the owner, who passed away in 1892, with the famous Monogram canvas hide.
The hundred twenty two years hence have seen the Louis Vuitton company and brand leap forward from strength to strength, scarcely missing a beat from world wars to radical changes in government and lifestyles.
Parts One to Three of the ten-part exhibit lead one first, from an elemental trunk of 1906, to second, the essential components of wood, locks, ribbon tufting and shapes required by different varieties of transport, then third, to the classic trunks. Louis Vuitton also went into experimentation with various colors and patterns before settling finally on plant motifs, geometric shapes and the initials “LV” which now defines its classic look. This was like the barcode which determined authenticity at a time when no electronic gear could ensure such. The French ferocity on protecting their brands is reflected in this early gesture.
French sophistication is ultimately founded on tradition. It has literally never lost touch with its roots. Vuitton’s familiarity with the strengths of the poplar and beech and the fragrance of camphor and rosewood would be integrated into the design of his trunks. To this day, special requests are considered by workshops from Asnieres-sur-Seine. Everything, when possible, is made by hand.
Appreciation for beauty is blended with function and mobility . Louis Vuitton prides itself on safely packing the most fragile objects with a “specialization in fashion packaging.”
How were such traditions reinforced? The French have always been travelers and explorers, with such exemplary exponents as Champlain, Napoleon himself, Paul Gauguin, Antoine de Saint Exupery and Teilhard de Chardin. It was but natural that having taken to the earth, the sea and the skies, they would soon need the accoutrements that would make such travel comfortable and practical. Part Four deals with “The Invention of Travel,” with its individual focuses on expeditions, yachting, the automobile, aviation and trains.
Vuitton was born past the first Napoleonic era but he himself experienced the revival of Empire and his grandsons lived during the technological and scientific boom of the Nineteen Twenties. Between 1924 and 1925, Andre Citroen organized an anthropological and technological mission known as the Croisiere Noire to Algeria, Mali and the Congo aboard such vehicles as the Gold Scarab and the Silver Scarab half-track. For this trip, trunks were developed that were suited to the climate, modes of transport and the needs of daily life or the explorers such as tea sets and toiletry kits. This was the height of dandyism and the pampering of the aristocrat, as might have been recorded by Marcel Proust.
On a more practical mode, yachting brought about the precursor of the gym bag in the Steamer Bag, which could be folded into a steamer trunk with a clever closing system on a canvas or leather frame.
The automobile brought about the birth of the flat leather bag, originally made of Moroccan leather, which could store gloves, stole and vials. It was the forerunner of the ladies’ handbag and fashion bag.
Aviation brought about the Aero Trunk, a direct ancestor of our modern-day airline bag, since it could store enough clothing to carry on an airplane, weighing less than 57 pounds. Louis Vuitton’s great grandsons Jean and Pierre, who were twins, actually invented prototypes of a helicopter and an airplane that were shown in 1909 and 1910 at the Air and Automobile Travel Exhibition of Paris at the Grand Palais.
Traveling became a way of life in the nineteenth century and Louis Vuitton’s innovations closely followed travel trends and developments—steam vessels in the 1830s, railways in 1848, the automobile in the 1890s, commercial airlines in the 1900s and the development of tourism resorts along the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. These spurred the invention of the Cabin trunk slid under the sleeper wagon seat, the Square Mouth and Gladstone travel bag models, garment bags and night bags.
Parts Five to Ten cover such specialized functions of Vuitton luggage in areas such as writing, painting, fashion, music and the new world of America. Gaston-Louis, the grandson of the founder, assembled one of the most formidable collections of curio trunks dating back to the Middle Ages and had himself a special spot for books, writers and paper. He thus helped develop luggage which were geared for the special needs of writers, for storing writing implements and later on, typewriters and gadgets.
The sturdiness and functionality of Vuitton luggage also gave them a reputation for protecting and transporting art, dating back to 1924, when a prominent art dealer Rene Gimpel, ordered a trunk for his frequent trips between Paris, London and