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 New York. This example was followed by later artists such as Henri Matisse and Francis Picabia. In the twentieth and twenty first centuries, the LV house itself commissioned artists such as Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince and Damien Hirst to reinvent fabrics, patterns or designs for Louis Vuitton. Although not featured in the New York exhibit, the most expensive art piece designed for the Louis Vuitton house was a gold handbag worth $133,400, done only in a[VR1] limited edition of five, designed by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusuma in her typical polka-dot mode.
In 1996, to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the Monogram canvas, fashion designers Azzedine Alaia, Manolo Blahnik, Romeo Gigli, Helmut Lang, Isaac Mizrahi, Sybilla and Vivienne Westwood were gathered by the trunk-maker to create designs that were to reinterpret the hitherto traditional LV line. These included refreshing and startling new LV bags that referenced classical works of , for example, Leonardo da Vinci. In 1997, the House entered ready-to-wear design overseen by the Artistic Director Marc Jacobs, who held the position for sixteen years. Under the direction of Nicholas Ghesquiere since 2014, the Women’s fashion collection “dovetails experimental research and nomadic architecture, which the designer then translates into clothing with uncluttered lines.”
True to its tradition of catering to the rich and the famous, Part 8 focuses on the “Beauty of Fashion.” Movie icons such as Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor were among its patrons whose use and endorsement ensured the continued glittering and elegant reputation of the Louis Vuitton name. The 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts of Arts of Paris, which helped highlight the new Art Deco style, featured the Louis Vuitton Milano case for protecting chiseled ivory and crystal. One can only gape at the leisure and estheticism of the privileged class of that time.
In today’s era, Cate Blanchett, Catherine Deneuve and Julianne Moore carry on this tradition with jewelry boxes and luggage marked by LV personalized monogrames. And even Sharon Stone has commissioned her own version of a unique vanity case. Someday, the future may regard these artifacts the way we wonder at the makeup cases of Nefertiti and Marie Antoinette, all courtesy of Louis Vuitton.
Even men are not exempt from such vanities, as the many toiletry kits, foot trunks and wardrobe trunks of French actors attest to. One accessory that has fallen out of fashion is that of canes with carved heads that form part of the collection featured here.
In a flashing finale that pays tribute to its host country, “Volez, Voguez, Voyagez” (Fly, Be Fashionable and Travel) states in Part Ten That “Louis Vuitton Loves America.” This section reveals the secret of the family which led Louis Vuitton for the greater part of a century. In 1893, Louis Vuitton’s son Georges visited the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and approached John Wanamaker, the owner of one of the first department stores. He then introduced Louis Vuitton products in New York and Philadelphia and thereafter, in Washington, Boston, Buffalo and San Francisco.
This astute marketing and presence at international exhibitions made it ride the wave of 1920s travel predilections. It became the luggage of choice for family dynasties such as the J.P. Morgans. America’s sweetheart Mary Pickford favored this brand, as did countless other personalities. Its use in films automatically signals class and privilege, as it did in Audrey Hepburn’s “Charade” and in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine.” Louis Vuitton has now been incorporated into the LVMH Group, whose lawyers are kept busy making sure that the brand is not abused in film depiction or in publicity. Its exclusivity is ensured by its not being sold on sale, in ordinary department stores and in the destruction of excess stock at the end of each season. Each product can be tracked by secret coding. There is nevertheless on-line access to Louis Vuitton and it is present in exclusive dedicated stores in more than 50 countries. Shanghai, Singapore and Manila are tuned on to it.
In a sense, the Louis Vuitton brand has acquired a distinct personality all of its own, instantly identifiable at a glance. It has now mutated into dernier cri garments and must-have accessories, which have become aspirational and a minor cult for millennials. A fourteen-year old hitchhiker from the Jura Mountains in Eastern France would have been astonished to know what he would unleash on the world more than a century ago.