The Louis Vuitton luxury travel goods empire began in a workshop in the Parisian suburb of Asnieres in 1859. It was founded by the great-great-grandfather of Patrick Louis Vuitton whose two sons are now learning the trade in the same workshop, writes Michelle Zhang.
What is the first thing that springs to mind when talking about the top French luxury brand Louis Vuitton?
“The cute cherries for sure. Each of them comes with a distinctive lovely face.”
“The cherry blossoms, for I like the sweet pink color.”
The answers may also touch on the limited “panda” edition, or the multicolored version of the brand’s classic monogram patterns.
However, to Patrick Louis Vuitton, the fifth generation of the Louis Vuitton family, what truly represents the soul of the nearly 150-year-old luxury house is just a hand-made trunk.
The making of a Louis Vuitton trunk involves a series of hands-on processes, he says. They range from selecting the material to stitching and putting in the little brass nails to gluing the cloth inside, to cleaning and packing. But just about everything is done by hand.
“The most important point for a Louis Vuitton bag is always the quality,” explains Patrick, who visited Shanghai recently. “If a machine can do something better, for example, in the sewing process we use it because the human hand can never achieve a similar result.”
It usually takes the Louis Vuitton craftsmen about eight to 12 hours to finish an ordinary trunk.
When he entered the family business in the early 1970s, Patrick’s original idea at that time had been to become a veterinary. Now he has been working in Louis Vuitton workshops for 33 years.
“When my grandfather passed away in 1970, for one year and a half it was my grandmother who took care of the family business,” he recalls. “Later, when she asked me to join, I thought that I should take on the tradition.”
It was in the workshop in Asnieres, one of the inner suburbs of Paris, a suburb painted by the Impressionists and served by the first railway lines, where Patrick learned the A-to-Z of how to make a Louis Vuitton trunk.
The Asnieres workshop is the first Louis Vuitton workshop set up by Patrick’s great-great-grandfather in 1859.
“One of the pleasures working in Louis Vuitton is that you will never have a typical working day,” he says. “Every day I go to a different workshop and help with different things.”
Patrick is now in charge of Louis Vuitton’s Special Order Department, which, as he describes it, is the place where clients can make their dreams come true.
It is also the place where the most startling requests, for example, a travel safe or a portable library, a guitar or violin case, or even a baby bottle, are made realities. Each year, the Asnieres workshop gives birth to some 350 items requested by special orders.
“Each thing we create in the department is unique. It is the only one in the world,” he says. “There is always a special story behind the objects, and we always have a special relationship with the clients.”
The special order list is long, with no limit of imagination. There are cases for bottles, flasks, jewelry, medicines, fishing rods, tennis rackets, hunting guns, musical instruments … anything that one can think of.
However, there is the one rule: All the pieces designed and produced in the Asnieres workshop must be mobile.
“I refuse to design furniture,” Patrick explains. “We are in the business of movement. Nothing is made by our master craftsmen that cannot be easily transported.”
He still remembers the first special order he made. It was in 1974. He made a valuable crocodile skin trunk for a Japanese conductor.
The most difficult experience he had was to make a trunk out of elephant skin. “It was a great challenge,” he recalls. “The material was so rare that I just couldn’t make a mistake ” if I made one, where could I find another skin?”
There are around 25 craftsmen working for the Special Order Department. Most of them have been working in the Louis Vuitton workshops for at least 10 years and are highly experienced in making everything from a handbag to a big trunk.
“Craftsmanship is very essential at Louis Vuitton,” Patrick says. “If a machine is broken, you can easily replace with another one. However, it is not the case with human beings. It is very important that every craftsman has the necessary skills.”
The innovations to Louis Vuitton’s designs by New York talent Marc Jacobs have brought the 150-year-old fashion house huge commercial success since 1998.
But at Louis Vuitton, is innovation taking over from tradition?
Says Patrick: “I don’t think so at all. I should say that tradition and innovation are two things that always go together at Louis Vuitton. It is true that we now have new, dynamic creations for each season but we always make the new things in accordance with the brand’s traditions.
“All these new products would never have had much success if there were not the 150 years of tradition behind them. The tradition is a solid basis. You must have the basis to construct new concepts above it.”
The tradition passes on. Patrick’s two sons, one now 30 and the other 27, have both followed the family tradition and have started their careers as craftsmen in the venerable Asnieres workshop.