What do the 18-carat gold FIFA World Cup trophy and Johannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid have in common? Both items travelled in a bespoke case designed by the French house Louis Vuitton. Rediscover the trunk originally designed by Louis Vuitton in the 19th century. Crafted in poplar wood and featuring the monogram fabric bearing its inventor’s initials, it raised travel to the status of art de vivre.
The story of this legendary object began in 1835 some 250 miles away from Paris in a village in the Jura region, home to the brand’s future founder Louis Vuitton. At the age of 14, this miller’s son decided to make his way to the capital… on foot! He learned how to work with wood over the course of this two-year initiatory journey, and was employed as an apprentice by a Parisian layetier — an archaic profession consisting of packing people’s possessions and clothing at their homes — who designed and made trunks used to store the belongings of wealthy travelers.
He set up his own company in Paris in 1854, and the Louis Vuitton trunk maker was born. The specialist quickly set about perfecting his creations by adorning them with coated fabric. He then released a new piece made with poplar wood, containing different compartments and finished with corner protections and metal handles — the original model of the now-iconic Vuitton trunk.
A trunk which belonged to French photographer Nadar. © Louis Vuitton Malletier
At the time, new modes of transport such as trains, steamboats, automobiles, and planes were booming, and these innovations helped the brand accompany the dawn of modern traveling. In an attempt to prevent copies, Louis, followed by his son Georges, made the print more complicated on the fabric covering their large trunks, and included the initials “LV.”
Louis Vuitton in America
Georges Vuitton left for the United States in 1893 to take part in the World’s Fair in Chicago, and the trip made his commercial hopes soar. As the only French exhibitor of travel accessories, he sold every one of the pieces on the stand — despite the fact customs duties made them twice as expensive as all the competitors’ trunks..
While at the fair he met with John Wanamaker, the owner of one of the first department stores. Five years on, and Louis Vuitton trunks were being sold in New York and Philadelphia, soon followed by Washington, Boston, Buffalo, and San Francisco.
The family of banker J.P. Morgan was one of the first to acquire an ensemble of personalized luggage, part of which was later donated to the Morgan Library & Museum in New York. Hollywood stars were quick to follow suit. Actress Mary Pickford, nicknamed “America’s Sweetheart,” never left the house without her Vuitton trunks. Lauren Bacall ordered a collection of monogrammed suitcases, and Greta Garbo had a steamer trunk tailor-made to stow her Ferragamo shoes. Thanks to the celebrity taste for this iconic object, it is estimated that there are more Louis Vuitton trunks in the United States than anywhere else!
An Invitation to Adventure
Some 160 years after they were founded, the Louis Vuitton studios in Asnières, in the Hauts-de-Seine département, are still home to a workshop that produces an average of 350 trunks per year. This historical site is one of the dozen or so Louis Vuitton workshops in France, and its artisans still use light, resistant poplar wood to make each piece.
Other woods have also made an appearance, such as okoume wood from Gabon, which is resistant against temperature changes and humidity. Larger trunks are now also reinforced with beech wood. Nothing is left to chance in the production of each trunk, whose stages include crafting the bespoke wooden structure, gluing each piece together, applying the fabric, nailing protective strips of leather to the angles, attaching the metal corners and screws, and cutting and assembling the leather finishing pieces. From the trunk-bed made for explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza (1868) to the tea case created for the Maharaja of Baroda, and the contemporary models designed to house iPads, the Louis Vuitton artisans have always made their clients’ wildest dreams a reality.
The first piece of “airplane luggage” produced by Vuitton in 1914 was only designed to transport “three small bottles, a soap box, a powder box, a hairbrush, a clothes brush, a hat brush, a mirror, two pairs of scissors, a file, a pair of tweezers, and a comb.” Lindberg was even gifted with one for his journey back to the United States after flying across the Atlantic in 1927.
Ernest Hemingway’s library trunk. © Louis Vuitton Malletier
Today there are countless variations and possibilities, including flower trunks, steam trunks, tea cases, cigar cases, and caviar boxes. Vuitton went international after World War II, and merged with Moët Hennessy in 1987 to found the LVMH group — the world’s leading French luxury company. The brand finally entered the fashion world in 1998 under the impulse of American designer Marc Jacobs. But the trunk still stayed in the spotlight with pieces such the Petite Malle — a handbag-sized trunk in a revisit of the Vuitton classic.
While Hemingway’s library trunk designed for his typewriter may have seemed extravagant, certain orders are beyond belief. One such example is the mini-trunk commissioned in the 1990s by a Scottish billionaire for transporting his little rubber duck…