Icons & Innovations: Louis Vuitton: Special Deliveries

Special Deliveries
Louis Vuitton’s first trip was a personal mission. The then-14-year-old, who descended from a family of millers and carpenters, left his hometown of Anchay, in the remote French Jura mountains near the Swiss border, and set off for Paris to make a new life. He spent two years walking the 250-mile route, stopping along the way to earn money by performing woodworking tasks. The experience shaped his life, and travel became his passion and his calling.

By 1859, having achieved success as a trunk maker in Paris, Vuitton prepared to expand his company, which had outgrown its city atelier. He moved his manufacturing operation to nearby Asnières, the quiet rural town located on the banks of the Seine. In the 1870s, he built near the workshop a charming house, which five generations of his descendants inhabited until 1984. The ground floor still retains a residential ambience; its dining room and living room are decorated in Art Nouveau style, with period furnishings and personal touches such as Vuitton family portraits. 
The top floor of the residence houses a museum dedicated to luggage. Here, the company displays the travel-oriented collection of Louis’ grandson, Gaston-Louis Vuitton. His assemblage of international treasures includes antique trunks, jewelry boxes, and portable desks—some of which predate Louis Vuitton by centuries. The museum also exhibits some of the company’s most prized special-order pieces.

Custom commissions have been a cornerstone at Louis Vuitton since the early days of Louis’ career, when Empress Eugénie tapped him to construct her travel accoutrements. The explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza—who in 1883 founded Brazzaville, the capital of the Congo—commissioned a trunk containing a fold-out cot for his African expeditions. Vuitton used zinc in the crafting of the trunk to protect its contents from temperature extremes, sand, rain, and humidity. The interior employed camphor wood to repel insects.

This tradition of special orders continues to thrive in Asnières, where Patrick-Louis Vuitton, a fifth-generation family member, supervises the custom workshop. Tastes have changed since silent-film stars such as Douglas Fairbanks placed orders for toiletry cases replete with an array of crystal bottles and tortoiseshell combs. One celebrity recently commissioned a case that is designed to house an iPod docking station and a collection of 20 iPods. Of course, the department still handles more routine projects, including gigantic watch trunks with watch winders, travel bars appointed with Baccarat crystal, and elaborate wardrobe cases, including one designed to hold 30 shirts, 60 coordinating ties, and an assortment of cuff links.

Nothing is out of the question as long as the request adheres to Vuitton ground rules: “We are in the business of movement,” says Patrick-Louis. “Nothing is made by our master craftsmen that cannot be easily transported.” Furniture is out of the question.  —laurie kahle 

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